Being rabbi for 30 years of a community I love has brought many blessings. Everything I cared about when I started, I care about more now. Far from making me cynical, I have been invited into many situations which have opened my heart and deepened my sense of the presence of God within all life. During this time the congregation has grown, diversified, drawn in much rabbinic and non-rabbinic talent and provided me with headaches, worry, but most of all with inspiration.
I’ve been blessed with a close and happy marriage with Nicky and the opportunity for us to bring up our three children within the community.
I enjoy writing, at once an inner necessity and a creative challenge, and have published a number of books, including The Silence of Dark Water: An Inner Journey; and Walking with the Light, about my pilgrimage from my grandfather’s former shul in Frankfurt along the Rhine and home to England, accompanied by my dog, and bearing a symbolic flame with which to illumine the Ner Tammid of the new synagogue we built in North London.
I care greatly about interfaith work and have many close relationships within both the Christian and Muslim communities.
One of my greatest satisfactions is the synagogue vegetable garden, pastoral not only in the agricultural sense, but also because I often work there together with people struggling with different kinds of illness or challenge. The strawberries, tomatoes and potatoes symbolise everything I’ve been privileged to see grow and develop.
For the last 9 years I’ve been Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism in the UK and President of the RA’s European Region.
I am grateful to my parents, my brother, and my teachers in Judaism, especially to my grandfather Rabbi Dr Georg Salzberger and to Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, and to many others, for the inspiration they have given me.
I am most grateful to my community, The New North London Synagogue, for the trust, kindness and love shown to me, and for enabling me to learn and give and receive.

Concern into blessings

I open the book to which I turn time and again over the years, Kolot Kore’im leZion, Voices Call for Zion. Here are the words of Jews and non-Jews through the centuries of exile from when Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70CE until the early years of the new country, crying out ‘Yet my people lives’.
Here is the poet Yehudah Halevi as he sets sail from the western Mediterranean to follow his heart ‘which is in the east’. ‘Zion’, he asks, ‘aren’t you going to ask about the wellbeing of those imprisoned for your sake?’ a line which 900 years later gave the name ‘prisoners of Zion’ to the Refusenik movement in the USSR. Here is the Jewish Agency in 1942 declaring that the future homeland will give refuge to any and all who escape Nazi occupation.
But few voices are as haunting as that of Jan Karski. A young (non-Jewish) Pole, he was recruited into the Resistance, smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and the death camp Belzec, then sent on false papers through occupied Europe to Britain and America to tell the world what was happening to the Jews. Reflecting years later on why his message went largely unheeded by Allied politicians and Jewish leaders alike, he said that the tragedy of the Jewish People was that it had no state, no internationally recognised political leadership to make itself heard.
We who were born since the establishment of Israel cannot fathom the depth of the difference which the existence of the state has made.
Today, the complex political, social and military issues concerning Israel, and the often ignorant and strident rhetoric with which it is discussed, mean that when we so much as hear the country mentioned our anxiety level often instantly soars. Yet this in itself is a measure of engagement, and there are two kinds of involvement from which, whatever our politics, we cannot and in my view should not be free.
I don’t know whether to call the first love, fellowship, participation or pride. It concerns each and every remarkable facet of Israel’s life: the replanting of forests and restoration of beautiful plants and animals which filled the land in Biblical times (in which I’ve participated with joy); the creation of medical care and facilities for the elderly which rival anywhere in the world; the deep, enduring  courage and skill of generations of Israeli soldiers (which we respect even more deeply with IS, as well as Hamas and Hizbollah, on the borders); democracy and the vibrancy of free and open discourse; the passion for social justice (such as the daily redistribution by Leket Yisrael of tons of otherwise wasted food to the poor); the establishment of outstanding universities; the brilliance of high-tech achievements; the reputation of Israel’s artists, especially in music and literature.
The second is worry, anguish, questioning, fear. It concerns every aspect of the challenges facing the country. How can Israel defend itself in a vicious world? What does that cost in Israeli lives; what does it cost in lives of hapless others? What of the prophetic dream of social and economic justice between different sectors of society, and between all peoples? What of the urgent need for equality of hope and opportunity for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens? What of the consequences of occupation for Palestinians; what of the consequences for Israelis? What of the long term impact on everyone of violence and its rhetoric, angers, wounds and griefs? What of the many in every faith and region who live below the poverty-line with constant food insecurity? What of the future of Israel’s and its neighbours’ beautiful natural environments? What of the future? What of the hope, however distant, for peace?
We care. We worry. My argument is simply that we should and must do both. We are not at liberty not to care, or to fail to turn that care, wherever we live in the world, into active engagement. There is no sphere in which there is not good we can do; possibly no other country in the world has so many avenues to express the ideals of tzedakah and hesed, justice and compassion, both hands-on and from a distance.
I don’t believe that every single Jew must necessarily live in Israel. I believe also in vibrant Jewish communities across the world. I believe in partnership and interaction with people of all faiths and none in the pursuit of universal ideals and the creation of free, open and plural societies. But I do know that wherever we live, our destiny is bound up not just with all humanity and life, but specifically with the Jewish People and that Israel is a central part of this identity and peoplehood. Israel concerns us all, and the more we can turn that concern into blessings, the better.

