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Numbers 33:1-10. Jewish Journeys & Connections – Irene Blaston

Did the parasha today take you back to your primary school days? You know, where the first English lesson after the long summer break was always to write something about your holiday and where you went – hopefully we all wrote somewhat more descriptively about the places that we visited than the account we read today!

So, the Israelites were still on a journey, a long journey.  In the Progressive Jewish world, we often talk about people’s individual Jewish journeys and I’ve spoken about mine in the past, those key elements – the people and experiences that have made me want to stay connected, be part of a Jewish community leading to the involvement that I have today, both within the Reform Movement and here at Radlett.

You may already know that I love social history, and have a fascination with Jewish genealogy, tracing interesting ancestors from the Ukraine to central Europe and onto different parts of the UK. It’s  that involvement, connection and continuous curiosity that makes me want to see other communities, especially in older parts of Europe. How did people who had a completely different lifestyle from my own, practice their Judaism?

So, I’m really lucky to have a very understanding husband, who has come to learn that when I say, “You know, I’ve been thinking that I would like to go to such and such a place on holiday” he knows I really mean “there is an old Jewish community there and I want to go look at the synagogue”.

This summer we decided to explore 2 old Jewish communities – Venice & Florence, 2 very different styles.

The Venice Ghetto is commemorating 500 years of existence this year – so old that the word Ghetto infact originated from the Venice Ghetto. We visited the Jewish museum and took a tour around 3 of the synagogues. Each could be described as a very old steibel. Small, beautiful, but not overly showy, looking more like a house from the outside, defiantly surviving. We had a superb guide and were allowed to take photos and could almost see  those orthodox communities of the past. Yes, there was security, but it felt minimal and the ghetto felt like a safe place to be, stepping back in time, with a strange, almost eerie but really comfortable sense of belonging.

Florence was quite different – the synagogue is a large cathedral-size building, that stands proud amongst the landscape. Built in the late 1880s, it was one of the first large synagogues in Europe and curiously the architects didn’t know what to build  – so they drew inspiration from both the Cathedrals and the Mosques, using the best of design from both cultures. The result is stunning. The huge green dome is very useful as a navigation point, especially if you’re staying in an Airbnb apartment on the next block. The building itself is heavily protected by tall metal fencing and whilst they tell you that there is very little anti-Semitism, there is terrorism, so armed guards patrol outside, though to be fair this is true of all of the key buildings, not just Jewish ones. We were not allowed to take in any bags or cameras, which was a shame as I would have loved to have photographed some of that architecture. The building itself definitely had a spiritual feel, but in a completely different way to that of the Venice synagogues, and for me, somehow, it just didn’t feel like a community.

The week after our holiday we were at the Reform Movement biennial conference, Chagigah. Now, that felt like a community, a vibrant community of friends. It was the day after the referendum and there was much support needed and indeed given. This was made even more poignant as it followed the successful conference of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, which had happened a few months earlier, for the first time in London. Both these conferences had,in part, been organised by our very own European Rabbi – Celia, and at both there was a constant buzz, of people discovering how much they had in common.

There were many community leaders all talking about their community journeys, beautifully illustrated at chagigah by a celebratory timeline on the wall, of the highlights in all the various synagogues’ histories and of course of their hopes and aspirations.

It was at a session at Chagigah that I was asked the first of 2 very similar, difficult questions by quite different people in a very short time span.

The first question was in a session being led by the charismatic pentecostal church leader, Bishop Wayne Brown where he asked us how well we really knew ourselves and the members of our community who walk through our doors and he put up a diagram to fill in – it had things like: what are the most significant institutions in your life, what are your central ambitions, what are the defining moments/stories in your life, how do you spend your time, your energy and your money?

Whilst that sounds a bit like a trivial party game, it’s more difficult than it seems. Several people said that they would find it difficult to identify some of it about themselves and most of us  never really get to know others that well, especially members of the community.

It was a co-incidence  when I was asked a similar question,  posed by a Facebook friend, and a truly inspirational woman, Sarit Gafan, some of you may know her mother, Etty who taught at our cheder for many years. Sarit, clearly thinking along the same lines is launching a new charity and she asked me and other supporters to answer the seemingly easy, but infact very difficult question “what makes you come alive?” – she is trying to identify what interests and excites people, in order that she can harness their enthusiasm and use them to help others.

It is only when you put these two together that you start to get a clearer picture of where I believe we are as a community right now. We have grown hugely over the last few years and that means it takes more effort to get to know each other. It might be that the person next to you shares your passion for helping the homeless, the elderly, the toddler group, bridge, running, music, hebrew grammar or whatever, but you just wouldn’t know.

In the coming months we hope to improve the way that we hold information about our members interests, in order that e.g. we can put the person who  wants to start a social action activity in borehamwood in touch with others who might be interested etc  This is in parallel to making it much easier for members to volunteer  for a whole variety of things, via an app on our website.

One of the things we are hoping that someone will volunteer for, is to take on the role of synagogue archivist to make sure that we don’t lose where we have come from as a community as we move forward. A few weeks ago, former member Professor Margaret Harris gave me a pile of old synagogue magazines, they sat on the side, I was just too busy to look at them. This week as I was finishing this sermon, I opened one, the first article I came to was written in 1977 by a member who was describing their holiday to the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, just another serendipitous moment.

I do hope that members will share their passions and interests, whether that be Jewish travel or helping with the monthly lunch club etc so that we can truly begin to connect this diverse community together and perhaps enable someone to take the next step on their Jewish journey.

In the meantime, I certainly love to hear what makes people come alive –  come find me at kiddush and tell me!

Shabbat Shalom

Irene Blaston


Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781