All posts by Jeremy

New website for Reform Judaism

Today, Reform Judaism launched its synagogue locator website, to connect those seeking a community for the High Holy Days with their local synagogue.

To sign up simply requires entering your postcode and filling out the form.

Here in Cornwall, we will have a full programme of services, combining meaningful prayer and dynamic learning, led by Student Rabbi David-Yehuda Stern. Our programme will bring together the communities of Kehillat Kernow, South Hampshire Reform Jewish Community and the Isle of Wight Jewish Society.

Cancellation of services and OUR Communal Seder Night due to the Coronavirus

The Prime Minister addressed the country on 12 March 2020 through a news bulletin outlining the serious situation the country faces with the spread of the Coronavirus. The most important thing we can do to protect each other and reduce the speed with which this illness affects people is to minimise social contact. Coronavirus is now circulating in the general community throughout in the UK and Cornwall. To protect all members we have taken the decision to suspend all Shabbat Services including the one on Saturday, 14 March 2020 until further notice and this year’s communal Seder Night. This is in keeping with advice from Reform Judaism

Coronavirus can be transmitted before people have symptoms and the only action that can be taken in order to slow down the rate of transmission is reducing social mixing.

We are not aware of anyone at this time within Kehillat Kernow who has been diagnosed and very much hope everyone remains healthy.

When the public health situation settles we will be able to resume services.

T’rumah: unholy acts in holy places?

One evening last week, an East Asian looking student was walking home from a gym in Sheffield when a man standing in a doorway shouted at her, “Chinese bitch!” In fact, she was not Chinese and had never been to China, not that this should have mattered. Further afield, in the central Poltava region of Ukraine, protestors attacked buses carrying evacuees from China to a spa in order to be quarantined. Meanwhile, Canadian Chinese and other South Asians have expressed fears of growing anti-Asian sentiments and prejudice among the wider Canadian community. The aggressors in all these cases have clearly not read or heard the Ten Commandments, which appeared (two weeks ago) in the parsha of Yitro, for does it not say, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”? Or perhaps they have read this commandment. Perhaps they have read and heard it many times, but somehow it passed over them, like water off a duck’s back.

The commandment is expanded upon in the following parsha of Mishpatim: “Thou shalt not utter a false report; put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.” In the same parsha, we are told twice not to oppress the stranger in our midst, which is what the outraged inhabitant of Sheffield did and what some Canadians are believed to be starting to do. In the case of Ukraine, the victims were not even strangers, though perhaps for the inhabitants of Poltava, they had somehow become strangers by living in a land far away.

Mishpatim is, as its name suggests, a collection of commands to act for justice and to do righteousness. The sudden change of subject to a blueprint for the building of the Sanctuary in this week’s parsha of T’rumah might, therefore at first sight, seem odd. For God to dwell among us however, as He declares He intends to do, the place where He will dwell needs to be special. It needs to be fit for holiness, but how can a holy place be in our midst if we ourselves are not dedicated to holiness? Indeed, it will be the way we act and the things we do which will determine whether the place will be holy or not. Our behaviour becomes the space and one of the worst ways we can desecrate that space is to bear false witness, to search for and hurl our rage against those we blame for our misfortunes. Don’t we know it!

This Saturday we have a special treat, for the service will be led jointly by Rabbi Maurice Michaels from Bournemouth and Murray Brown, currently commuting between Cornwall and London to his new job. We would like to have a more special kiddish lunch than normal, partly in honour of our guest, partly because two of our members will be getting married on the Saturday evening, namely Rachel Brown and Roger Chatfield. Please try, therefore, to bring something good to share.

yitro – wise old bird

A wise old bird who, at the beginning of this week’s parsha, arrives in the Israelite camp with his wise daughter Zipporah, who  earlier saved Moses from the wrath of God when on his way back to Egypt together with his wife and two sons. What do we know about Yitro? He is described as the priest of Midian. The Midianites were a pagan nation at the time of Moses, but Yitro appears to be a monotheist and refers frequently to ‘the Lord’ as if he himself is a believer. Yitro is also identified as the father of the Druze and he could surely not have asked for more illustrious descendants, just as they could ask for no more illustrious ancestor. The Druze are a remarkable people. In Israel they number just 143,000. They call themselves Ahl al-Tawhid “People of Unitarianism or Monotheism” or “al-Muwaḥḥidūn”. They are recognised as a religious minority and serve in the IDF and in civic and political life. Many of them have achieved high positions of authority. Their role in Israeli society has parallels with that of Jews in many countries in which they have lived, for, like the Druze, Jews have invariably striven to be patriotic members of the countries they have inhabited.

