Yom Shlishi, 17 Elul 5775
Tuesday, 1 September 2015

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Leo Baeck College praises Liberal attitudes to rabbinical life

The JC

27 August 2015

A career in the Progressive rabbinate is increasingly appealing, with "a real increase" in both the number and quality of applicants for the Leo Baeck College training scheme, says its principal, Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris.

The north London college this year received nine applications for its five-year training programme, for which a course in Hebrew is a starting requirement, as is a bachelor's degree at a 2:1 grade or higher.

Rabbi Kahn-Harris said the five students who were accepted all have "a strong background in their individual communities and movements", as well as "a diverse set of experiences, whether it's youth work, lay leadership or teaching". A striking feature of the new intake is its youthfulness, with three of the chosen five in their mid-20s.

Deborah Blausten, who will be 25 when she starts the course next month, said the appeal of the rabbinate was its variety.

"You're a teacher steeped in questions of social justice, music, ritual life and learning and you encounter people at all stages of life. I don't think there's another career that brings together my interests in such a variety of issues. I've had an inkling I wanted to do this since I was 17 and that came from my deep commitment to Jewish life, community, texts and experiences."

The North Western Reform Synagogue, Golders Green, member has degrees in medicine and education. Her master's was sandwiched between working for Jeneration - the Reform movement's student arm - and as Finchley Reform's young people's educator. She is also the programming chair for this year's Limmud.

Ms Blausten wanted to counter the notion that "religion is either not a force for good, or that it's stuck in the past and doesn't fit with modern life. I think that's profoundly untrue on both counts, and that we're uniquely placed in terms of our attitudes towards how religion should be in the modern world."

Another rabbinical student is Anna Posner, 26, who has been involved in the Progressive youth movement, LJY-Netzer, for 18 years. As a youngster, it "didn't really register that I could be a rabbi," she said. "Then when I was 14, one of my teachers mentioned that they wanted to do it and I thought: 'Hey, I could do that, too.'"

Raised in Nottingham, she recalled that "when you grow up as the only Jew in the village, you want to be really active in the community. Nottingham is a really nice small Jewish community and that helped me to grow my Jewish identity." When she told her parents of her career plans, "at first, they thought it was funny and a novelty, but everyone's really excited now. I'm very lucky."

Ms Posner has been working for the global Netzer Olami movement and is returning from Jerusalem - where she has been leading gap year students - to take the course. "At [Liverpool Hope] university I studied religion, but I'm very excited to focus on our traditions." She wanted to promote inclusion, making people "feel comfortable in communal and religious spaces".

A former religious studies teacher at Finchley Progressive and West London synagogues who, for the past two years, has been an editor at Polity Press in Cambridge, Elliott Karstadt looked forward to switching gears.

"I spent a long time teaching and leading and I wanted to make that into a full-time thing. Having a full-time job in publishing, I didn't feel that I was giving as much as I could to the community. I want to deeply understand Jewish texts and to lead communities."

With a PhD in intellectual history, Mr Karstadt has both the necessary academic and practical experience. But he pointed out that a rabbi's learning was never finished.

Although his eventual aim was to lead a synagogue, he was "a big fan" of rabbis involved in outreach work, finding ways of engaging younger, unaffiliated families.

Completing this year's student quintet are Southport native and former RSY movement worker Frankie Stubbs and Yaera Ratel, who grew up in eastern France and is changing career after 20 years as a sound editor on films. She has also directed a children's programme at a Parisian Reform synagogue.

Jessica Rosenfield - the daughter of Daily Mail City editor and former Board of Deputies presidential candidate Alex Brummer - has deferred her place on the course until next year.

Rabbi Kahn-Harris said the 2015 intake were "all very engaging people in different ways, which is great for us. We're really excited about what that means both for the college and the community in this country and in Europe. We are looking forward to being with them on their journey."

St John's Wood community offers lifeline to asylum seekers

The JC

27 August 2015

Member of a Liberal Jewish community have spent the past year offering legal, financial and practical help to hundreds of asylum seekers. Here they explain why.

It was a Sunday and inside the usually quiet St John's Wood Liberal Jewish Synagogue members were franticly organising clothes and food parcels, ready for the growing number of asylum seeker families queuing outside.

One mother juggled a screaming baby on her hip while struggling to keep hold of a suitcase. Others waited silently with shopping trolleys, their children tugging at their arms.

