A sermon for a Bar Mitzvah on Chayyei Sarah and #ShowUpForShabbat

I’m delighted to welcome first and foremost all of Wylie’s family and friends to this special service when he becomes Bar Mitzvah. This is the moment of responsibility that every Jew is endowed with as they grow up – to be responsible not just for their own actions but to lead a community of young and old in prayer. I also want to welcome all those from near and far who have taken the opportunity to #ShowUpForShabbat with us this weekend in an act of solidarity and support, in particular the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. I cannot tell you how truly sustaining and significant the small act of sitting in pews with us all across the world has become – and a message of strength to Tree of Life Or L’Simcha Congregation and the grieving families.

Last week Jews were gunned down in pews like these, today in defiance we sit together with the human family to strive to increase the goodness in the world, to bring light to darkness, to show that we will not be cowed by violence in our observance of our faith or engagement with the world.

Wylie – I want to talk to you about history (or rather our story) and about responsibility. Because your Torah portion, which you have read magnificently and interpreted so movingly, is a portion that speaks of these two themes – history and responsibility. In the death of Abraham and Sarah our Torah gestures towards the anxiety of the next generation taking on the responsibilities bequeathed to them. The history of God’s covenant with Abraham weighs heavily on the hopes for the future in your portion. But let’s not speak of thousands of years ago, let’s try just 200 years.

Wylie in 1818, two hundred years ago, the first permanent Reform synagogue was founded in Hamburg (some 7 years after the initial Seesen Temple in Westphalia was established by Israel Jacobson). In fact, it was on the 18th October 1818 that the Hamburg Temple was inaugurated in its rented building. They introduced a religious rite of passage for both sexes.  Their constitution, which was so radical, introduced a German language sermon, choral singing and organ accompaniment.  Wylie, you stand here not just in the footsteps of the Jewish people over millennia but also in the synagogue that is the direct descendant of the Hamburg Temple.

80 years ago, almost to the week, The Hamburg Temple was closed by the Nazis after Kristallnacht in 1938. Having been vandalised but not burnt in the November Pogrom which has become known as the Night of the Broken Glass – something we will commemorate at Westminster Abbey where a Jewish service will take place in memory of the scar on world history that led to six million Jews being murdered. Wylie, we stand in the footsteps of history.

A core part of the new Reform Judaism as it grew over the last 200 years was an engagement with the world. Freed from the shackles of the ghetto, Jews were slowly emancipated and able to travel freely, take public office, have jobs in all fields of work. It did not happen over-night or at the same pace everywhere but change was afoot. The pressure to conform to modern civilised norms was but a small price to pay to be able to look outwards to the world, especially with the European Enlightenment driving forwards modern European philosophy – the ideas of freedom, equality and universal brotherhood of man were embraced by Jews in the 19th and 20th century.

Wylie in 1818 the Hamburg Temple was inaugurated. In 1818 though there was something else happening to the Hamburg Jewish community. In fact, it happened on the back of what is popularly known as the ‘Year Without A Summer’ (in 1816) which, due to a massive volcanic eruption caused climate cooling, failed crops and global famine. As a result, there were food shortages and economic depression. It is in the backdrop to this that in 1818 Ludolf Holst, so called economic expert, wrote his book, “On the Relationship of the Jews to the Christians in Commercial Towns”.

As Professor Zimmerman of the Hebrew University writes:

“In his book Holst sought to explain the economic problems of his time – increased prices, unemployment … moral decline, etc. – by tying them to the Jews…These anti-Jewish accusations were embedded in general statements typical of 19th and 20th century antisemitism: that Jews were immeasurably rich and that they had excelled neither in science nor the arts…A lack of loyalty was also among the accusations…the Jew was not “attached to his fatherland by heartfelt love,” but he only “considers worthy of his temporary residence […] only that country where he expects to find the most profitable source for his dealings”.”

This was followed in 1819 by Hep Hep riots – which is why many Jews don’t shout Hip Hip Hooray – in which Jews were attacked for 7 days in August in response to their emancipation. In these riots Jews were  accused of being responsible for inflating the price of corn and causing the economic depression. The riots were only stopped when violent crowd control was threatened by the State.

Does all this sound familiar. A global economic crisis which leads to the search for answers, resorting to the easy ones, and the search for a convenient scapegoat? You see Wylie we stand in the footsteps of history.