Courage and might

When the Government of Israel instituted the day for national remembrance of the Holocaust they established it as Yom Hashoah Vehagevurah, a date on which to ponder both the horror and the might. The reference was of course to the strength, tenacity, bravery, defiance and often sheer hopeless courage of resistance. The 27th of the month of Nissan was chosen to mark the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which began on Pesach 1943 when the Nazis once again entered, to deport thousands more Jews to their deaths.

Courage and might take many forms. There is the extraordinary valour of the fighters in Warsaw who, poorly armed and alone except for what limited support the Polish resistance could offer, fought from house to house and sewer to sewer, keeping the well-equipped troops under Juergen Stroop at bay for weeks and succumbing eventually not to defeat in open combat, but to fire, smoke and poison. It was on May 10, after he learnt of the final crushing of the revolt, that Szmul Zygielbojm committed suicide in London to protest the lack of reaction from the Allied governments:

  • I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave. By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.

There are other kinds of courage also. There is the spiritual courage of leaders like Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, who lost his only son and many other members of his family in the German bombardment of Warsaw in the first days of the war. Taken to the ghetto, he determined not to descend into the inner silence of grief but to continue to teach so as to maintain his own spirit and inspire others. Until his death in the autumn of 1943 in a camp in Transnistria, from where he refused to be rescued unless his entire group of friends who had made a pact of mutual allegiance could be saved with him, he never allowed hopelessness to penetrate his heart or lost his faith in God:

  • Experience has made it evident to me that although a person must every moment hope for God’s salvation, nevertheless he should not hang all his hopes on an expectation of immediate salvation…We have come into this world through God’s will, and our continued existence is through His will…Whatever He wills, is good; we are not permitted to carp at His will. 

These words were written on February 28, 1942.

Just a few streets away in the ghetto (though there is no evidence that the two men ever met each other) Janusz Korjak was trying to help the children in the orphanage he ran to maintain faith in the bonds of human contact and love. When offered the promise of personal safety he refused it, walking hand in hand with ‘his’ children to the train which took them all together to Treblinka. These boys and girls had faced sufficient losses and betrayals, he reasoned; he was not going to abandon them now, but rather give his life alongside theirs in the quiet tenacity of loyal love.

Love, too, is a form of courage. One survivor recorded how through all the bitter years of starvation and brutality in camps she repeatedly saw before her the mental image of her parents, exhorting her to live. Only after liberation did she see in her mind’s eye the vision of them departing, although she knew that by all logic they must long earlier have been murdered. Even after their own deaths, their love preserved their child. “‘When you survive’”, said my grandfather to me,’ recalled Roman Halter, ‘not “if’ but “when”, you must tell of what happened to us to the world’. Millions were torn from such staunch family love as parents, children, brother s and sisters were forced apart to different fates. Yet often it remained in the heart, to inspire defiance and hope.

There is the courage, too, of those non-Jews who risked, and often lost, their lives to hide people, children, they often did not know; to give fugitives food, a simple humanitarian act forbidden on pain of death. This summer I shall meet the daughter of the woman who persistently sent parcels to my great-grandmother in Terezin, although she never received confirmation that even a single one of them arrived. The food could not save my great-grandmother, but it did enable others to survive.

We remember all these forms of courage on Yom Hashoah Vehagevurah. The very thought of them humbles us. But they also give us strength, hope and continued faith in humanity so that we can continue in our world the struggle for the values of goodness, kindness and life which they represent.

