On the joy of being Jewish
Shmulik woke up one Saturday morning in a bad mood. When he came down to breakfast, his mum told him, “Hurry up, you’re going to be late for shul.” “No, I’m not going today - I don’t want to go any more to the synagogue!”
“Yes you are!” Answered Shmulik’s mother calmly. “No” shouted Shmulik. “You will go to shul today,” his mother replied. “And I’ll give you two reasons. Number one, you’re 40 years old and number two, you’re the rabbi!”
My mother -of blessed memory - liked that joke. Shmulik is my middle name. But thankfully I’ve not had too many days like that working for the UHC in Singapore these past six years. It probably helps, of course, that we don’t have a synagogue, yet another advantage that we remain a shul without walls....
But what would we give to be able to congregate again? Who would have imagined the events of the past few months... the scramble to reinvent ourselves as pioneers of Zoom Judaism, keeping our community life alive through virtual gathering - from a snippet of circumcisions (is that the right collective noun?) to our beautiful first UHC wedding last Sunday - Mazal tov to the Gelmans in Manila! We were all honoured to share in your chuppah. And of course our weekly zoom Shabbats, which I am always gratified to learn have become a highlight, even the highlight, of many of your weeks.
When people ask me why I became a rabbi, I have a few jokes and a range of possible answers. To be honest I’m still trying to figure it out myself. When I’m hungry - invariably the case - I reply that I only became a rabbi for the kiddish. And let’s be honest, there’s probably a large dollop of truth in this, mixed up with some inevitable schmaltz...herring. Growing up, going to shul and sampling the kiddish was clearly a great incentive to get to synagogue - this one my mother would dispute, but it was quite often the best meal of the week. When I first got to Singapore I was in shock at the lack of Jewish food. I was amazed at the ingenuity of our membership. Importing bagels from the US, boutargue and harissa from Paris, meat from Australia, the Israeli community inform each other about incoming shipments of bamba, we even have one member who told me about carrying a brisket with her from New York to Singapore one Pesach. It’s clear that we saw a boom in worship on Saturday mornings when we hit on a winning formula - consisting principally of Rosita’s kiddish. Of course zoom is quite a big downer on this fundamental reason for my profession - and I look forward to the days when we can once again share a kiddish in the future.
I am proud that we increased our rhythm of prayer from one Friday night a month when I arrived, to even ten services a month a year ago, with a weekly Thursday minyan, two or three Fridays a month and, including the odd bar or bat mitzvah, even services most Saturdays. I remember the early attempts to hold Saturday morning services - in our Religious School which met then on Shabbat - when services consisted mostly of me, Yoni and a bemused bar/bat mitzvah class. We have seen a large cultural change. I am proud too that we created a Sunday School within a month of my arrival in Singapore. Having bar or bat mitzvahed more than fifty of our kids since then - each of them in special and moving ceremonies - is the cherry on the cake of the commitment of the UHC community to Jewish education. Actually I am proud of many things - but I’ll mention just one more - and that’s the development of the Asian Progressive Jewish network, which has brought together leadership from all the communities across the region. There is still much work to be done - but I’m happy to have played my part, and in particular to have pulled off the wonderful APJ Summit in January of last year, in which we celebrated the UHC’s 25th birthday with our Rabbi Emeritus Lenny Thal and many friends of the community.
Well man plans and God laughs. You know as well as I do what a difference a week makes, how Shelly and I went from that Saturday night at the American Club to accompanying a 3-month-old Noam to A & E the following Saturday night, and being plunged into an entirely new reality. Der mensch trakht un got Lakht...so for now I’ve resolved rather to laugh as well, and let God do the planning. We will remain ever grateful to everyone - so many people - who have supported us on this roller-coaster. And we are so fortunate that Noam is doing very well, that at 1 and 3/4 he is well on the way to his bar mitzvah, joins in kiddush and other prayers and loves to wish us a joyous shabbat shalom.
So we will see what happens next. That seems to be true not just for our family but becomes now more apparent for everyone, as we wait for the plague to pass and hope for a better future. As many of you know I became an Israeli citizen in March, my son as much as my wife led me here, and now Corona conspires to makes sure I cannot leave. As someone who is fiercely diasporist and has spent the best part of the last twenty years building Jewish communities around the world, I am happy to acknowledge that I can be a ZIonist too, and am very grateful for the great care and treatment that we have received at the time of our emergency. And I encourage you all to consider making aliyah at some point in your lives as well, and come home.
I was glad to learn that I have two successors - it was the same when I left Europe - and wish the Rabbis Wajnberg, Beni and Miriam, every success in their work. I should probably at least make an effort to mention this week’s Torah portion, vaethanan - which features the Ten Commandments - and remind you all that just as important as resting on Shabbat is the commandment to work the other six days of the week. So it is great to see an expanded board and committee structure working hard to deliver the next chapter in the life of the community. Like Moses and Rabbi Akiva - if you remember the story - I often have no idea why they think the way to do - but they do what they think is best and that’s ok. And like in the story of the oven of Akhnai, I feel for dear Rabbi Eliezer who understands that everyone else has it wrong - God laughs - and Halacha follows the majority decision.
I hope that over the years you have understood the jouissance - or joy - that I get out of being Jewish, and even how much fun it has been as the UHC rabbi. I want to thank Stefanie for everything that she did in her Presidency, not just her wonderful support but for some key decisions that she personally made, including of course appointing Alice, whom I cannot praise highly enough, as well as the key to decision to rent the UHC office. We have had a lot of fun together over the years, and that’s true of course of her successors, Yoni and Cary, as well. Shelly will never let me forget my midnight excursion with Yoni to the fish market ahead of Pesach a few years ago. The kitchen in the apartment probably still has fish scales stuck to the ceiling. And with Cary we have a wonderful memory of a boat trip together as well.
I’ve spoken a lot so let me end tonight with one more comment. It’s easy for me to remember when I was offered the job in Singapore, back in February 2014, because it was the same week that Shelly and I got together. And I can only say, that for all my continued love for the members of the UHC, our community and all that we have achieved together, I’m glad that our relationship has outlived and outlasted my job. And we hope that - once this plague passes - that you will come and visit us in Jerusalem, to reminisce and to celebrate together, perhaps to share a kiddish, and enjoy the miracle of our little blonde boy, so full of enthusiasm for life and wishing everyone a joyous shabbat shalom!