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Male Chauvinism and the Search for Chametz

Every year, on the evening before Pesach, cynical me has a good chuckle. Thousands of Jewish husbands, poking around, under, over and around every bit of furniture in the home, armed with feather, candle and wooden spoon.

For the past many weeks, their dedicated wives have spent dozens of hours, as they scrubbed and clean every nook and cranny of the home.  Occasionally assisted by their husband, who generously spares 3.5 minutes to help the Pesach cleaning effort.

By this evening, each of these homemakers know their home better than ever before.  They can tell you exactly where to find the nail clipper, odd green sock, and the obscure antihistamine lotion, hidden away at the back of the bathroom cabinet.  Show up the blokes at nightfall and commence their search, as though their 'incapable wives' would inadvertently overlook an essential crumb or cracker, somewhere nowhere near the kitchen or dining room.

Is tonight's Bedikat Chametz exercise really a show of macho superiority, or something far deeper?!

In many Chassidic homes, the search is an intense one, lasting far longer that one would think necessary.  According to Chabad philosophy, tonight's search is far less about finding elusive bits of leaven, overlooked by a haggard, overtired Jewish mother; it's much more about personal introspection and the search for your personal spiritual leaven.

To achieve personal freedom, all negativity needs to be purged.  Tonight, we reveal true light.  We search in the deepest recesses of our soul, for those bits of bread that get in the way of our quest for true freedom.

Get your searching kit.  Take your time.  Tomorrow night, we celebrate freedom.  Tonight we pave the way to achieve that freedom, by dispelling darkness, at candlelight.  The candle of Torah, Mitzvot and of the soul.

Mazal Tov. We're preparing for our Bar Mitzvah

Today, 5th Tevet, marks a special milestone for Shterna and myself.  On this day 12 years ago, we boarded a BA flight at New York's JFK, on our way to our new position as Chabad Shluchim to Brighton.

The English date was New Year's Eve 2004. We remember it well, as Heathrow had a skeleton staff for New Year's Day, so we waited an hour for our luggage to arrive.

I don't know where to start!  We honestly had very little clue of what to expect, other than that Rabbi Pesach & Mrs Penina Efune and their (then) younger children were waiting enthusiastically to welcome us to the city and introduce us to Brighton & Hove's Jewish community.

Our job description was varied.  Inspire seniors. Teach young children. Run youth programmes and work with young adults and young couples.  And assist with congregational responsibilities at the BHHC’s West Hove Synagogue.  Oh, and get involved with the student community too.

Funny how things go.  At the time, I was slightly relieved that the student stuff would be pretty low down on the list, almost like an after-thought.  We were fairly young, close in age to the students and all that, but I felt safer on the Bimah in the Synagogue, or at the front of the classroom, than at informal conversation with students.  On a regular Friday night nowadays, I get challenged with an average of 10 hard-hitting questions, relating to all areas of Jewish life, Halacha and philosophy.  Change and growth is exciting, rewarding and so much more.

We’d bought a few too many books and some furniture as newlyweds in the USA.  Noah would have been impressed by our 20ft container, packed to the door, with everything but the kitchen sink.  The incredulous look on the lorry driver’s face, when he discovered that we’d given up the good life in the United States, choosing instead ‘backwater’ Brighton, England, will probably make me smile for many years to come.

Raizel was born in March of that year, just 2 ½ months after our arrival, followed by Mushka in the summer of 2005.  ‘A Mentch Tracht un G-t Lacht – We plan and the Almighty has a good chuckle’ is a wonderful expression.  We thought we’d settle down for a while.  During our first 10 years, we lived in Braemore Court, Pembroke Gardens and Medina Villas, all in Hove.  Then Golden Lane (Norfolk Sq), Vere Road and Elm Grove in Brighton.  Along that journey, Mendel, Shmulik, Yankel and Chana made their safe arrivals into our lives.

By this point, our job description had well and truly been transformed; our lives had become intertwined with that of the Jewish students and the universities.  We continue to be part of the local Jewish community in so many ways, cherish the many relationships formed, and feel blessed to include so many of its members as our friends.   But our passion and commitment is to the students, here in Brighton and beyond, as far as Canterbury in the east and Southampton to the west.   

As directors of Chabad at SE Coast Universities, we think we’re doing some pretty important stuff.  And to get this stuff done, we needed some space.  Mind you, our growing family needed a bit of space too.  So in the summer of 2013, we moved into our Chabad House, overlooking The Level, in Brighton’s densely student-populated area.   We’re technically in Hanover, which the locals consider more Bohemian than Bohemia, and being part of the local facebook community group provides daily entertaining reminders of the colourful community we live in.  University of Brighton’s Phoenix Halls are virtually in our back garden and the noise of rowdy, intoxicated students throughout the night, reminds us that we’ve chosen our location well.  Levi, now almost 2, was born soon after we had settled into the Chabad House.

How does one reflect on 12 years without boring reader or writer?!

Students face all sorts of pressures.  Sadly, over the years, we’ve had the difficult task of counselling students through very challenging circumstances, including suicide attempts.  When mentioning this recently to someone, the apt response was “wow, what you and Shterna do is really important.”  We couldn’t agree more!

Rosh Hashanah dinners.  Kol Nidrei and Neilah Services.  Sukkot events, Chanukah parties and Giant Menorah Lightings.  Lunch n Learns at 3 different universities weekly and Pizza n Parsha.  Shabbat dinners and women’s issues.   And dozens of one-to-one sessions, for learning, counselling or just caring.

During the academic term, breathing is a luxury.

So on this 12th anniversary, the first thing I’m thankful for is that it’s not term-time, so I can actually reflect.

Tomorrow begins our 13th year in Brighton.  We’re determined, more than ever, to grow during our Bar Mitzvah year and the years to follow.