The core of civilisation

All this week of the beautiful celebration of Pesach, the festival of freedom and of spring, I have also been thinking of the mad and terrible massacre of students at Garissa University in Kenya. Centres of learning are always targets of violent fascist groups, as if they have to defeat thought itself because the very acts of thinking and enquiry challenge them. The Nazis burnt books, then people, as Heinrich Heine had prophesied a century before: ‘Where they burn books, they will also burn people’. At Garissa, Al-Shabaab went straight for the students, gunning them down in their dorms and as they tried to escape, leaving 148 dead.

Over Easter, church services in Kenya were devoted to mourning; the Pope condemned the attack in his pontifical address. We stand in solidarity with the families of the victims.

Over Pesach, we celebrate freedom. There is no direct and specific reference to the freedom to learn, but it is implicit on every page of the Haggadah and in virtually every aspect of Judaism. The Haggadah is structured around the very core and essential acts of learning, the asking of questions and the attempt at answers. ‘At this point the child asks,’ states the Mishnah which governs the procedure of the Passover evening. ‘If people are on their own, they must ask themselves’. The absence of questions is unthinkable. Questioning is at once method and morality; it implies curiosity, the need to probe received notions, to think for oneself, to distinguish between truth and falsehood. That is why not just the Haggadah but the central rabbinic text, the Talmud, is formed around questions: ‘Who says?’ ‘What difference does it make?’ ‘Is that really so?’

Such a process of interrogation is never satisfied by one single, static answer. Within the Haggadah itself there are many attempts to explain the meaning of its story, each one inviting further comment and interpretation. There is also a clear recognition that different kinds of people seek different types of response at varying times. Therefore, ‘the more one talks about the exodus, the more praiseworthy it is’, the more issues will be raised, the more human dilemmas explored. The purpose of the conversation is not, however, simply talk for talk’s sake; behind the discourse lies the determination to engage the moral imagination, to place oneself in the position of another. ‘Every person must see themselves as if they went out of Egypt’: we are not allowed to remain within the comfort of our own skin, in the familiar ambit of received opinions. We are required to be alert to the world as different people experience it to re-sensitise ourselves on a regular basis.

It is precisely these processes, so integral to learning, at the very foundation of the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and truth, which are anathema to tyranny and fanaticism. It is not surprising therefore that their ranks should turn their machine guns on places devoted to scholarship. The attack on the University of Garissa is an assault on learning itself, and on every serious institution of study in the world. The response, as well as heightened security and pursuit of those behind the perpetrators, must be an even deeper and more universal commitment to learning. The sages of the Mishnah declared that the crown of Torah was there for anyone and everyone to take. This was not the whole truth; Judaism had not then, and would not until almost two millennia later, open true opportunities for serious learning to women. Nevertheless, Judaism has heralded a commitment to the broadest access to the process of questioning and study, discourse and debate. This lies at the core of civilisation itself and must be seen as the right and privilege of every human being.

Pesach 4: Reconnection

Something from Law and Tradition: Forming our Identity
The commandment to remember features strongly in Judaism: ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy;’ ‘So that you remember the day of your departure from Egypt all the days of your life’. But memory is never simply recollection; it is rather reconnection, re-commitment. 
Thus at the Seder we don’t just recall the past, but, more importantly, rededicate ourselves to its values.
Judaism honours human beings with the title ‘partner with God in creation’; for example, ‘Whoever judges an issue fairly is counted a partner with God in creation’. Similar can be said of human efforts to feed the hungry, heal the sick or stand up for the cause of the oppressed. We are not entitled to leave it either to God or to other people.
At the Seder and on Pesach this partnership is ratified by our rededication to the causes of freedom, justice, dignity and compassion. There are numerous ways in which we can and should live out this commitment, both within our own people, for the sake of Judaism and Israel, and beyond, as part of the common humanity of all peoples struggling for what is good, right and just. As the great 20th century French Jewish philosopher Immanuel Levinas wrote:
The traumatism of my enslavement in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, that which draws me close to the problems of the wretched of the earth, to all persecuted people…My very uniqueness lies in my responsibility for the other; nobody can relieve me of this…To be free is simply to do what no one else can in my place. To obey the Most High is to be free.
Something from History
 ‘It was a sunny Easter Monday when I flew with my wife and two younger daughters (our eldest daughter travelled directly from Switzerland) to Brussels and then on to London….I shall never forget the moment we landed at Croydon, where two of my former pupils welcomed us.’ Thus wrote my grandfather of his escape from Germany on 9 April, 1939. Reflecting back on his experiences in Dachau in November 1938, he observed that he often thought of those who had shared the wretchedness of that place, but that it was ‘by comparison only a harmless prelude to the terrible fate’ which was to follow. He added that he also often pondered the miracle of the creation of a free and independent Jewish state.
In 1939, 9th April was the 6th day of Pesach. I asked my mother, who was 16 at the time, if she could remember anything about the Seders that year. ‘No’, she replied. Nor does my grandfather make any mention of them in his memoirs. 
When freedom is a matter of life and death, this is all that matters.
Something Practical
 In planning the Seder, find a line from the Haggadah, or a picture, poem or quotation which expresses solidarity with the Jewish People, and a similar passage or picture which shows solidarity with the human spirit. 