But I digress again, or do I? To return to both man and parsha, his advice to Moses to set up a sort of civil service to help him administer justice and leave himself time for the really important work precedes one of the most monumental sections of the Torah. Yitro’s conversation with Moses is followed by the foundation block of the Covenant, namely the Ten Commandments, which are delivered to the Israelites in the most solemn and awe-inspiring manner as they stand at the foot of Sinai.

To show us more with his customary skill, touch and wisdom will be Adam Feldman. Come along on Saturday at 10:30. You will not be disappointed.

Footnote: According to the Midrash, Jethro had been looking out for Moses ever since he was a baby in Pharaoh’s palace:“And she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter,” etc. (Exod. 2:10). Pharaoh’s daughter used to kiss and hug Moses, loved him as if he were her own son, and would not allow him out of the palace. Because he was so handsome, everyone was eager to see him, and whoever saw him could not turn his eyes away from him. Pharaoh also used to kiss and hug him, and Moses used to grab Pharaoh’s crown and put it on his own head. The magicians of Egypt sitting there said, “We fear this one who grabs your crown and puts it on his head may be the one, as we have been saying, who will take your kingdom away from you.” Some of the magicians suggested that he be slain, others that he be burned alive. But Jethro, who sat among them, said, “This child has yet no understanding.” (Sh’mot Rabbah 1:26) The Book of Legends: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, Hayim Nahum Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (eds.), translated by William G. Braude, p. 60.

bo: a plague on all your houses

Ten plagues, actually, and on their houses not ours. We have a seder plate at home on which all the plagues are represented around the rim. Similar to pictures in some illustrated haggadahs, the plagues have an almost cartoonish quality about them and the faces of the Egyptians are comically grotesque. Of course, we celebrate the plagues insomuch as they are instruments of HaShem’s salvation. Yet once liberated from slavery, we are told many times not to hate the Egyptians, for we we were strangers in their land. It does not say ‘slaves’, but ‘strangers’. Compare this with the instruction we receive to blot out the name of Amalek. As far as we can tell, it is the Pharaoh who hardens his heart against the Israelites, not the Egyptians as a whole. Interestingly, too, when God says he will strikes the land with the plague of hail, it says, “He that feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses.” This suggests that some Egyptians believed in God, though whether they also believed in the sun and river and other gods as well we cannot tell. Most tellingly, when Pharaoh finally gives in long enough to allow the Israelites to leave, his people shower them with gifts and it is mentioned how greatly respected Moses was among the Egyptians. No wonder that one of the several reasons why we spill drops of wine as we recite the plagues during the Seder is to show our sorrow for the suffering Egyptians. 

Our relationship with Egypt did not end when we were led away be Moses, Aaron and Miriam. We have turned towards it for support and even returned to live more than once. The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah warn, as we can see in the haftorahs for Va-eira and Bo respectively, against depending on Egypt for help against the invading Assyrians and Babylonians and prophesy that Egypt will be humbled. However, they also allow for a resurgence of Egyptian power, though much reduced. Around 650 BCE, Jews settled in the city of Elephantine, many serving in the imperial Persian army and establishing a confident, thriving community. In Ptolemaic times, they settled in Alexandria, among other places, and there were several more waves of settlement, including after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. It was not until the establishment of the state of modern Israel that Jews began to disappear almost totally from Egypt.

It’s a complex, messy thing, life, and the Torah does not pretend otherwise. Fortunately, this week we will have the wisdom of our Life President, Harvey Kurzfield, to help us unscramble things, not to mention to lead us in more harmonious voice than is our wont. Be there, this Saturday at 10:30 a.m.