We thank our partners who’ve made our success thus far a reality.  Our friends for their encouragement and support and our students for making it all worthwhile.  And our kids for all being such wonderful members of our team.

L’chaim to the next 12 years. 

Canterbury Tales

We’ve done it before, and each time, the routine gets that much easier. Cook up a Shabbos storm, load the kitchen sink and everything else into the car, and head off someplace beyond the comforts of our Brighton base.

Our destination: Southampton or Canterbury.

Captive audience: Jewish students and a sprinkle of local Jews.

Weekly Lunch and Learns and regular social events are fantastic opportunities to build friendships and inspire, but a Shabbos experience is a whole lot more.

With 20 students in attendance, the cosy atmosphere at Friday night dinner lasted until close to 2 o’clock in the morning. Song, food, L’chaim and a wonderful atmosphere prevailed.

The setting for our most recent Canterbury Tale was an 18th Century cottage in the heart of the old town, a stone’s throw from the Old Synagogue, now a music hall for the Kings School. Walking to Shul on Shabbos morning, I could not help but wonder about the lives of the various Jewish characters who have lived in Canterbury during the past eight hundred and fifty years. Under the spell of the fairytale character of the city, I let my imagination picture Jews of all sorts hurrying along the very same cobbled streets, each on their way to the Synagogue of their era.

Whether the Jews of the past enjoyed a Kiddush like ours, with delicious hot cholent, kugel, and the equivalent of Shterna’s homemade cakes, would be wishful imagination. One thing of which I am certain, they’d be shocked to find vibrant Jewish life, after the last Synagogue ceased services in 1911!

Allow me to share a thought I shared with the students:

Rabbi Yosi ben Kismah, a second century sage of the Mishna, relates that he once encountered a ‘macher’, who enquired about his hometown. “I am from a great town of sages and scribes”, responded R’ Yosi. “Rabbi”, countered the ‘macher’, “if you come and reside among us, in our town, I’d be happy to offer you an impressive, executive salary” (Silver, gold, precious stones and diamonds would all be included in the contract...). “To which I responded”, continues R’ Yosi, “If you were to offer me all the treasures of the world, I would only live in a place of Torah!”

Here’s what I pointed out to the students. Look at the conversation carefully, and you will observe that R’ Yosi never actually declined the tempting offer. What he objected to was being perceived as the ‘rabbi’ in town, while everyone else gets on with their mundane, meaningless lives. Says R’ Yosi, ‘if you’d like me to consider the position, you must be open to being influenced by Judaism’s teachings, so that I can in turn inspire you to make your town ‘a place of Torah’ and of vibrant Jewish life; a place which I’d be more than happy to call my own’.

It is thanks to the many students in Brighton, Southampton and Canterbury, who have shown an impressive enthusiasm towards Jewish teaching and living, that our partnership in Jewish revival has been possible.

Shabbos, 23rd June, 3rd of Tammuz, marks the 18th anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose teachings have inspired Shterna and myself, and thousands of other Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis and rebbitzens, to reach beyond our own comfort-zone, often schlepping the kitchen sink with us, to awaken another Jewish spark.

As Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks reflects, “the Rebbe did something absolutely extraordinary; he said to himself: if the Nazis searched out every Jew in hate, we will search out every Jew in love.”

Squatters Evicted

The squatters are out, although the lingering smell of cheap beer, tobacco and weed still made me gag as I went upstairs this evening.IMAG0307.jpg

Chassidism teaches that everything we see, hear or experience, including supposedly negative or sombre encounters, are orchestrated ‘on High’. We are charged therefore to learn and be inspired from each experience. In fact, the 18th Century Chassidic Master Reb Zushe of Anipoli declared that he was inspired in seven different ways by a thief! (http://www.chabadsussex.org/309299).

Background. Three months ago, we completed the purchase on a four story terraced property overlooking ‘The Level’, in the heart of the ‘student area’ of Brighton. We’ve been busy since preparing the architectural plans and necessary permits, as well as launching a Building Campaign to raise the required funds, so that we can proceed with this exciting project. The building will include a dining hall for sixty, a games room, kitchen, library, office and accommodation for our family.

Despite having safely secured the property according to insurance specifications, the trespassers managed to gain access via the neighbours’ fire escape ladder, breaking in via our roof access. I’ll spare you the complicated British legal procedures for eviction of squatters, though by all accounts, we did remarkably well in concluding the entire legal process and regaining possession within less than two weeks.

To be honest, my former soft spot for some aspects of the views of the British Squatting Community has now dissolved. Mind you, I can’t be blamed. A gaping two foot hole in a perfectly sound wall, stolen fire extinguishers and a chandelier, bags and bags of filth and mess, dozens of empty beer cans, burned fences and graffiti should turn most decent folk off. The invasion of our privacy and the accessing of our private post letters, including bank details, utility bills and correspondence with Brighton & Hove City Council 172.jpgleft us quite disheartened.

But we’re now well on the way to the clean-up, and it’s time for some positive reflection.

Our brain is the most prized space we could possibly own. Its focus and content will engage our heart and our entire being with purpose and perspective, enabling us to find meaning and inspiration in life. From the moment we awake, and throughout our day, our mind is continuously and feverishly developing, analysing and contemplating, just about every bit of information it can process.

But there’s the snag. Ultimately, after all is said and done, our brain may actually conclude its long, arduous day as vacant and void as it began. Meaningless experiences and idle nonsense will effectively render it as unoccupied as it was, and will be, during the hours of unconscious slumber.

If it’s unoccupied, then the Evil Inclination, your personal squatter, will inevitably pounce. He’s sophisticated. Well researched and knowledgeable. He’s familiar with the system and every trick in the book.

In fact, Chassidism refers to him as the ‘Klooginker’ – the brilliant one. He’s complex and advanced beyond expectation.