But their bags were not packed ready for a summer holiday. They were empty, waiting to be filled with clothes, nappies, toiletries and food parcels, all donated and prepared by Rabbi Alexandra Wright and her team of 10 volunteers.

For Rita Adler, giving up her Sunday is a "drop in the ocean" compared to what she could be doing to help the asylum seeker crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean.

She explained: "I might be exhausted by the end of the day, but it is once and month and it is worth it when you see the children run through the doors happy to be here, to be fed, and to play."

The synagogue is transformed into a day centre every four weeks. Its hall becomes a restaurant and its succah a playground for asylum seekers and their children.

Shul volunteers, take it in turns to hand out care packages, help to pick clothes and fill out forms for more than 100 refugee families who have come to rely on their help.

Rabbi Wright explained: "We see people coming from the Congo, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, China, and Albania - you name it.

"We provide a hot meal for the children and the parents and a supervised play area and stalls where they can get good quality second-hand clothes.

"When they come they each get a food package of essential items that can feed a family.

"Each adult gets £10 cash and £5 reimbursement for travel. Plus we offer a solicitor, doctor and social worker for them to talk to - all for free."

For Mrs Adler the response from the community has been "overwhelming" since the shul decided to launch the drop-in last year.

She said: "We are never short of volunteers, and the donations of food and clothes we get are never-ending.

"We even have members as young as seven saying they want to help."

Karen Newman volunteers each month alongside her teenage daughter. She said building relationships with regular vistors to the centre had been mutually beneficial.

Mrs Newman said: "We've come to know the regulars and they tell their friends about us. It is like an extended family, you get to know them and their stories.

"You can't help but want to do something for them that will make life a bit easier. It is not easy being an asylum seeker or refugee. The conditions they face are far from ideal."

One of the first through the door is 33-year-old Degu, originally from Ethiopia. Mrs Newman explained: "He was one of the first people I helped when the centre opened and now we have come to rely on him for help.

"He has great English and can translate for us when Ethiopian families come in for the first time."

Degu is one of more than 31,000 people who made an asylum application last year. He explained his experience of being in a detention centre.

"It is hell on earth, worse than prison, the windows are locked, the air is hot and it feels like hell. You have no idea when you will leave or where you will go," Degu explained.

He said the shul centre and volunteers had given him faith and hope: "I've been able to speak to solicitors here who have helped me with my case.

"They don't judge me. They listen and just help.

"I know a lot about the Jewish community, being from Ethiopia, and I know a lot about Israel because it is in my bible.

"My great-grandparents were Jews and in our churches we have the Star of David. Coming here feels familiar, I would not be anywhere without this place."

Mrs Newman said: "To be able to help someone like him is what it's all about.As Jews you see what is happening to asylum seekers and refugees in this country and you think, it wasn't long ago we were in the same position."

As she directs another user, Kimani, into the line to register for cash, his children run off to the play area and his wife collects food and clothes.

"My story is long. I've been seeking asylum in the UK for 13 years," he explained. But Kimani's case is not unusual.

More than 21,000 applications for asylum received since April 2006 were still awaiting a decision at the end of March this year.


Click here for the full article with photos.

Young Liberals fill the gap in Israel

The JC

27 August 2015

Members of Liberal Judaism youth movement LJY-Netzer have returned from Shnat Netzer, its gap-year programme in Israel for 18-year-olds. Participants spent eight months exploring the country, learning Hebrew and about Zionism, living as part of an ideological community and training to become leaders. They stayed for a month on Kibbutz Lotan, an ecological community in the Negev, volunteered for four months on local community projects and spent the rest of their time in Jerusalem studying a variety of subjects.

Participants included Dawn White from Dublin Jewish Progressive Congregation, who said it had been "amazing being able to view the kibbutz as a resident and not just as a tourist. I spent the next section of my shnat year living in a flat with 16 other 18- and 19-year-olds in the centre of Jerusalem. Our days were spent attending classes about anything from Zionism and Jewish philosophy and history to Islam, the transgender community and extremist terrorist groups.

"Shnat gave me a space to explore who I was as well as letting me see where I, as a Liberal Jew and Progressive Zionist, stand in terms of Israel. What I found was a vibrant community in need of a strong Progressive voice."


Click here to see the original article including a photo.

