Sermon: Rosh Hashanah 5779 – Today we stand together

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 12 September 2018

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2018   

Atem nitzavim hayom we all stand together here today, we heard in our second Rosh Hashanah Torah portion.  And Alyth does stand up in the Jewish community, a community in covenant with each other and with Judaism as a whole.  Ours is the second largest Synagogue in the UK.

We are right in the heartland of Jewish London.   We stand for an open Judaism, open minded to our society, open hearted to share our Judaism with the wider community, utterly involved in the world around us.   Immersed in the Jewish Labour Movement, the Lib Dems, the Conservatives, fighting all the battles of the Jewish community and also building the bridges from the Jewish community to others.

We open the eyes of Hagar, the heroine of our first Torah portion this morning, who was the stranger in the camp and now feels thoroughly welcome within this community.    We give water to Ishmael, her son, when we invite our neighbours to come to join us for hospitality, from the local Muslim community for the Alyth Iftar during Ramadan, to schools visiting from around the country, to the hundreds who come for Alyth Choral Society concerts and U3A classes.    At a time when the Jewish community feels under threat from an isolationist right wing and a potentially anti-Semitic left wing Alyth synagogue is the bulwark that keeps Judaism firmly with a positive place in UK society.

This is where Alyth stands.  My sermon this morning is about how to be sure that we will continue to stand in a great place in the Jewish community, how to fulfil our covenant with each other and as Atem Nitzavim says, also with those who are not yet with us today but will one day find their Judaism through Alyth. We will of course speak in sermons and sessions over the High Holidays about the big issues facing the Jewish community.  This morning is about how our Jewish values are at our centre.

It’s a Friday morning in August this year at Alyth Synagogue.   For most Synagogues this is the quiet time.   August is holiday time, folks are away, its not a time for a Synagogue to thrive.    But this Synagogue is different.  Its Alyth.   The lobby between the Leo Baeck Hall and the Beit Tefillah is chock full of baby buggies.   Around thirty of them.

Why? Because it’s time for our weekly Baby Den.   Friday after Friday our Synagogue is filled with 0-2 year olds and their parents experiencing of Jewish life, proving that there is enormous potential in this five thousand year old way of life, if you get it right.   Every day an observant Jew says the Shema twice, saying “v’shinantam l’vanecha”, you shall impress Jewish values on your children.   Alyth puts this into action.

What happens after the thirty or more parents have enjoyed the Baby Den Shabbat experience?  Well there’s nowhere to sit comfortably at Alyth, to enjoy a coffee and a chat with a friend so people go home, maybe they have swopped mobile numbers, said a friendly goodbye. But just imagine what Jewish life we could grow if these new Jewish families, who promised to build a bayit b’yisrael, a home among the Jewish people, could spend time together at their shul just chatting, making the relationships that we know can last a lifetime.  Somewhere easy to wheel a buggy into, where children can be safe, and where you may well meet fellow shul members of other generations who will help you to know how much you as a new Jewish family will be appreciated.  What if our Synagogue building had space to put into practice the Jewish value, inspired by our spiritual ancestor Abraham, of hachnasat orchim, ensuring the visitor feels truly welcome.

It’s a Thursday lunchtime in August in the Library at Alyth.   In a normal Synagogue all the classes for the year would have ended, Jewish learning would be restricted to school terms.  But Alyth isn’t a normal Synagogue.   Every Thursday throughout the year 15 to 25 people come together to study the Talmud, putting their minds and life experience to the wisdom of two millennia ago.   Laughing, learning and building friendships.  Right after our Shema says teach Judaism to your children we say ‘v’dibarta bam’, talk about what Judaism means – that’s the purpose of our Talmud class.

The library is a good space to learn, but in the summer it is swelteringly hot with direct sun burning its way through the seventy year old single glazed metal framed windows, so hot and stuffy that we had to give up a couple of times this summer and go and sit downstairs in the Synagogue.   Imagine what it would be like to have a really good learning environment, not just for adults but for children too, cool in summer and warm in winter, easy to project images to illustrate learning, with comfortable well-designed space and a door to open onto a roof terrace for fresh air.  You would know that Alyth Synagogue is serious about Jewish learning and serious about the Jewish duty to preserve the environment, bal taschit, as we stop pumping heat out into the atmosphere through our inadequate windows and insulation.

Its Shabbat morning twice a month.   The Kollot service is in full swing giving an inspiring experience of a congregation praying together, hearing each other share words of Torah and reading the Torah, informal and song filled.   It is a quarter of an hour before the Beit Tefillah service is to finish and Kollot must stop.   Those who were praying must turn into caretaker’s assistants, put the chairs away, clear the room, put out the tables, wheel the ark out so that Kiddush can take place where they were.  Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 4:16) defined kavannah, the concentration necessary for effective prayer, as a quality that needed time to achieve and time to come back from.   Shifting furniture as a ritual doesn’t help.

Imagine how it would be if Alyth, the Synagogue where so many come to pray that we need at least two services every Shabbat morning, had a second top quality Beit Tefillah with great acoustics, comfortable chairs and a beautiful spiritual atmosphere, and a Kiddush Hall where all the Alyth community could meet, whichever service they had chosen when they are finished, with space to sit down if you cannot stand for long.