And even while the Midrash refers to him as the ‘Old, Foolish King’, misunderstanding that may well lead to further blunder. ‘King’ is a reference to his ability to take control of just about any ‘habitat’ or situation. He’s ‘Old’; he’ll claim he’s been around forever. In fact, essentially he’s right, as he enters at birth, while his opponent doesn’t complete his entry until the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

You’d only be further fooled to think he’s the fool. He’s only referred to as ‘Foolish’ due to his uncanny ability to fool just about everyone bar himself.

So here are some practical suggestions to prevent the Yetzer Horah/Evil Inclination from occupying your ‘space’. Be warned; once in he’ll quickly post a legal warning, covering all bases, and claim possession, so don’t waste time leaving your ‘space’ unoccupied while you seek funding or planning consent.

1.    Make sure every entry point is firmly secure. Our ears, eyes, nose and just about every faculty that we have, are access points that can be employed by a potential intruder, especially one who is lurking in the shadows, waiting and watching for us to lower our guard. Spiritual equivalents to multi-lever deadlocks, alarm systems, CCTV and good old bolts and window locks are vital security measures. Don’t be complacent.

2.    Occupy! Attend at all times. Furnish it. Fill it with all your favourite possessions. Jewish books, Chanukah Menorahs, Matzah covers, Tefillin, Kiddush cups and candles sticks. Oh, and use them. He knows the difference between an unoccupied china closet accumulating dust, and a well used one where he’ll be caught red-handed.
Work there. Pray there. Study there. Sleep there. Walk around. Keep the lights of Torah and Judaism on. In every corner of every room.

Like the squatters, once he’s in, it’ll be considerably more difficult to evict him. He’ll trash the place and leave you feeling shocked, cheated and violated. So keep him out at all costs.

He’s already occupied and claimed possession? Oh no!

Listen. You can take the legal route but it’ll take time. Precious time lost while he’s making a mess of your space and destroying your most personal assets. You’ll lose sleep, struggle to work or focus and feel miserable while he’s having a party in your backyard, smoking weed and drinking cheap beer.

Don’t negotiate. Not under any circumstances. It’s only a stalling tactic which will make you lose further precious time. In fact, our sages tell us that one who ‘wrestles’ with a soiled individual, will inevitably become soiled himself. Don’t engage in any dialogue.

Beat him up. Give him a good old thrashing and chuck him out the front door. Let him know in no uncertain terms that he’s not welcome.  That’s the most effective eviction method, as outlined in Tanya chapter 29.  It may be illegal according to British Law when dealing with physical squatters, but when managing the Yetzer Horah, it’s an entirely different matter.

Cheap booze and weed, along with a confused perspective on life, are the basic ingredients for a disastrous concoction, with catastrophic ramifications. Single-malt whisky, peppered with inspiring words of Torah and meaning at our Shabbat Table, provide for a blended brew of hope and energy, so that together we can evict the Yetzer Horah once and for all...  L’chaim!

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Epilogue

It has been brought to our attention that despite careful thought before publishing the above blog post, individuals sympathetic to the Squatting Community may well misunderstand the theme and points above.

Let me clarify: We successfully evicted the 'live squatters' via the legal procedure according to Civil Law, having successfully obtained an Interim Possession Order, and each stage of the procedure was followed as the law requires. As I believe I clearly articulated, the above strategies outlined in the blog post are to be used only in the personal battle with the Evil Inclination.

During the two week eviction process, various positive levels of communication were made with the squatters, and at all times, we ensured pleasant dialogue. In fact, the appreciative squatters advised me that we would find the premises in good order on their departure.

At no time during the process did we anger or upset the occupiers or threaten violence. Judaism and Jewish law is a religion based on basic principles of understanding and respect for every human being. The damages, theft and upset which we experienced, as described in the above post, only hurt their interests and undermine their cause.

London's Burning

Regulars at my classes know that I love to make a good political statement.

Those who've seen my facebook posts or know my views will know that I have little patience for analytic psychobabble. The actions of bored youths who burn down their neighbours’ homes, destroy their high streets and scare the living daylights out of their communities can never be justified by blaming heavy-handed police and short-sighted government. Bloggers and journalists who insist on giving crime justified spin are actually fanning the violence with their idiocy.

As I posted on facebook this evening, anyone who supported the civil unrest for the past two years owes hurting London a huge apology. It’s time the liberal media etc. stop giving sophisticated analyses to justify downright violent criminal acts by bored youths on a boring summer of 'lack of content'!

This doesn’t mean we become so obsessed with the victims of the violence that we forget to address the underlying causes that triggered the unrest or the boredom. What is of vital importance is that civil unrest like this should never be tolerated, even while we strive to find solutions.

But this post, like much of my blog, is not about political statements. It’s about finding guidance for our own lives while reflecting on what’s going on around us.

In the early 1980s, the Lubavitcher Rebbe launched the Tzivos Hashem youth movement, lit. Army of G-d.

Still operating today, it provides a motivation system, with army style ranks and awards, to encourage Jewish children to develop, both as good citizens and as good Jews.

Someone wrote a letter to the Rebbe, in which he advised the Rebbe that the use of ‘army’ terms was unpopular and counterproductive. References to war, lieutenants and the commander-in-chief have no place in modern western society.

The Rebbe’s response was extensive. Any suggestion that he hadn’t thought this initiative through thoroughly was quickly laid to rest. “I have thought long and hard”, he wrote about his choice of theme and decision.

You see, the Rebbe’s view was that we’ve lost our sense of respect for our elders. Gone are the days when youths thought their parents knew better than them. Gone are the days when teachers weren’t just teachers of a subject, but were seen as role models and advisors. Today, you can shout at the Prime Minister and he’ll return next week to apologies to you. You can even superglue yourself to him and get away with it. It’s fine to throw rocks at Prince Charles and then complain that your sentence was heavy-handed.