Pesach 3: Picture your Pharoah

Something from Law and Tradition: Forming our Identity
The Haggadah is Judaism’s most printed book, with hundreds of editions from the deeply traditional to the Bundist, Zionist, Communist and even vegetarian, to say nothing of what’s available on line. The Haggadah also has also inspired a fascinating range of illustrations (Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s superb Haggadah and History offers rich examples from 600 years.) The Seder may also be Judaism’s best kept ritual, appealing not only to our soul but to our sense of family, history, culture, values and identity. Indeed, its story, in which the Exodus from Egypt is both history and myth, both itself and the spur for countless other narratives and testaments of persecution and survival, is for Judaism the story of all stories. All our lives and values are interwoven with it.
The traditional Haggadah presents the world in terms of ‘them and us’. Not just once but ‘in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us’. Few will be in the mood to dispute the relevance of that statement today. The Haggadah is thus a remarkable testament to Jewish faith, courage, tenacity and hope, attitudes we need now no less than ever.
Yet what about the ‘them’; what of the ‘other’? As Jacques Derrida argues, there is no identity of defining our own identity without also describing our other. We, who have so often been cast as the dominant power’s ‘other’ know perhaps better than anyone the very worst of what that can mean. It’s foolish to deny that there exist cunning and well-armed enemies not only of Jews, but also of freedom everywhere. Painfully, we live with this reality. Therefore all the more so must the task be to make the ‘us’ as broad as we can, and the ‘them’ as few possible. The ‘us’ should include all who struggle against marginalisation, persecution and destruction, and all who fight against cruelty, hatred and indifference for justice, understanding and compassion. We should make this clear in the way we tell our Haggadah.
Something from History 
Two days before Pesach, at 7.21am on March 27 1945, the penultimate V2 of the Second World War struck Hughes Mansions in the East End. Of the 134 people killed, 120 were Jews. Among them were Jonathan Freedland’s grandmother Feige and her sister Rivvy. Only a couple of days earlier Feige had written to children, who were still living outside the city for safety:
I know how much you have been looking forward to Pesach here…But I really think it’s for the best if you stay at school, just until everything is all sorted out….
Among them was also Anthony Rudolf’s second cousin Mark Rothstein. He writes with painful irony:
What a stroke of luck for the Nazis that the V-2, designed for random terror or, in Hitler’s word, “vengeance”, hit so many of their prime enemies. In the words of the traitor Lord Haw-Haw: “Hardest of all, the Luftwaffe will smash Stepney. I know the East End! Those dirty Jews and Cockneys will run like rabbits into their holes.”
That was exactly 70 years ago, – 2 days before Seder night, the same Hebrew date as tomorrow. It’s right to remember.

Something Practical
Pictures can provide a wonderful entrance point into the Seder. They may come from the Haggadah itself; every edition presents a different viewpoint. Or you might make your own choice of pictures as a way of ‘commenting’ on a particular point, or produce drawings yourself. Sharing photocopies of a couple of different illustrations of the same passage can generate fascinating discussion. A wonderful range of materials is available about The Four Children, but this is not the only opportunity. Who, for example, would be your more recent equivalent of the rabbis up all night talking about the Exodus during the Roman persecutions? How would you picture your Pharaoh?

Get in touch...