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Rabbi Miriam Berger

Kol Nidre 5781 

You can listen to Rabbi Miriam’s sermon or read it below.

I have started this sermon many times. I have focused on loneliness and isolation. I have been worried for our elderly as the R number rises. I have feared for our children as their childhood is so disrupted. I have worried for us all as the economy is in free fall. And yet it is not my job to play on your fears and confound your anxieties; we don’t need to be reminded of what we are living through or the uncertainty the coming months bring, those words are around us constantly. Surely it is in this space that we should be looking much further ahead. We don’t embark on this 25 hour journey of Yom Kippur to stay in the moment but rather to look to the future. What good is reflection and renewal if not to seek a better tomorrow?

The last six months has taught us how quickly societal norms can change when they need to. How new routines can be adopted at the blink of an eye. Architect Norman Foster articulates it as the pandemic “accelerating evolution”.

How can we ensure that we don’t watch this evolution from the side-lines or run along trying to keep up but rather use the tide to steer our ship, bringing about the societal change of which we have been extolling the virtues since prophetic Judaism formulated our moral compass?

It feels like the most extraordinary time to be on a communal precipice of our own. A summer during which the most remarkably talented new rabbi joined our team and a few weeks off a community general meeting where you could give the green light to creating our new congregational home. The opening of a most exciting new chapter in the shul’s life. We will be building while the world is changing and that means we can build the new world into its very fabric.

יד לֹא-תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ–וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר, לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל. 14

You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind.

Our first ever communal Pesach seder on zoom (which feels a life time ago back in April) was an introduction to this pandemic’s first positive lesson – one of inclusivity and accessibility. We were told by one physically disabled participant this was the first seder she had been able to attend. As the months have gone on, we’ve gained new members with application forms being sent in from around the country. We have learnt what it means to be a community without geographical boundaries. How do we ask ourselves the all-important question of how do we continue to serve these new members when those who live close enough and those who physically can will want to sit together once again for services, cultural events and to play bridge? The technology that makes us truly inclusive must never be an after-thought but should be built into the very building which will make us truly accessible in every way. When we break ground accessibility must never just mean ramps and lifts as it once did, we need to ensure our doors swing so wide there is not a single person who feels that open door is not wide enough to welcome them in.

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף– {ס} 20

Justice, justice shall you pursue

While an economic downturn will leave the most vulnerable suffering most our new building needs to have its windows facing outwards. We need to ensure we are not simply building for ourselves but building with a view to understanding what our role can be in supporting others. We can’t just build for our tomorrow but build asking the question of what others will need from us in that future. With a proper kitchen to cater for the hungry and showers to restore dignity. In 5781 we need to be building a truly communal building in the heart of the borough for all those who need us, a place where listening leads to action and the important work to bring about a fairer society for all. We have 900 households we can rally into action and when we need you, you are impressively quick at rising to the challenge. Let’s build knowing we are going to be needed more than ever and try to pre-empt how the right building can aid the role we take.

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, לֹא-טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ; 18

And God said: ‘It is not good for a person to be alone;

This year is one where isolation and loneliness has become a secondary pandemic. We are seeing the awful effects on the mental health of so many. As we start to build our new home we cannot see this as simply a ‘Beit Teffilah’, a place for services but a real ‘Beit Knesset’, a place of assembling. With space to sit and chat and drink coffee and read and work and be at its very heart. It’s important that this isn’t a building to come to for an event or a service and then leave but a real 3rd space, a place to come and connect and be among your community. A place which is not about your age or gender but rather a place where you belong – and not belonging because your name is on a list but because of how you feel when you are there.

This year we have learnt the incredibly fragile balance of interconnectedness in the world. That a virus can shut down entire counties, that fires, floods and food shortages are becoming an all too common, sad and scary part of the world. We have to listen to our planet and build in the most sustainable way. We cannot ignore the need for our new home but we also cannot ignore the need for us to spend more to minimise its damage to the world and enable us as a community to tread lightly as we do. It might cost more money but may our children and their children reap the benefits of our investment.

When you look at our synagogue community you see a microcosm of society, the relationships and sense of responsibility which, if scaled up, would make for a much better world for us all.

Nicky Hawkins wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian explaining that “Researchers at the London School of Economics wanted to understand the motivating factors behind lockdown adherence. (Not what people did during lockdown, but why). They discovered that neither knowledge nor fear made much difference. What compelled us to act responsibly was our feelings of social responsibility and our perception of what others were doing – our sense of what was normal.”

We need to understand that socially distancing and wearing masks are not the only ways to be socially responsible, they certainly help us to curb the spread of the virus. Yet we need to be part of accelerating evolution by playing our part in building for the future and normalising our preparedness for the next phase rather than letting fear paralyse us in this awful chapter.

The new norm needs to be looking ahead and being prepared. Not making plans which we are then disappointed when we have to cancel, but acknowledging we aren’t going to be living like this forever so what do we need to ensure is there for people when the virus and the fear abates? Not that we return but that we renew. Not that we go back to how things were but that we use all the experiences of this time and are ready to welcome the next chapter. While others are frozen in time we need to be the innovative builders. Looking to the future and building for the new reality. A reality which is truly inclusive, that puts relationships and responsibility at the heart of all we do and makes being socially responsible the compelling norm to bring everyone along with.

I know we still have plenty of fundraising to do, contracts to probe and environmental concerns to scrutinise. Yet I hope we are able to look back as a community in years to come and say that living through a pandemic together involved mourning and heartache but it also led to beautiful and moving services which connected us, it resulted in new members finding us and making FRS part of their lives, it meant understanding our relationships and taking responsibility one for another, it led to us being heralded as innovative and creative on the front page of the Jewish Chronicle and while others waited out this terrible virus we built for the future, accelerating our communal evolution which will continue to make us the community our members and clergy feel so incredibly proud to be part of.

B’yom ha hu ye’hyeh Adonai echad ushmo echad.
On that day we will be making our Judaism a living Judaism.

Sun, 7 March 2021 23 Adar 5781