You can disrupt the lives of others, because you’re downright selfish, and then cry out that it’s your basic right to freedom of expression.

What the Rebbe understood was profound.

If you don’t like it here, you’ll never respect those who run the place.

If you feel disenfranchised, discontent or just bored, you’ll never feel you owe this place anything. You won’t appreciate your parents. You won’t look up to your teachers. You’ll be easily convinced that the police are only out to get you, that politicians want you to live a miserable life and that the bankers only ambition is to keep you in poverty forever.

So why did the Rebbe choose the army theme?

To join, you’ve got to want to join. They’ll promise you the pension of your dreams; guarantee you and your family a great quality of life and benefits you couldn’t refuse. They’ll tempt you with team spirit and great friends and they’ll make you feel empowered.

So you’ll join because you love it and want to be part of it.

And that’s the last you’ll hear about yourself...

Until you retire, you’ll be required to follow every rule and every command instantly, without even blinking an eyelid. You’ll wake up at the crack of dawn, to the abusive shouts of your commander, and march ridiculous distances in harsh conditions before falling asleep at some unearthly hour on a bed that can hardly be called a bed. Failing to comply will get you subpoenaed, court-martialed and worse. And you’ll accept all of this because, after all, you love it here and chose to be here.

You’ll respect everyone above you and love everyone else, because you signed up for this.

So the Rebbe instituted the Army. Show the kids that they want to be part of their communities, their traditions and their identity. Teach them to appreciate it and love it. Then they’ll be more than happy to follow orders because they see themselves as part of it. They’ve been given the power and made the choice to accept the authority which they happily obey.

Guide the next generation in their devotion to the ‘Commander-in-Chief’ and they’ll happily comply with His wishes, because they signed up for it for life.

Fail to teach them and they’ll hate the country they live in. They’ll burn, destroy and devastate their own communities. After all, they don’t consider themselves part of it, so have no vested interest in respecting it.

I’ll refrain from making statements or offering advice to policy makers on how to run this country. (I suppose I’ve shocked you there).

Think about why you’re here. Meditate about it. Work yourself to a frenzy of passionate obsession with it. Teach yourself to love it. The rest will be as easy as walking into Curry’s for your free plasma TV.

Amy Winehouse Reflections

 

I can hear you ask, why am I getting involved in sensational tabloid journalism. As a Chabad rabbi serving Jewish students, I consider this matter close to home. This is not an attempt to use the news to attract readers to my blog. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts.

The weekend news has been sobering.

Fanatical extremism has once again raised its ugly claws, this time snatching close to a hundred innocent lives in Norway, mostly youngsters enjoying a summer break. It’s unlikely the world will ever get its head around what motivates a radical terrorist to gun down innocent children in cold blood, though tomorrow this brutal murderer will ‘calmly explain to the court why his actions were a necessity’. The world will gasp again, and then it will recede to the recesses of our memories; until terror strikes again.

Fatalities in Texas because an angry human happened to be in possession of a gun. Despite this further loss of life, many colleagues and co-religionists across the Atlantic will probably continue campaigning for less restrictions on gun ownership.

Amy Winehouse has passed away. Unexplained, but all signs indicate persistent drug abuse.

Many facebookers have questioned why, after the awful tragedy in Norway, Amy even deserves mention. Her loss was caused by a chosen path of self-destruction, and an adamant refusal to access the support that was offered her by those who loved her so much. So why the big tzimmus?!

Firstly, when a Jewish girl loses her life, whether because of illness, terrorism or self-destruction, it should resonate within the community she is part of. Even if her association may have been nominal and she sat on the periphery, contributing little or nothing to said community, her community owes it to her soul to reflect and remember.

As I am good friends with a close acquaintance of Amy’s, with whom I spoke earlier today and I know that he is pained by her loss, it has hit home personally. Though obviously it would be unreasonable for me to expect the same feelings from those who don’t share a mutual friend.

But above all, to me, her tragic final years of life, and her unfortunate death, are not so much about her but about what she represents.

Exchange Amy’s name with any other. Choose a girl you know from a hard-working family in North London. Give her the challenges that she will inevitably face when she leaves the safety of her family home. ‘Somename’ will likely strive for success in the arts, whether painting, music or singing. Or she’ll go to a university somewhere in the UK, where she’ll study anything from Psychology to Politics to Architecture. Likely somewhere like Sussex, Kent, Southampton or Portsmouth, where I serve as Chabad rabbi, or elsewhere in the UK where one of my Chabad on Campus colleagues is located.

There she’ll struggle for meaning and depth in life. For independence and a carefree existence that she thought life would so readily offer her. There she’ll find parties, alcohol, nicotine, coffee, drugs of all classes, late nights, social stresses, academic stresses, internet addictions which will include a range of inundating social networking sites, and a whole lot more.

While all of this is going on, in all probability her parents and family will be deriving huge amounts of pride, assuming she’s using her hard-working and conscientious personality to the maximum. Why else is she always exhausted; too busy to speak; too busy to visit and never a free moment to relax.

Mind you. Come to think of it. She may well be a He.

He or She will likely mature, either in the face of or as a result of the experience. Possibly, but not necessarily guaranteed, he or she may well give up on the drug addictions and settle down to a reasonably stable life; job, spouse, kids.

(There’s no knowing if the experience will leave its traumatic mark on his or her mental psyche, because few are prepared to be honest about the devastation this lifestyle can inflict. Suffice it to say that many have emerged seemingly wholesome).

And then there are the Amy’s. Lost in the vicious cycle of desperate yearning for an elusive meaning in life. Struggling to overcome the inner torment which life has left in it’s wake. Friends, security and serenity all so vague and distant. And yet the whole world angrily declares that the answer sits at his or her fingertips, and accusations of self-destruction and masochism are amplified with surround-sound.