There are more than a hundred children and their parents at our monthly Big Bang service.  It takes place in a room that was  planned in 2003 to be our Youth Hall, for much smaller gatherings.   The atmosphere is fabulous, Big Bang is enabling a one year old to be as involved in prayer as a ninety – one year old.   The Big Bang musicians make prayer a memorable and joyful experience for all kinds of people.   All is fine, and all feels safe, and technically it is.   But there is a problem – the doors upstairs are no bigger than domestic doors, we never imagined our family services would get this popular back in 2003.

If everyone had to get out together they could do it but then they would be on stairs which have a turn in them, slowing them all down, getting a wheelchair out and down would be very challenging.  In Torah (Deuteronomy 22:8) we are commanded to build a parapet around a flat roof, so no one could be injured by falling from it.  The Jewish value is that it’s not enough for a space to seem safe, you need to make sure it is.

Imagine that upstairs at Alyth was built for the real popularity of what your Synagogue does, with a wide straight staircase, a lift to get you to the whole of the building, not just the front, effective ventilation, good acoustics and hearing loops, an absolute dedication to make the building accessible to all, not just the able bodied and fast moving.

In 2003 a visionary group of members of the Synagogue re-built Alyth Synagogue for everything they could expect to happen in a 2500-member Synagogue, desperately in need of updating, with one Rabbi.  And they did a beautiful job.

But not one of the activities I just listed was then part of what the Synagogue did, and now in 2018 there are one thousand more Alyth members. So the lino put down in 2003 is pockmarked and worn out.  It has had over 750,000 feet walking over it over the past fifteen years!  Alyth’s 2003 Tekiyah project enabled the creativity which has thrived over the past fifteen years and, now, if we believe in our Synagogue and what it uniquely offers the Jewish community of the UK it is absolutely, unavoidably time to build today for our community today and our next generation.

There are of course many other worthy causes for philanthropy beyond building a Synagogue, illnesses to beat, disadvantage to alleviate, world crises to relieve.   But the point of a great Synagogue is that it inspires and resources its members, and especially its future generation, to become the people who make a difference in the society around them.   It is the mothership, the embracing home, from which Jews, and those who find ours a community of meaning, can explore their values, learn their ethics, gain and hone the skills of leadership which are necessary to be effective world changers.   Our lay leaders, teachers, men, women and children and the thousands of visitors to our Synagogue each year help each other to fulfil the terms of our covenant with God, with the Jewish people and with humanity.

What do we need to do this? Every generation must renew our building so that it works for the broad diversity of our membership –in 2018 1000 of our members are under 25, 1300 are 25-60 and 1200 are 60 and above.  We must renew the building to accommodate all the choices, mobility variations, care needs and social needs that these healthy demographics imply.

Alyth synagogue should be the most welcoming building you walk into all week.   It should be built with quality so that the quality of the learning, care and prayer that happens here is not undermined.   It must be accessible to all, our building is currently 40% inaccessible by wheelchair for example and the only place where a hearing aid works is a narrow band of the beit tefillah.   It must be safe, throughout.   Our youngest member was born this week and our oldest is 105 – safety must be built in everywhere.  It must be an exemplar of environmental efficiency as Judaism exists to make its contribution to repairing the world.

And because this is Alyth, the community built in 1936 with the promise of no fixed seating so that there would be no macher class to be valued above others, we must all build it together.   Your contribution is your investment and belief that Judaism with Alyth’s Reform Jewish values these ideals will exist for the future. It’s your investment in the covenant between the Jewish people so that we can reach out to God.

The card on your seat is your invitation to participate in this holy work.   To share two hours of your time for a friendly encounter with your fellow Alyth members, lay leaders and Rabbis.   To really know what our plans are by seeing the issues of the building up close and inspecting the solutions proposed in detail and to give your input so we build it right.   Please pick your date and let’s build speedily in our days.   [If you are reading this sermon on our website please just contact or call 020-8457 8787 and Sarah Langsford will be delighted to make a date for you.]

And if we don’t do it?  If we leave the Alyth building as it is – what will happen?   We can’t grow.  Our facilities will continue to degrade. Actually, we can’t even safely continue at our current pace of building Jewish life.

Rosh Hashanah is of course the festival which pushes us to build ourselves.  To inspect what we have become over the past year – to do cheshbon ha nefesh, an accounting for our soul.    The individual is at the centre.  But Rosh Hashanah is also the time to make sure that our communities are able to build us.   Our two Torah portions on Rosh Hashanah tell us the story of one family – Abraham’s in Genesis and of the entire people of Israel in Deuteronomy.   So far 170 households in the Alyth community have come to 57 of our evenings, teas and brunches and said yes – my family will build Judaism for the future.

Between them they have contributed £2m to the cause – the amounts have varied enormously but the principle has not.  Once a generation we have to make our congregation’s home effective for the future.   Please come on one of these walk arounds, talk to the team of fellow members and Rabbis who are dedicated to the work, find out for yourself and then together let’s make sure that next Rosh Hashanah we are well on the way to a new Alyth.