How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?

How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?

Dear Friends,

The past few weeks have been difficult here in South Africa, as they have been for almost everyone. We said goodbye to cherished friends, family members and congregants who were laid to eternal rest due to the pandemic. As we continue to make sense of the turmoil and disruption this crisis has caused, both close to home and to  society as a whole, I find myself – as I often do – turning to Jewish heritage and tradition to help find meaning in the world around me.

Last week, we marked the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, the beginning of three weeks of ritual mourning. These weeks follow a path that begins with this anniversary of the Babylonian breach of the gates of ancient Jerusalem and carries us until the anniversary of the burning of Solomon’s Temple and the start of the first exile. That date is marked, along with a great many other Jewish tragedies, including the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492,  by a fast on the 9th of Av, observed this year on July 30th.

I’m always struck by the liturgy of this period. The words of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon are exemplary for the profound mourning of our people’s loss:

There we sat,
Sat and wept,
As we thought of Zion…

How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right-hand wither…

Still, as we read  Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, we find, even in the words of  sorrow, messages of hope and of the possibility of renewal. Even the fast itself is considered a Mo’ed, a  festival. For though it is a day of profound sadness, it is also a day of promise for a joyful future, as the prophet Zechariah assures the people it “shall become occasion for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” (Zech. 8:19)

These texts and our tradition hold all our emotions that feel so right for this  moment in our world.  We hold the sorrow of profound loss, we sit with  anxieties and fears in this time of transition, and still we find a way to  express our hope for the future.

We need to grieve. We need to name the anxiety and fear that comes with this crisis and we need to lift up hope – hope for what is possible, hope for a brighter future, hope for what we will build together in the years to come. And we need to do all these things at the same time.

I invite you to share your losses, your fears, and your hopes as we continue to walk through this crisis.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Adrian M Schell

By the Waters of Babylon, painting by Arthur Hacker, c. 1888
By the Waters of Babylon, painting by Arthur Hacker, c. 1888
(c) Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
A new chapter

A new chapter

Signing my new contract with Wimbledon

With gratitude and happiness, I am excited to announce my appointment by The Wimbledon Shul, to become their new rabbi, moving to London, UK after the High Holy Days this year. I am feeling blessed beyond words for this incredible chance to open the next chapter in my rabbinic journey and Chayim’s and my life.

The Wimbledon Shul is the largest Reform Congregation in the South of London, reaching out to Jewish families in the South of England beyond the district borders. The congregation is proud of its cheder, its religious life and the adult learning opportunities and its open and welcoming community.I am looking forward to walking with the congregation on their path in making The Wimbledon Shul a Jewish home for everyone, providing space for families, singles, seniors and students, people who identify as LGBTIQ+ and Allies and those who feel comfortable in a traditional Jewish setting.

I am grateful to the wonderful team and leadership of The Wimbledon Shul for putting so much trust and hope into me, allowing me to take on this outstanding opportunity to lead the congregation into its future.

To my Bet David family: Six years ago, I arrived in Johannesburg to be your new Rabbi. In these past years, we learned and prayed, laughed and celebrated, sang and danced, marched and mourned together. I am the rabbi I am today because you let me into your lives. You opened up your hearts and taught me how to comfort. You opened up your minds and taught me the power of teaching Torah. You opened up your hands and showed me the value of helping those in need. You elevated your spirit and taught me what it means to live with spiritual intention. Your love for your family and friends helped me understand the power and importance of community.

The funny thing about rabbinic transition timelines is that it forces a slow goodbye, but that’s actually a good thing. I’ll be here until the end of the High Holy Days and want to take that time to personally tell each of you how much you have meant to me and how much I have learned from you.

And to my new Wimbledon family: I am looking forward to meeting all of you and to enter with you this new chapter. And to all of you: Stay tuned for blog posts and more as I prepare for and celebrate the big move! Can’t wait to share the journey with you all! Please feel free to reach out, by email (rabbi.schell@gmail.com) or via Facebook (facebook.com/RabbiAdrianSchell)

A glimpse of the messianic time

Dear Congregants and Friends,

      One of the most important teaching of the torah is v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha, love your neighbour as yourself.  There are no ifs, ands or buts.  We are commanded to love all members of the fabulous human family. In the creation account of the Book of Genesis, God creates us betzelem elohim, in God’s image.  That means that all of us, no matter our race, religion, gender, gender identity, nationality, economic status, disability, or sexual orientation are reflections of the Divine Being who created us all. Therefore, when we act with love and compassion towards one another, we become holy. However, holiness is not enough. Being holy means we become aware of our task, to fix this broken world. The biblical prophets urge us on with their words, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

    The past weeks have shown that we are far from reaching a just world and that each  and every one of us is asked to not remain silent when violence against women is crippling our country, when people are still being judged and treated differently just because of their skin colour, and when members of the LGBT* community are discriminated because of their sexual orientation and/or identity.

Our rabbis teach that we can see a glimpse of the messianic time, a world in balance, each Shabbat. Why? Perhaps, then is when we know that it is worth fighting for.

Let us do that

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Adrian M Schell

Created in the image of God

Today, Friday (22 May/28 Iyyar) we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, one of several Jewish holidays commemorating events of war in the modern State of Israel. This one recalls Israel’s regaining of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967. Despite these modern memorial days, it seems safe to say that we Jews generally don’t think of ourselves as military people. Yet the coming together with our annual reading of the opening portion of the Book of Numbers, beginning with a census of all Israelite men, might give us pause to question our assumption.

Our parasha begins with God’s instruction to Moses to count the people: 
s’u et-rosh kol-adat B’nai Yisrael,”-“take a census of the whole Israelite company”. The commentators notice the way God describes the head count: s’u et rosh, “lift the head.” Nachmanides (a rabbi from the thirteenth century) points out that the phrase can be positive or negative. Joseph uses the same phrase positively back in Genesis when interpreting the dream of the imprisoned cupbearer: “in three days’ time, Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your post.” But Joseph also uses the phrase negatively a few verses later while interpreting the baker’s dream: “in three days’ time, Pharaoh will lift your head from your body and hang you on a pole

Imagine the scene, though, Moses and Aaron lifting each young man’s head, gently touching the chin of each soldier-to-be, looking them in the eye, thus acknowledging the humanity of each one, and recognising the real “risks” of war. Will this young man’s head be lifted up to greatness or fall in battle?

S’u et-rosh, “Lift up the head” of each one, says God to Moses, as if to say, touch them, look them in the eyes, write down their family names, because even though you are counting them, these men are not just numbers.

A wise man once taught that if you look deeply into the eyes of another, you will find there the Presence of God. Would we really be able to send people into battle if we spent the moments before looking deep into the eyes of our soldiers?

As we shall see in the weeks to come, despite its stories of fighting, rebellion and violence, the Book of Numbers also delivers the message that God would rather encourage the people Israel toward a gentler way of being, and to realise that the price we have paid in any war was more than just a soldier. She or he was a human being, created in the image of God.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell 

(Source: Rabbi Lisa Edwards)

Kfir Brigade Swearing-In Ceremony - (c) IDF 2015
Kfir Brigade Swearing-In Ceremony – (c) IDF 2015