The addictive comforts found in the range of substances and opportunities will soon become a part of the fabric of the twisted, overwhelming life that is his or her share. They’ll quickly graduate from recreational use to full blown abuse, taking hold of one’s mental and physical state until they become fully in control of their unfortunate victim. He will go in and out of psychiatric wards; she’ll gravitate from one therapist to the next. There’s a chance that someone caring will take control, and teach him or her to take control again. If that caring individual never shows up, then he or she will die.

Even if you didn’t know this Amy, statistically, it is highly probably there’ll be another Amy soon who you may well know and love. So whether you’re sparing a thought to day for ‘Amy Winehouse’ or for all of the Amy’s of the world, reflection is certainly in order. Say a prayer and think of someone lost and lonely who can benefit from a phone call or visit from someone who really cares. If not in her memory, then in the memory of the poor children of Norway, for whom, to be honest, I highly doubt there’s much you can really do.

Miracles and the Real Issues on Campus

Yesterday I witnessed a miracle.

This past Shabbat we read about miracles. The splitting of the sea; manna from heaven; low flying fatty birds for barbecues; water out of a rock; the defeat of the arrogant Amalekite nation.

That was over 3300 years ago in the desert south of Canaan.

Yesterday I witnessed a miracle on the streets of Brighton.

As far as I know, Sussex Police have their hands full blocking traffic and closing off roads.

The local council have various events through the year for which the streets get closed. And then there are a range of planned and unplanned demonstrations, protesting one thing or another, for which the city’s major roads are forced to ground to a halt.

And once in a blue-moon, the streets get closed off because a group of people, proud of their identity and heritage, are prepared to march in the open, displaying their beloved Torah for all to see. They swirl in dancing circles in joy, as musicians play lively melodies alongside. The excitement, not just for the brand new Torah scroll, but also for the ability to celebrate its conclusion in the street, is apparent among the hundreds of happy faces. There’s no protest message in our march; just sheer joy that we can be Jews in the open, and the police are grateful.

Yesterday we saw a blue-moon. A modern day miracle on the streets of Brighton.

The masochistic Jewish pessimists are convinced that in two decades we will be living in an Islamic state under Sharia Law. They’re convinced that British universities are hotbeds for anti-Semitic, pro-Palestinian rhetoric. I’m constantly being advised that University of Sussex is an awful place for a Jew in the 21st Century.

To the critics I say two things:

Firstly, let us be absolutely frank about the real issues and challenges that young Jewish students face today.

Tragically, it is frighteningly more likely that a Jewish student at U of Sussex will die from a drug overdose or alcohol poisoning than a terrorist attack.

It is highly likely that a Jewish student will leave university traumatised as a result of extreme partying and worse and dropping out without finishing their degree, because they lack responsibility and commitment. It is highly unlikely that a student will leave here after three years traumatised, or fail their exams, because the Union shop won’t sell Jaffa Oranges or other Israeli products.

To be sure, we have an obligation to do what we can to enable Jewish students to feel safe while at university. To this end, it is vital that those who are in a position to do so, defend Israel from those who are determined to delegitimize its existence. I’ll leave it to Melanie Phillips to educate Jewish organisations on where they’ve failed in this regard.

As for the rest of us, it is vital that we address the real issues facing Jewish students today. The alternative is to get so carried away with semantics, that there'll be no Jewish students left to protect.

And here’s my second point:

The streets of Brighton, U of Sussex and every other university Chabad services, will be what we make of them. Teach our kids to hide, and those who want us shoved out of sight, under the carpet, will be thrilled.

Yesterday, Brighton’s Jewish community saw a miracle. At Chabad-Lubavitch, we’ve resolved to bring about even more miracles. We invite you to join us enthusiastically, so that together we can secure an exciting and promising future for ourselves and our children.

The cup is 7/8ths full! Why instil fear in our children’s minds and hearts, thus burying Yiddishkeit alive, if we can dance in the street, light giant Menorahs and show our children that they can proudly take their Judaism along with them to university.

Norwegian Shabbat...

We’re always looking for strange foods and different cultures to make our Shabbat dinner experience unique. So when Rita, a third-year student from Trondheim, Norway, suggested Norwegian, Shterna shouted ‘yes’ while I braced myself.

Turns out, the first course is much like a late night Chassidic farbrengen; plenty of pickled herring, shmaltz herring, chopped herring, smoked salmon, salads full of vinegar and a flow of alcoholic beverages. The second course was a little less familiar, with mushy something and meatballs covered in some brown sauce, which actually turned out whitish despite Shterna’s attempts at browning them. Dessert was more familiar ground, with waffles and ice cream.

All 25 of us had plenty to eat, and plenty of fun to boot.

As I prepare this blog post, the sun has set and the Hebrew date of 10th Shevat has entered. Tonight, Chabad-Lubavitch marks the 60th year since the passing of the Previous Rebbe and the date on which, a year later in 1951, the Rebbe officially accepted the leadership of the Chabad Movement.

Through the next 42 years, until suffering a stroke in March 1992, the Rebbe revolutionised Torah study, bringing the text of the Torah, Rashi’s commentary and Talmudic teaching to life in a manner never before accomplished. The value of every single Jew, every human being and every single positive act, again revolutionised by the Rebbe. From a simple office in Brooklyn, the Rebbe taught and inspired a movement which, under the Rebbe’s guidance, would reach Jews in every corner of the globe, amassing an army of some 4000 couples who have left their communities and comfort zones, indefinitely, in their quest to share the beauty of living Judaism with every Jew on the planet.

So Norwegian Shabbat made perfect sense.

