Wednesday, 22 June 2016

In, Out, Shake it all about...

I am not normally one to get terribly political on social media. I want people to use their democratic rights, but other than rejecting outright racist parties, I wouldn't dream of suggesting the best way to vote. 
I was at a meeting this morning where several Rabbis and Educators come together a few times a year to explore the Jewish values and ethics that underpin the work of a particular charity. It is an incredible space to learn in. Our theme today was the Refugee crisis, and of course the impending Brexit/Bremain vote became a part of our conversations. One of my respected colleagues made the point that the human impact of this decision is so huge, he doesn't feel able to remain silent and just quietly vote 'remain' himself - he needs to explain why this is so important.
To be honest, I understand arguments on both sides of the debate. Our public services are under pressure, and immigration impacts that. But voting out will not solve the issues of immigration, and will in fact create more as my friends German wife and my colleagues Polish nanny who have been here say 15 or more years, wait to find out what processes they will have to undergo to remain with their families and friends and in their homes if we vote to leave. UKIP have used images of fleeing refugees to stir up the immigration debate, despite the fact that while 1 in every 131 people in the world is now a refugee, Britain has taken in a tiny number, and has pledged to welcome 20,000 from Syria before 2020 - 5,000 a year, and 3,000 refugee children (10,000 were rescued in the Kindertransport that many used to argue for this welcome). On the other hand we have around 70,000 children in care waiting to find homes and stability (coramBAAF). How do we make sure we look after one another, as well as making space in our small home for more? 
The economic arguments have been made both ways, and both sides seem to be offering lies and fear. It does seem certain that leaving would create huge instability in the first instance. Who knows what the long term effects will be. I am not an economist and should probably have written less than I have on the matter! I tend to think that being interconnected and working together is a good thing. Economically this can lead to problems, but it also leads to opportunity and mutuality.
The piece that has felt most helpful in making a choice tomorrow was a simple meme I saw in the barrage of videos and posters on Facebook:
I think this is a fabulous summary of how we should think about decision making in general. Is it about what I can gain, or about what I can give? Is it about what we will benefit from, or about what we want to do to ensure a better future for all?  There are enough resources in the world, if we just thought about how we use them differently (and I love the metro ad that made that point today). There is enough hope and love, if we were just allowed to give and receive it. We often feel impotent and unable to do anything about the huge humanitarian crises around the world and closer to home. Yet it seems that remain will fight best for human relationships, human rights, protection of one another, and a sense that we are not willing to turn our backs on EU members living with us here, British citizens living around the EU, and impoverished refugees who UKIP have heartlessly used to suggest we are being flooded by immigrants. If we want to help with this huge crisis, and be part of the solution and not another closed door (as for example Switzerland and Sweden were to Jews during World War Two) we need to work in partnership with those really bearing the brunt of refugee and economic migration. Of course we also need to look after our own, and if we did this better we would have less fear and stress about the same immigrants and refugees, and about where money goes or is received from. We need to look after one another at home and abroad. Closing doors doesn't seem like a good way to do that.
I suspect most people reading this will have already made their minds up about their vote tomorrow. They will either be throwing rebuttals at my writing or nodding vociferously, and for the record, I won't be engaging in an online debate so ultimately I probably shouldn't have bothered shaking the political stick. But when it is a stick bound up with human rights and mutuality, it is hard to stay quiet. I will be voting remain. 

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Fighting the Good Fight

Over the last few weeks I have repeatedly been asked to write and speak about Anti-Semitism. This is rather unusual for me; as a Jewish Educator I want to encourage members of the community to identify with that which is positive, empowering, joyful in their Judaism. I don't want a community drawn together by fear; this strikes me as a cheap and short term way to build a sense of togetherness and mutual support.
I've always resisted, where possible, teaching about the Holocaust, or about Anti-Semitism - these are things our non-Jewish friends need to know about, we need to know about Shabbat, and what it can contribute to our lives, or to the world. We need to teach about our responsibilities to stand up for those on the outside of society. We need to feel confident in our Judaism, not worried about misconceptions of it. Yes we remember our history, and it has moulded us, but it is not who we are.
Earlier this year I attended a conference in Italy looking at the future of European Jewish life, and I was struck there by how powerfully other Rabbis and educators are doing the same thing - in arguably much more difficult circumstances. The rise of the far right in Hungary, for example, is not something to be easily dismissed, and while we met groups trying to tackle media messages of Anti-Semitism, we also met people committed to ensuring Jews have plenty of reasons to celebrate their Judaism, not be fearful because of it. They are on the front line of serious halakhic issues around status and the future of Jewish life in their towns and cities. And in response they offered some of the most creative, loving and human halakhah I have encountered in a long time. Alongside these Rabbis Europe is filling up with graduates of a school I spent a year in nearly 14 years ago - Paideia - the European Centre for Jewish Studies in Stockholm. Communities are being blessed with empowered academics, artists, teachers who have been given the tools of Jewish literacy, and a love of Jewish culture and wisdom.
So while lots of people have been asking me what I think about Anti-Semitism, and it would be glib to pretend we can ignore it totally at the moment, as a Jewish educator I don't want us to be thinking about it. I want us to pour our energies into creating a community who love what Judaism has to contribute to their lives, their societies and to the world. Perhaps this is the best answer I have to Anti-Semitism. I wish I controlled the media, I wish I ran a bank. But more than anything I wish to see a Judaism that lives and breathes joy and learning and life. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Permission to complain