It is these twin experiences of human history that the Jewish world has always been at the heart of. Whether it is the ease with which political discourse resorts to xenophobia, misogyny, antisemitism, islamophobia, homophobia, ableism – Jews have been targets too and often the first to be accused of the most pernicious plots against national identity and aspirations. God knows, Pittsburgh is devastatingly not the first and will no doubt not be the last murder of Jews just for being Jewish.

And where there has been the struggle to look and reach outwards to those beyond one’s community, to increasing human knowledge, to helping others – Jews have been at the heart of this endeavour and whilst frequently victims we have been pioneers too.

Wylie, we stand in the footsteps of history in this synagogue. And as a community we have never been cowed to threats or shirked our responsibilities.

We have a proud history of welcoming and supporting refugees – whether that is orphan Jews who survived the horrors of the Holocaust or today with our Drop-In for destitute asylum seekers and our Eritrean refugee mentoring scheme. As we look outwards, I was moved to tears by our partners at Al Manaar mosque who came to our memorial service for the victims of Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. We ran a Grenfell Day Camp with them last year and will be again this December for kids affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. And this year they are again working with us in the winter night shelter for rough sleepers in London along with our amazing church partners. In January we will be the first Jewish community, in partnership with Liberal Judaism and South London Liberal Synagogue, to welcome a Syrian refugee family and resettle them here in London under the government’s Community Sponsorship scheme. And we won’t stop there in our refugee work, I promise you that. This is our history at work, this is who we are, this is what it means Wylie to take responsibility and to stand in those footsteps.

But, now let me indulge my generation sitting here this morning and I ask us a question about responsibility. How have we reached this point in time where it is an act of defiance to pledge as a synagogue to continue to help the needy and protect refugees who have fled from their homes in numbers never known before in all of modern history? Where it is somehow radical or damaging to national interests to hold the government or opposition party to account in its responsibilities? Where it is defiant for Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddists, those with faith and none to sit down in each other’s shared spaces and say ‘I care about you and your safety’? How have we reached the point in time where it is a radical act of defiance against a prevailing wind just to turn up to synagogue?

As adults we have work to do before we can be happy with the inheritance we are passing on to Wylie and his generation. We’re not dead yet and we better start working harder! You see, in 200 years of history things have changed. We’re not destined to repeat ourselves in despair. We must continue to learn and continue to honour the past, but we only stand in the footsteps of history. We have a path ahead of ourselves that we must choose to tread.

Not only that, we must focus on amplifying these small and yet simple acts so that the voices of hope are louder than those of hate. When the world stands on a precipice with the resurgence of populism, fascistic and far left ideology and conspiracy theories – small acts of kindness will not be enough. Friends we need to be more organised than that if we are going to defeat terror and hate and build a better world for Wylie. If we are going to take responsibility.

So let me finish by weaving history once again into this moment. The  Ets  Chayyim  which  we  heard  played  on  the  organ and sung  this  morning,  to  draw  our  connection  ever  closer  to  the  Tree of Life Synagogue  (Etz  Chayim)  in  Pittsburgh,  was  composed  by  Darius  Milhaud.  He  was  one  of  the  most prolific and important 20th  century  classical composers as well as teaching  Burt  Bacharach  and  Dave  Brubeck  to  name  but  two  household  names.  He  fled  France  in  1940  to  escape  the  clutches  of  Nazism  and  arrived  in  the  USA  and  it  was  there  he  wrote  an  entire  Organ  opus  for  the  Saturday  morning  service  in  1947  for  the  Emanu-El  Reform  synagogue  in  San  Francisco. The Ets Chayyim was one of those pieces.

Ets Chayyim is from Proverbs, chapter 3, part of what is effectively an ode to wisdom or Torah. It means:

Torah is a tree of life to those who old fast to it and all supported by it are happy.

Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.

All Torah’s paths are peace…In our rabbinic texts we learn in the name of Rabbi Joshua of Sikhnin that so great is peace that all our blessings and services are sealed with peace. For the prayers around the Sh’ma in the evening end with the sukkah of peace; the priestly benediction ends with peace and all daily services end with Oseh Shalom – may the one who makes peace in the highest bring this peace upon us.

Today we sit together with the human family to strive to increase the goodness in the world, to bring light to darkness, to show that we will not be cowed by violence in our observance of our faith or engagement with the world. Today we must pledge to get organised, to amplify our voices, to turn our small acts of faith in humanity into into something bigger. Today we must pledge to seek peace and pursue it wherever it may be found.