Throughout the 80’s, the Rebbe was asked about a Chabad presence in Scandinavia, and consistently the Rebbe responded ‘not yet’. And then the Rebbe gave his blessing to Rabbi & Mrs Alex Namder to set up shop in Gothenburg, and then Chabad moved to Denmark, and then Norway, and finally Finland!

Here’s a story Shterna shared at the dinner.

Shterna called Mrs Esther Miriam Wilhelm, of Chabad of Norway for some food-for-thought. Her husband shared the following story:

Yaakov, a secular Israeli, arrived in Oslo, from where he and Rabbi Wilhelm were scheduled to travel north to Tromso, where Yaakov would be managing the financial side of a kosher smoked salmon factory, which Rabbi Wilhelm supervised. While still in Oslo, the rabbi offered Yaacov the opportunity to don Tefillin, which he declined despite also being urged to by a non-Jewish Norwegian woman who was involved in the smoked salmon enterprise.

At 10:30pm that evening, 24th June, in the broad daylight of northern Norway, Rabbi Wilhelm and Yaakov were walking through the centre of Tromso, when a car screeched up beside them and a middle-aged Israeli yelled in Hebrew ‘What are you doing here?’. After exchanging pleasantries, the surprised Israeli insisted that they join him at his bar, overlooking the Tromso Bridge where thousands gather each year during late June to witness the sun’s quick setting and immediate rise. While Yaakov accompanied Uri, the rabbi dashed back to his hotel room for his pair of Tefillin.

When he returned to the crowded bar, Rabbi Wilhelm asked Uri if he wished to don Tefillin. Uri enthusiastically and emotionally rolled up his sleeve, while declaring that this was the first time in 41 years that he was performing this special Mitzvah. Many of the patrons of the crowded bar stared in disbelief as a sobbing Uri emotionally recited the Shema. When Uri concluded, the rabbi turned to Yaakov and said “now would you like to put on Tefillin?”. Yaakov responded that he’ll do it at the bridge, where the two had planned to witness the remarkable sunset, followed six minutes later by sunrise.

At 1:00am, with the sky bright as day, Yaakov put on the Tefillin at the bridge as promised. The two stood in silence as they witnessed the remarkable sunset, with the suns rays reflecting on the water. Barely six minutes later, the sun rose in all its glory, and Rabbi Wilhelm turns to the stunned Yaakov and says, “you promised you’d put on Tefillin at the bridge. Would you like to put them on?”. “But I just did”, declared Yaakov, to which the rabbi responded, “but that was yesterday”.

“My friends back in Israel will be amazed to learn that I put on Tefillin on two separate days, 25 minutes apart”, declared Yaakov as he rolled up his sleeve.

After Shterna concluded the story, we invited all the guests to say something, as we do each week. Tefillin was the chosen Mitzvah by a student who was inspired by the beautiful story.

In the Shadow of the First Anniversary of the Mumbai Massacre

This past weekend I joined 3500 Chabad Rabbis for the annual Chabad Lubavitch International Shluchim Conference.

 

But this year, in the shadow of the first anniversary of the Mumbai Massacre, was different.

 

The chosen date of the annual conference is the Shabbat prior to the Hebrew month of Kislev; the first of Kislev being a festival of sorts within the Chabad movement. On this date in 1977, the Rebbe, then aged 75, returned home for the first time from his office/makeshift Intensive Care Unit, after suffering a series of massive heart attacks in the middle of the Simchat Torah celebrations 5 weeks earlier. The date has since been marked annually as one of thanksgiving to G-d for the Rebbe’s recovery and a celebration of the Rebbe’s remarkable achievements during the next 16 years.

 

But this year, in the shadow of the first anniversary of the Mumbai Massacre, was different.

 

To be honest, I boarded the NY-bound flight last Wednesday with some trepidation. How would the conference maintain its positive, upbeat atmosphere this year? How would friends revel in each others friendships and celebrate the achievements of the past 12 months? How could Chabad leaders and conference delegates share hope, optimism and celebration this year?

 

In the shadow of the first anniversary of the Mumbai Massacre.

 

Though I knew without a doubt what the prevalent atmosphere would be, I still wondered, and headed off to NY apprehensively.

 

Arye, an alumni of Brighton & Sussex Medical School, joined me at the conference gala banquet on Sunday evening.  Arye noted to a reporter that it was only on Sunday evening that it occurred to him how close to home the Mumbai Massacre had struck. For Arye, Rabbi Gabi & Rivki Holtzberg and their Mumbai centre had been distant names until the roll call, when 4000+ Rabbis and Lay Leaders offered a thunderous applause to the Shluchim of Mumbai, while the cameras closed in on Gabi & Rivki’s fathers, shown on giant screens throughout the hall.

 

After last year’s conference, Chabad rabbis returned to posts across the world invigorated and motivated. All positive feelings quickly evaporated when we learned of the siege at Chabad of Mumbai, and we spent the next few days monitoring the news updates with dread, and then despair, as the horrendous news was confirmed; our dear colleagues Gabi & Rivki and their four guests had been brutally murdered by barbaric terrorists.

 

Miraculously, the babysitter and a cook managed to rescue young Moishele, who celebrated his third birthday today with his grandparents in Israel.

 

The spirit that is Chabad shone forth at this year’s conference in full force, in the shadow of the first anniversary of the Mumbai Massacre.

 

On Thursday evening, the final letters of a new Torah Scroll were penned in memory of the victims. The scroll, which will be housed at the newly renovated Mumbai Chabad Centre, was escorted through the street amid live music, joyous singing and dancing. Outside Chabad World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, an estimated 6000 people gathered to greet the Torah and celebrate this truly festive occasion.

 

There was hope and joy in the shadow of the first anniversary of the Mumbai Massacre.

 

The atmosphere created by the joyous Torah celebration transformed the conference to one of optimism and hopefulness.

 

Shabbat in Crown Heights was inspirational. And then the gala banquet.

