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On Jewish Identity

What makes up someone’s Jewish identity? And is this location-specific? Is there a Singaporean Jewish identity – what does it mean to be Jewish here in Singapore? And more widely, is there an Asian Jewish identity as a whole? These were some of the questions that we discussed last weekend in Hong Kong at the Asia Progressive Judaism summit. The UHC were represented by Stefanie and Claudia, our President and Vice-President, and me. The other rabbis from the region – one in Tokyo and two in Hong Kong – were also present, as well as lay leadership from their communities. And three smaller communities were represented: Kehilat Shanghai, Yangon in Myanmar and Kehilat Bnei Hof – our sister community in Bali, Indonesia.

In fact it was in this community that I met Dan – who is visiting us this Shabbat with his friend Sarah – and treating us with such great music. We have some wonderful musicians in this community as well, and led by Gabi they have worked hard to establish the UHC ‘baseline’ – hopefully a shared UHC musical identity that while not every tune may be exactly to everyone’s taste, it is familiar enough to each of us that we are able to sing along and participate, acknowledging that we are a pot pourri community with a mix of different backgrounds and traditions. Last Shabbat in Hong Kong Rabbi Danny Freelander – President of the World Union of Progressive Judaism and himself an expert musician and composer of several classic reform tunes – last Shabbat Danny spoke about how each of us basically want the tunes we know from our first Jewish experiences. If the kids are still singing Bimbam in forty years time – I mean when the kids now are in their 40s – then we should not be surprised. He made an analogy with the Israelites in the desert, not with music but with food. They complain to Moses that their old favourite foods are nowhere to be seen in the desert – even slave gruel, cucumbers, onion and garlic brings on a nostalgia and reminiscence for days gone by. But Rabbi Freelander also stressed the need not to get stuck in Egypt, or in the past, and emphasized how we need to adapt with the times, understand that if each of us gets part of what we want it can be a win for everyone – even if there’s only one tune you like then perhaps that’s enough to keep you in the group, and in time the other songs will grow on you.

As can be with music, so with food – and here at the UHC it’s probably the challah which endures as a crumb of Jewishness in our Shabbat meal here at the Dutch Club – and as with food, so with leadership. Our Torah portion this week is Yitro – named after Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro. A non-Jew, Yitro is not afraid to come in and assess his son-in-law’s leadership. On seeing him sitting and judging all day long, Yitro understands what Moses cannot. Namely, that Moses needs a whole legal structure to be established in order to relieve the administrative burden that has been placed upon him. It’s an important nod to delegation, the idea that individuals with too much on their plate can eventually be a block to effective management. Every rabbi would do well to internalize this lesson but of course it often goes unheeded. And while the adage that you should ask a busy person if you want something to be done has more than a grain of truth to it, it is also clear that effective leadership empowers the system and the community around them.

As a UHC we have entered a period in which each member should look at themselves and ask whether and how they can contribute more to this community. It may not be the right time for some of you, and that’s ok. As Hillel used to say, as recorded in Pirkei Avot: If not you, then who? And if not now, then when? Like Moses with Yitro, as a community we would do well to audit ourselves and assess what we are doing well and what we could do better. One of the important conclusions from the APJ conference last weekend is that each community is a democracy and can shape its own future, and that we must act to shape this ourselves, and not wait for external help that may never come. This is our world and we wait for the Messiah, though he tarry. And in this week of Tu B’shevat let’s remind ourselves that if the Messiah should come while one is busy planting a tree, we should finish planting that tree before running to greet even the Messiah.

What makes someone stand up and be a leader? Often reluctance, and someone else’s shove. So if you don’t want to be a board member, or be on the membership committee, or help with Pesach, or the Purim party before then, or coordinate our Tikkun Olam projects, then maybe give someone else a push, your spouse if you have one or someone you think would do a good job. Like the Israelites at the shore of the sea, stuck between the thundering hooves of Pharaoh’s approaching horsemen and the splashing waves of the sea on the other side, in the end it takes the initiative, the foolhardiness, the hope, for a leader to emerge and take the risk, even the plunge, that will lead the Israelites on the next part of their journey. The Dayenu prayer at the Pesach seder is a wry comment on the number of stages in that journey – just one stage, one miracle, one achievement – would already have been enough, already was enough – and clearly Moses as Jewish leader par excellence to have survived his followers for forty years. Even if you don’t like his policies, it’s quite amazing that Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Israeli Prime Minister – has served almost 12 years in that job – as his predecessor Golda Meir is said once to have quipped to President Nixon: it’s not easy being Prime Minister to six million Prime Ministers.

In a Jewish community we all have an opinion, at least one. Two Jews argue: at least three opinions, as the joke be told. It can be a thankless task marshalling those opinions, and anyone who steps up to a Jewish leadership position is to be respected. Kal vahomer, all the more so, for those who take on the uniquely responsible role of being a Community President. We know that we have been most fortunate as a community to have had Stefanie Green as our UHC President these past four years. She has overseen a period of change and of growth. She took the position on reluctantly when no one else would step up, and has grown in the role to such an extent that she is known far and wide as our leader and leading the UHC has become part of her identity. The kiddish today has been sponsored in her honour, and I am sure there are others among you would similarly like to demonstrate your appreciation of Stefanie’s hard work and commitment, and her many achievements for this community. Andrea will speak on this topic before Kiddush, for now let’s satisfy ourselves with a round of applause for Stefanie.

Stefanie will be a hard act to follow, but follow her someone must. The Leadership Search Committee has been formed and the whole community has been asked to stand up for a whole range of vacant volunteering positions that need now to be filled. One more conclusion from the APJ summit last weekend fills me with hope for the future. The preliminary findings Gen17 survey of Jews in Asia (and please fill it in this weekend if you haven’t done so already) revealed that Jews in Asia are highly educated – even compared with other Jewish regions in the world. Each one of you has leadership qualities that you use in your day jobs – the survey also revealed a very low rate of unemployment. While the demographics show that we – as in the other communities across Asia – lack the silver power, that is to say, the newly retired 60 and 70 somethings who often run shuls – we have no shortage of leaders amongst us – again, think of Golda’s six million Prime Ministers. Here you can be President for 500 Presidents.

May the UHC take time to celebrate our current leadership, may we focus on the things that unite us, and rally behind the new leadership that the new month will bring. May we show wisdom in concentrating on how to build our precious community, and acknowledge that all our efforts are best united behind a common goal. May our discord turn to harmony, and may our ways be ways of peace – shalom.

Shabbat shalom.

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