For those of you who have read this blog over the last few years, you may recall having children was not an easy journey for my husband and I. We have now been blessed twice (with serious help from amazing medical staff), having been told we didn't even qualify for ivf our case was so hopeless. 
But getting pregnant is of course only a tiny step on a now lifelong journey of commitment. It is a blessing that we never take for granted. But that doesn't mean it isn't sometimes a strain to remember it's a blessing: maybe when I am up for the third time in 6 hours, or have wet themselves on a play date, again. Perhaps when I haven't showered for 5 days, or I get home to discover my already fairly useless feeding bra has been unhooked all afternoon. 
Complaining about parent hood is an easy thing to do. Or at least we might think it is. Having been on a long ivf journey however, it can feel like we aren't allowed to really feel the desperation and depression that these incredible, funny, sunshine bundles of blessings bring with them. While many parents laugh about the stresses and strains, for others (both those who have been through ivf and those who haven't) complaining can feel like a betrayal, or ingratitude... How can we moan about blessings? 
Parenthood is hard. But maybe blessings aren't meant to be easy. Struggle can mean growth, for us and for them, we can be learning from each other, even when we think we are getting it all wrong, and just because things are hard now, doesn't mean they always will be (everything is a phase!) I was reminded recently by a wise Anglican Priest that just because we had to fight to have babies, doesn't mean we shouldn't be allowed to feel desperate when sleep deprived, or complain at how tough it can be. Remembering we are blessed, in whatever part of our life it is, doesn't mean we can't also acknowledge the struggle and negative aspects blessings can bring- perhaps we need both- perhaps we just need permission to feel both from time to time. So to the many of you who have put up with me feeling the desperation of late, and given me permission to be there, and offered your own support and acknowledgement - thank you! 
Oldest child is obsessed with packing bags... Doesn't really matter what with (in this case musical instruments to go on holiday). Drives me absolutely nuts!

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The motherhood challenge

I'm not a person that shies away from posting pics on social media, though I understand why some do. But when I was 'nominated' this week in Facebooks motherhood challenge (post 4 photos that show how happy you are to be a mother) I had a range of responses. I've enjoyed seeing friends post their pictures, as I generally enjoy their pictures the rest of the time too. Yet my first instinct was to post something rather passive aggressive; photos of our kids, and of those that didn't become our kids, as 100 cell blastocysts sitting in Petri dishes before they were implanted (yes the clinic gives you those pics!) I resisted, but the voice of my teacher, colleague and friend Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner rang in my head from a 2006 class on baby blessings: 'every time you celebrate anything in synagogue it hurts someone else'. And so I haven't posted my 4 pictures.

There's another reason too, and perhaps this is why many of us need to post the happy pictures: being a mother is a challenge! It is a great blessing and joy, but it is also a challenge, and there aren't many places we are allowed to admit that. I could have posted a photo of the potty I emptied this morning, containing the largest poop I think any 3 year old is capable of. Or a photo of me at 11pm, 3am, 5am (on an  ok-ish night). There are no pictures for the anxiety about returning to work and the changes that you will have to figure out. I could have posted a picture of my 3 year old brother who became no older. I cannot conceive of how a mother (or father) functions again, other than knowing she must. 

Pictures are very subjective and the whole picture is rarely what they offer. Social media is an amazingly wonderful place to share, to celebrate, to keep in touch. But like any community one persons joy is another's pain, and this particular challenge made me too aware of that pain, and I know it is a pain many of you lovely blog readers know personally too. So I celebrate all of you amazing mothers, who put up and bring up and get up, along with your partners when you have them. But I also want to hold those of you who feel the pain of these beautiful pictures, and tell you that you too are wonderful, whole, brilliant people, and your community is holding you even when you don't feel it. 

Monday, 7 December 2015

Wisdom and Truth- an idea still in progress!