 

How do you transform a US Military Troop C Armoury, built for the purpose of military drills, into a banqueting suite for the Rebbe’s army? Click here http://vimeo.com/7639930 for a one-week time lapse 2 minute video of the banquet, from set up to clean up. If you know anything about catering, you’ll be floored!

 

A video depicting the lives of Rabbi & Mrs Holtzberg was shown during the banquet. It struck me as the video ended that this was yet another production that exemplifies what Chabad stands for. The video was full of motivation and hope, charging us to perpetuate the memories of these two young giants, who gave their lives on duty, carrying the Rebbe’s message of concern for every Jew, far from the comforts of family and friends, Afulah or Brooklyn, at Mumbai’s Chabad House.

 

We have returned to our posts encouraged and motivated; ready to share the warmth and inspiration with each and every Jew we encounter, in the shadow of the first anniversary of the Mumbai Massacre.

 

Moroccan Style Shabbat Dinner

Shterna has done it again. Close to 30 enjoyed savoury Moroccan style dishes on Friday night, including a Moroccan style ‘Gefilta Fish’ (whatever that means), a range of salad recipes that I can’t and won’t spell, homemade tehini, chicken cooked in a sweet sauce which included dried prunes, apricots and raisins and more. So, she’s never cooked Moroccan before, but that didn’t faze her and she set to the task with gusto. Shterna; thanks for a job well done.

 

Special thanks are also extended to Rochel and Daphna, who joined Shterna in the kitchen for the pre-Shabbat rush, and Rochel even used the extra hour provided by the clock-change last night to wash up. Thank you to you both.

 

The stars of the evening were Mr Simon Hatchwell and his wife Kirsten. Simon is a Moroccan native, having grown up in Essaouira, on Morocco’s West Coast. As he still owns the family home there, he returns to Morocco a number of times a year, and kept us all spellbound with stories, historical facts and his own artistic home drawn maps.

 

Mrs Hatchwell, who clearly prefers Brighton to the plains of Morocco, met Simon in her hometown Copenhagen over 50 years ago, while he was travelling across Scandinavia during his summer break. Mrs Hatchwell contributed a fair deal to the evening and with great pride displayed images of her late mother-in-law in traditional Moroccan dress.

 

According to Simon and Kirsten, the food on Friday night was delicious and considered to be superb Moroccan cuisine, though Simon maintains that the Arabs of Morocco weren’t the world’s best cooks, and Moroccan cooking is actually traditional Sephardic cooking, having been developed by the Jewish women of the land!

 

Either way, the relaxed informal atmosphere and mix bunch of people, offered students and young adults yet another opportunity to enjoy the flavour that is Chabad.

 

Join us soon. You won’t regret it.

Rosh Hashana and Why My Wife Got Locked Out

You’ve heard the old play on words:

“How do you get two whales in a Mini Cooper?

Down the M4!”

 

How do you get more guests into the dining room than you thought could fit?

Rent narrow chairs!

And so we did.

 

Rosh Hashana eve, we welcomed in 5770 in the company of 40 young Jews. To be honest, at times I thought I had been transported to the Holy Land. As three quarters of the crowd were Israeli, my Rosh Hashana thoughts were shared in English and Hebrew and the songs sung were traditional Israeli melodies.

 

Despite the cramped conditions, the atmosphere was electric and a motivational way to begin 5770. You see, the Hebrew word פרצת – Poratsta, to breach or burst, has the numerical value of 770. (The number synonymous with Chabad Lubavitch; the Rebbe’s office being at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, NY).

 

5770; a year of breaching and bursting all obstacles. Removing those barriers that may hinder our efforts to become better people. Reaching far beyond the limitations we may have set for ourselves. How appropriate that the year begin with the largest turnout we’ve hosted in our home for a sit-down dinner yet! And a delicious four course dinner no less… Thank you Shterna!

 

I doubt my annual Rosh Hashana highlight went unnoticed. After blowing the Shofar at Holland Road Shul in Hove, I was off to Kemp Town to blow Shofar at Hyman Fine House, then back to Churchill Square for the highlight. Surrounded by Israelis, all 30 blasts were heard loud and clear right in the middle of the shopping centre, then 3 more Shofar stops before lunch…

 

Strange we are. Two days of binge eating followed by a fast day. I’m sure there are healthier eating habits out there!

 

Today was Freshers Fayre at University of Kent, Canterbury. After scouting out Jewish students for four hours, Shterna called to advise me that her key is missing and the neighbours can’t find the spare copy.

 

Do I cancel the last meeting of the day and return to Brighton immediately, while she waits outside the house with four tired kvetchy children, or do I hope something works out and remain in Canterbury for another couple of hours?

 

Back to the car to load, while I call Rabbi Efune who rushes to Torah Nursery to see if the key was mistakenly left there. The neighbour finds the spare key and I relax. I’m delayed and arrive at a campus café to get a black coffee two minutes later than I thought. But it was meant to be…

 

A young student takes his place behind me in the queue, we make eye contact but not much else, and I turn my attention to the coffee machine. His phone rings and he answers the call “Mah Shlomcha?”. I promptly respond “B’Seder”. You can well imagine how the rest of our conversation went.

 

If there’d not have been a missing key and I’d have got to that queue two minutes earlier, I would have never met Roni*.

 

May we be blessed that throughout 5770 we are given the opportunity to overcome all barriers, thus allowing us to acknowledge the continuous Divine Providence that surrounds us.

 

*Fictitious name, though the story happened as related…

From Barbecues to Vegan Shabbat

By the end of last week, I was left with the bloated feeling one gets after consuming a couple too many chicken wings and burgers.

Lag B'Omer Barbecues, on the beach in Brighton and at a student's back garden in Southampton. The meat was delicious. The company was wonderful. Though the wind did discourage most revelers from staying at the beach BBQ for long after eating their fill.