A first and last for Wessex

Members of Wessex Liberal Jewish Community (WLJC) celebrated the congregation’s first ever barmitzvah – as Rabbi Rene Pfertzel conducted his last service. 

Barmitzvah boy Sam Hammond-Laing was supported by his proud parents and grandparents in a moving ceremony.

Sam chanted his portion to perfection, before being presented with a special Kiddush cup and plate. The plate was inscribed with his name and barmitzvah date in English and Hebrew, made by the potter and community member Rosemarie James.

WLJC said a fond farewell to Rabbi Rene, who is taking up a position at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London.


Meet the new chairs of Rabbinic Conference

Rabbis Alexandra Wright and Richard Jacobi are the new co-chairs of Liberal Judaism’s Rabbinic Conference - where rabbis meet on a monthly basis to support each other and to forge religious and spiritual messages to the movement and beyond. Below, they tell lj today about their backgrounds, goals and beliefs.


Can you tell us a little about yourselves...

Alexandra: My connection with Liberal Judaism goes back to my grandmother. She was an early member of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue (LJS) and was spellbound by the sermons of Liberal Judaism’s first rabbi, Rabbi Dr Israel Mattuck. My earliest religious and spiritual influences were formed at the LJS – I attended religion school and was ‘confirmed’ there.

I was ordained at Leo Baeck College in 1986, worked at the LJS with Rabbis David Goldberg and John Rayner until the end of 1989 and then moved to Radlett & Bushey Reform Synagogue (now Radlett Reform), where I was the sole rabbi for 14 years. I returned to the LJS as senior rabbi in 2004.


Richard: Growing up in the home of a Liberal rabbi and rabbi’s wife – the ‘Harry-and-Rose’ partnership: one a paid role, the other not, but fulfilled every bit as much – I absorbed Liberal Judaism from a very young age. Through youth clubs at Southgate and then Wembley, I became deeply involved in ULPSNYC (the forerunner of LJY-Netzer).

Then, after a career providing management development, I shocked my family by changing course and becoming a rabbi! With the support of my wife Lyn and children Josh, Abigail and Hannah, I studied at Leo Baeck College, was ordained in 2008, and am still enjoying ministering to my first congregation – Woodford Liberal Synagogue.


What are your aims for the new role?

Alexandra: Outgoing Rabbinic Conference chair Rabbi Charley Baginsky worked hard keeping us all in order, building strong relationships with Liberal Judaism’s council and Board of National Officers and investing in the new Progressive Alliance with the Movement for Reform Judaism, as well as chairing our Day of Celebration and Biennial events and being a passionate advocate for Liberal Judaism. Richard and I are already working together closely, firstly just to listen and find out from Charley and Rabbi Danny Rich, as well as new chair Simon Benscher, what their concerns and aspirations are. We want to build on the relationships that Charley has developed during her two years and continue the support that she has offered colleagues. We’d also like to see more rabbis engaged in leading Rabbinic Conference and the movement, and are looking to work out how to achieve this.


Can you update us on the progress with the next Liberal Judaism prayer book?

Richard: The current state of the project is that we are developing ways of finding out how Liberal Jews and their communities currently use Siddur Lev Chadash, and what other liturgies or bespoke services they also use. We also intend to explore what spiritual needs bring people to Liberal Judaism and to their synagogue communities. One way of doing that is through a study pack on prayer, which we hope most, if not all, Liberal communities will explore over four or five sessions. Not everyone is convinced that we need a new prayer book, us included. I am confident we won’t need to make a decision – the way forward will emerge from study and reflection together.


Finally, what are you passionate about when it comes to Liberal Judaism?

Alexandra: I’m passionate about Judaism, full stop. It starts with the Torah and the prophetic books of the Bible – I have to keep reminding myself that the act of reading and re-reading weekly the parashiyot from the Torah, explaining, learning from commentaries and re-interpreting these texts for our own time, is something that has been happening for over two millennia. I’m also inspired by LJY-Netzer and am always reminded, when I am with our movement workers and madrichim, of the inextricable connection between our spiritual work as communities at prayer and the pursuit of social justice.


Richard: We are the latest stewards of a wonderful heritage – Judaism as a whole, and Liberal and Progressive Judaism, in particular. The more we learn of it and from it, the better we will live our lives and influence others towards a better home, street, area, country and world.

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