I recently attended an absolutely fascinating session learning about the scents of the Tanakh from an expert perfumier (organized by Rabbi Jeff Berger). We were given the opportunity to smell the essence of the Temple incense offerings and biblical plants, and to explore some of their deeper meanings. 
Smelling essence of olives and olive oil we were met by what was a surprisingly mellow and sweet scent, nothing like I would have expected. 
As we celebrate the Festival of Lights and the miracle of the olive oil of the Temple Menorah (among other things!) the olive tree itself traditionally has been a symbol of light - as its silver leaves shimmer and almost glow. Light is furthermore a symbol of wisdom, (enlightenment), which suddenly struck me as fascinating when we started smelling and discussing Almonds... 
The almond is a symbol of truth enclosed in innocence, truth which we have to work in order to see more clearly. This reminded me of the Almond blossom, the shape that forms part of the structure of the menorah, the lamp that needed to be relit when the Temple was rededicated.
At Chanukah we put our chanukiyot into the window to publicly declare the miracle, to increase light in the world, to witness our faith. But with these gentle scents it occurred to me that one of the many Chanukah messages might be much more subtle. Truth is something that can be hard to get to the core of -
It can be entrapped in hard casings, but not entirely impermeable ones. The truth of the almond is the structure that supports the glowing light of wisdom, which can grow, but can also be diminished, which may burn bright for short periods, but doesn't last (except with some serious miraculous/spiritual intervention). Perhaps it also suggests that Truth is the foundational support of wisdom, but they are not the same thing. Yet our human endeavor asks us to repeatedly return to try to break through the hard shell, and bring out wisdom once again. The truth may be elusive, and wisdom may take many different forms, but we should keep coming back to it, and joining with others to share its warmth and light. 
Chanukah Sameach! 

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Be fruitful and multiply... The Shmita cycle

A friend and former congregant recently wrote to jokingly challenge me on how I could justify writing so much about Shmita and not discuss the fact that I had the chutzpah to create a whole new life in the fallow year! 
It reminded me that in some senses my body is much more familiar with the fallow than with the fertile, and rather than constantly fighting the fertility with attempts to avoid pregnancy we have had to fight to produce. So it's ironic for sure, but also sweet to invert the power of Shmita in my life.
 But it also reminded me that this period of Shmita, of lying fallow, is there in order to allow greater fertility in the larger part of the cycle (which will restart this Sunday evening with the Jewish New Year). 
For me the power of Jewish time is in a clever design which manages to take us through cycles to help us live better. We have time set aside to mourn, so that we might learn to live again, time set aside to repent, so that we might do better and get on with living right, time set aside to go on all sorts of journeys, and time to rest so that we might engage and work better for the rest of the week. Likewise this year long Shmita isn't really about the year we live it, but about living better in the other 6 years. I have come to think of it as a sort of refresh button (as Shabbat is) which is just as much about the productivity and positive living it engenders after it's observance as much as the year itself.
So this Rosh Hashanah is as special if not more special than last year when we began our special Shmita year... This year is the start of the fertile period, when we engage, when we produce, when we think about how the Shmita year has changed us and what that will mean in how we live. It is a time to start making plans; where do we want to be in 6 years time? What do we want to have changed when the next fallow year rolls around? The time is now- let's go get fruitful!
Shanah tovah (happy new year!) 

PS The first thing I'm buying after my 'fast' is underwear :) 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Back to basics

This weekend it was the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of this special Shmita year before the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashannah, heralds the start of our next 7 year cycle (it's not all about this final year!)
So to celebrate we urbanites treated our family to a visit to a pick-your-own farm, returning with an excited and grubby toddler, not to mention a glut of strawberries, Swiss chard, sweet corn, blackberries, courgettes and onions. We would never have purchased as many strawberries as we picked and then bought, so I will be cooking a lot this week, but then coping with local seasonal gluts feels like good Shmita practice.
The part that shouldn't have surprised me but did was just how tasty the produce was. We often feel like we suffer in the UK with inferior fresh goods, but the strawberries were better than any imported from Morocco, and I have never eaten corn so sweet. When I blessed God for the produce of the earth before biting into it, I had no idea of how conscious of that goodness it would make me through taste alone. A timely reminder, really, that Shmita would have been a powerful way to connect with what the land did and didn't produce. And to appreciate bounty when you did have it (presumably in the years after Shmita). As we agricultural tourists skipped through the fields today, it was really the exception that proves the rule of our increasing distance from our food sources. Whether it is the careful ignorance we allow ourselves about meat production, or the thousands of miles we will ship food so that we can eat strawberries in December. We may grow a few tomatoes or courgettes but very few of us have the time or ability to fully live from our own produce or the patience to only eat local. Shmita for me has in many ways been a reminder of much of this, and a motivator to do a little better myself in how I consume,  and as this weekend demonstrated, it may mean limiting ones ingredients (or not!), yet for those things you can source closer to home, and eat within hours of picking, your taste buds will be rewarded! Sometimes the simpler, local life brings fun, time together, and even an appreciation of what your community can produce. And in a Shmita year, that community would have been truly essential.