Shabbat B’har – B’chukkotai 5780 – A Message to Community – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Sermon 16th May 2020

We are all looking for certainties, road maps, an understanding of how we are going to get back to the world of physical connections that we once took for granted. We pin our hopes on government announcements making things clear, giving us certainty but in reality, we are dealing with a natural phenomenon that can’t be ignored. We can work with it to control it and yet everything we do to protect ourselves and each other becomes a sacrifice or a compromise.

I know that many members are probably also wondering what the synagogue’s road map looks like. We recognise that we are in a very different situation to the government. We can make choices by prioritising only the physical and mental wellbeing of our members without having to worry about the impact taking such a stance will have on the country’s economy. Although we don’t yet know exactly what synagogue life will look like over the coming months, we can tell you what we will be basing our decisions on. Conversations I have been having this week with the professional team and our lay leadership have made me so incredibly proud of this community, the value-based nature of the conversations have been exactly those you would hope for from a religious institution.

The government have made two statements this week which directly impact our immediate future: firstly that schools and nurseries can begin to reopen from 1st June. We cannot underestimate the impact on families of having 12 weeks of no childcare. We know what a struggle it is for children who have seen their worlds turned upside down and how difficult it is for working parents to do their jobs. We know the mental wellbeing of many mums and dads has been suffering and the strain on family dynamics huge. Therefore, we are going through a robust process to see whether we can reopen FRS kindergarten in a way that minimises the risk for our staff, the children and their families.

Secondly, the government made a statement that places of worship may be able to be open from 4th July. My first response is to remind people that we are very much open right now. Our physical doors may be locked but our programming and services are more open and accessible than ever and numbers showing up at services and online learning, social and cultural events just goes to prove it.

I think when the government talks about religious buildings being open, they think of individuals taking solace in a church alone with their thoughts, a private moment in confessional or Muslims going into mosque for individual prayer though at set times, socially distanced on the way in and on the way out. Yet, for a community like ours who show up in big numbers when offered a chance to be with a physical minyan, and with singing deemed to be a super-spreader, large congregations like this at prayer together will surely take a long time to be deemed safe.

So, in order for us to get the community back into the synagogue for services currently feels more of a risk than a necessity. We don’t want to create a two-tier community with those who are still vulnerable looking on at a sparse community at prayer. We don’t want to operate a lottery system to see who gets to be one of the lucky 10 or 20 who could be there in person. What we have seen is when we are all in this together, we can create a spiritual and communal moment of prayer online without the worry of who we might be endangering with each breath. That means we have to continue to make bringing people online a priority. We can lend equipment and expertise to anyone who hasn’t yet embraced what’s being offered online but who now feels they are ready to be taught how.

The High Holy Days are very much on the minds of our leadership and we know that it would be crazily irresponsible to think that come September packing a building with 800 people on each floor will be an appropriate communal experience this year. It means we need to be creative about how we can ensure that the joy of Rosh Hashanah, the contemplation of Yom Kippur, the sound of the shofar and the grief of Yizkor are experienced by each of us profoundly whilst respecting the challenges of this time and the importance of social distancing. As soon as we have a picture of what that time will look like we will share it with you.

Al shlosha devarim, on three things society is structured; torah, avodah and gemilut chasadim, we are certainly doing our bit for finding opportunities for learning, for teffilah/prayer, and our wonderful volunteers are providing extraordinary acts of gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness. As well as trying to speak the truth openly, create justice by finding solutions to making this an equitable community during this crisis and bring peace and calm in a time of chaos. Political decisions being made at the moment, to move us out of lockdown, al shlosha devarim, on 3 things is the government desperately trying to balance; keeping the NHS functioning, keeping the economy from crashing and trying to rid the country of this terrifying pandemic. FRS may not have definitive ways forward and answers to how things will pan out, but we have our own al shlosha devarim on three values that we will use to continue to lead the community. At this time, we need to ensure our synagogue discussions prioritise pichuach nefesh, saving lives. Within that we hold the importance of both physical as well as mental health. Two sides of a single category that may invite us to question if the same response is best for both aspects of pikuach nefesh. We hear the words “kol yisrael arevim ze l’zeh” ringing in our ears – each one of us is responsible for the other and we feel that burden weigh heavily on each of us with every decision we make. And the third – we remember the Levitical command;

14      do not put a stumbling-block before the blind                                                                                                                                                            וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר, לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל.

be careful not to create any situation which ends up putting someone else at risk without them being aware of it.

As we walk this tightrope from lockdown to life with all the fear, uncertainty and isolation what we do know is that being part of a community means we need never feel alone. We will find light in the dark, meaning in the confusion and we will walk this journey together. We may not have road maps or certainty but what we do have, deep in our hearts and minds, is simply the best interests of each and every member.

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