Sermon Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780
Some of the most successful brands in the UK and across the world rely on making us feel good about ourselves. Whether it’s hair products ‘because we are worth it’, or the magic of Disney ‘where all our dreams come true’, so many gravitate towards the products that are promising to make us feel happier, able to cope with our problems or at least give a moment of self-gratification. We search out ways to be made to feel good about ourselves. Yet religion is so often about the fire and brimstone, where religious leaders take the opposite approach from our successful corporate giants and feel our job is to be the prophets of our time, Isaiah and Jonah-like, to make people feel wretched about themselves and the world in order to encourage them to make positive change. Yet who am I to reject the affirmation driven society of Zuckerberg or the marketing gurus?
So as we approach this New Year when it would be all too easy to talk about the chaos and misery around us and especially at an Erev Rosh Hashanah service where beginning a sermon always elicits the glares of shock and horror from those who had forgotten it’s one of the few evening services with a sermon, I want to begin our High Holy Day journey with a short message of pride. I want to remind us of why we are here and what our community has achieved this year; I want to remind us about the power of good that we have the ability to bring about. Yet I’m speaking of pride without prejudice with a commitment to dealing with all the murky bits that our PR pundits couldn’t put a glossy sheen over on Kol Nidre. Let us start the new year on a positive note even if we won’t get more than 10 days into it without answering many of the “buts” and “howevers” that what I am about to say will stir in you.
The Somali Bravanese gave us a real chance to go into the New Year with pride by reminding us how different our charitable giving looks these days. Not anonymous donations to unknown people in far flung places but opportunities to engage with people and build for a better society where we harness the power of our community to build a better society for all. This model of social action: advocating for our Muslim neighbours, settling Syrian refugees, working with the homeless are all times when we strive, as Oxfam taught us in the 90s, to not just feed a person but give him the means to feed himself and his family for a lifetime. The social action project running alongside our building fundraising which you will hear more about during these High Holy Days draws out our important understanding of this Maimonidian understanding of addressing the issues of poverty. We get used to using a plaster on a gaping wound when societal problems seem to hard to address but getting to the cause of the wound and stemming the flow of blood is the only way to bring about real change.
Often there is one image which turns the hearts of the masses to what has previously been the concern of the few. The now iconic image of Greta Thunberg campaigning all alone for action against climate change has since encouraged hundreds of thousands of students around the world to campaign with her and has changed the discourse within society at large. I am deeply proud of our own Greta Thunbergs in the community who are pushing to ensure the conversation is significantly on our agenda too. Whether it is to do with choices around our new building or how we run events today we need that voice to ensure our values and our actions are always aligned and I am sure many of you will agree that being trend setters again by the environmental credentials of our building is an important way to put our community on the map for yet another positive reason.
I’m proud of the fluidity of the conversations we are able to have. When government level politicians and local councillors alike are able to show us that sometimes we can walk away from affiliations, colours, policies we have had nailed to the mast for years I realise we can do it in our community as well. Rabbi Golan Ben Chorin helped us to think about Israel in so many other ways than the polarising discourse it so often is. I am proud of being part of a community that can hold division and tension and a breadth of views on all sorts of issues when all around us the nature of such conversations is becoming abusive and has the potential to incite violence. Our religious world is not one that purports to have a single truth so why should any of us feel we hold the single answer to any discussion?
In a country where one in four of us will suffer with our mental health during our lifetime, the challenges of mental illness cannot be left in the dark as a taboo. We are a community who give both support and a voice. I’m inspired daily by the tireless work by so many who volunteer to create the spaces be it services, music, information evenings or one to one support, as well as the assistance, the programmes and the strategy to ensure this work is a daily part of community life. So often I think of our community as a microcosm of society at large and think “if only”. If only society around us was facing up to the devastating reality of young men’s suicide rates, offering places for those with dementia and their carers to enjoy and enabling those so often overlooked in society to have their own spaces for prayer. One day, neighbours will rally around to support their neighbours offering practical help to keep people living independently for longer; meanwhile our volunteers make so many in the community feel loved and cared for and at the heart of our shared concerns.
With education and private schools being a political hot potato, I can see from our environment what it means to respond to changing needs. So many synagogues have seen Jewish schools as a threat to their education space, but I have watched our education team change and adapt to the changing needs of two very different demographic groups, those that get their Jewish education at school and those that don’t. I have watched them respond quickly and effectively when things aren’t working as well as they could or should and listening and creating until every aspect of learning for each age group is one that is as novel, dynamic and tailored for our specific needs as Friday Group was all those decades ago when we took that leap of faith that has been paying off ever since.
At this time when the structures of society feel fragile and the future uncertain, I am so proud of the leaders of this community who are digging our foundations deeper and making our roots stretch further. Whether it’s the plans for our wonderful new building or all the practicalities of moving out, whether it is the robust structures to ensure we run effectively and safely or the management and support for the staff, our lay leadership are working tirelessly and are looking to the future with hope and confidence, knowing the thing that makes our place in society stronger is having a home we feel proud of to continue the life-changing work that is so much part of the community life we take for granted. Their leadership keeps us buoyant and certain of a better chapter to follow. They will be reminding us it needs to be a communal project with everyone helping but I feel certain together we will build our vision for a better future. Such a wonderful number of members contribute their time, skills and energy in making FRS the community we feel so proud of and I really wanted this new year to start by recognising how incredibly important that work is.
I know it’s been a hard year for so many on every level and it seems no one can predict what is around the next corner and I promise on Kol Nidre I will address some of those issues but let us simply begin this New Year with an untainted feeling of pride and a knowledge that daily lives are made a little better and the whole of society is changed for the better because of the extraordinary part that so many people in this congregation play in community life, both looking in and looking out.
So, what I really wanted to say was chazak chazak v’nitchazek, continue to “be strong, be strong and we will be encouraged”.