(There are a few marshmallows left... If you missed out because you forgot an extra jacket on the night and were too cold to stick around, come on over and enjoy!).

Either way, it was decided unanimously, that Friday night we'd do the alternative 'Brighton' thing. We would go Vegan for one Shabbat dinner!

I can hear Shterna's grandmother's voice from Israel asking how on earth that can be done. Eggless Challah? Chrein without Fish? No chicken soup? No Matzah Balls? (We had no intention of keeping Matzah Meal together with Tofu or Mashed Banana!). No kugel???

We survived.

And as Shterna says, "I didn't realise how easy it'll be, though it won't happen regularly".

Water Challah (as good as any other) with plenty of Humous, followed by chickpea salad, potato salad and fresh salad for the 'fish course' (a Shabbos dinner with less than 4 courses just wouldn't fly!). Zucchini (courgette) soup with croutons, followed by rice, mushroom knish, roasted vegetables and tomato salad... Apple crisp for dessert. Even Tesco took part, by slashing prices on the kosher sorbet!

We all left the table quite satisfied, and barely an offensive joke about vegans uttered!

Here's one to make up for it!

“Isaac Bashevis Singer was at a dinner and was asked by the waiter if he wanted fish or chicken. He said, ‘I would just like vegetables.’ The waiter inquired, ‘Is it for your health?’ To which Singer responded, ‘No, it is for the health of the chicken.’”

I don't supposed you've heard the story of the vegan who decided to go kosher. He kept separate pots for starch and veggies!

We're now planning our next meaty barbecue, while we are safely assuming that one of the participants in the Vegan Shabbat was right when he commented that this was probably the first Chabad Vegan Shabbat Dinner ever held on earth!

Birthday Gifts...

I got birthday gifts...

Close to 40 students and young adults joined Shterna and myself for a special Sushi Shabbat Dinner this past Friday night in honour of my birthday.

We are serious when we say that we will invest in more chairs!

A heartfelt thank you to all those who joined us on this special occasion. Thank you to all those who sent kind wishes, but were unable to make it. You were with us in spirit.

Shterna sent out a message asking that all participants resolve to add a Mitzvah in honour of my birthday.

The gifts were special. And generous.

We learned that in Temple/Biblical times, one was required to give a portion of ones meat to a Kohen. But as that is not currently an available option, D resolved to be a better listener.

Someone took the time to speak to a Big Issue salesperson, while another will keep her cats non-kosher dishes out of her kitchen sink!

The list goes on and on... as there were 40 of us. The youngest attendee resolved to sit nicely at the Shabbat dinner table, while marking the Shabbat, Shabbat candles and visiting Grandma were all undertaken last Friday night.

I got birthday gifts last Friday night. Close to 40 of them. All equally special and valuable.

And to all those givers I say, thank you. 

Woman's perspective

T'was a full house last Friday as we settled down for the first ever Chabad Sussex Girls Only Shabbat Dinner.

I never realised that making Kiddush on Friday night would be such an experienced.  Raizel was confused about why Mummy was being Tatty!

6 delicious Challahs were consumed and all agreed its time for a Challah baking class.

No men present, but the alcohol was not to be missed. (Mind you, even the chocolate mousse had some in it!)

Singing?! Sort of.

The atmosphere lingered until well after the plates had been cleared.

Special thanks to my sister-in-law AB, for making it happen. (Thanks to Zalman for going off to NY and making this event possible - see his separate post on his trip). Thanks to R H for recruiting.

Thank You G-d for splitting the Reed Sea!

No Boys Allowed

Mendel, all of seven months, was the only gentleman to join the Shabbat Dinner at Chabad this past Friday night. Twenty young women joined Shterna for dinner, at an event that they claim included great food, fantastic atmosphere and more.

But what would I know? I was in New York, at a guys only Shabbat dinner, with 1500 in attendance!

An amazing weekend, despite the jetlag and overall exhaustion.

I heard Rabbi Gurevich of Lyon, France relate his story, of leaving his pregnant wife in NY as he laid the groundwork for Lubavitch of Lyon. He celebrated his daughter's birth 3500 miles away from mother and baby, returning to NY during the week, to accompany them back to Europe and their future as Shluchim to France.

Upon entering the Rebbe's office prior to departure, the Rebbe reprimanded him for having spent two of the weekends during the past months in locations other than Lyon. "I sent you to Lyon", the Rebbe charged. "If I were the emissary to Lyon, I'd do everything in my power to see to it that another Jewish child and another Jewish child and another Jewish child receives a Jewish education".

"Are you prepared to travel to Lyon, and to do so with joy?" challenged the Rebbe. After Rabbi Gurevich responded in the affirmative, the Rebbe advised him that the French do not appreciate a sour face. "It took three decades for me to understand what the Rebbe meant", but that is another story.

At a banquet with an attendance of 4500, held at Pier 94 on Manhattan’s west side, the atmosphere was electric. Billionaire Lev Leviav related how 100 years ago, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, assigned a small group of emissaries to Samarkand, Uzbekistan. "The group were not very well received, and only managed to recruit ten young students for their fledgling Yeshiva", Leviav said. "It was the foresight of the Rebbe 100 years ago, that enabled me to be present here today talking to this tremendous gathering, and allowing me to impart our rich heritage to my children" he exclaimed, "because one of those ten boys in that Cheder in Samarkand 100 years ago, was my own grandfather".

Rabbi Nechemia Vogel, director of Chabad of Rochester, NY articulated what I consider to be our mission statement. “While other Jewish outreach groups love Jews who they are able to inspire to greater commitment to Torah and Mitzvos, Chabad’s philosophy, as taught to us by the Rebbe, is that we bring every Jew closer to Torah and Mitzvos, simply because we love them!”.

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