By Rabbi Jason Holtz
Delivered on Shabbat morning, 8 November 2014, on the occasion of Bromley Reform Synagogue’s Golden Jubilee
We are still a bit away from reading about my favourite person in the Torah, Joseph. It will be several more weeks until we get to him. But, I can’t see any harm in telling you a bit about Joseph. Joseph was a dreamer. Things started off difficult for him. When he was a teenager, for many reasons, Joseph’s brothers disliked him a great deal and one thing led to another and before he knew it, Joseph was sold off into slavery in Egypt. While a slave, things continued to go poorly for him and he ended up in prison. When Joseph was in prison though, he met two former servants of the pharaoh and helped them to figure out their own dreams. One of these servants was eventually released from prison and returned to working for the pharaoh. When the pharaoh had dreams of his own, he asked for help, and the servant who had met Joseph in prison told the pharaoh of Joseph. The pharaoh summoned Joseph and told him his of his dreams. Joseph quickly interpreted the dreams. Each dream had the same message. There would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. After a brief conversation, Joseph quickly found himself second in power to the Pharaoh, ruling over Egypt. Joseph took Pharaoh’s dream, crafted it into a vision for Egypt’s future and then shepherded Egypt through times both good and bad with great success. We can learn a lot about dreams from the story of Joseph.
- Dreams are important. How so? Because sometimes a dream is not just a dream, it’s a chazon, a vision of the future. King Solomon once said, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Pharaoh had a dream, and Joseph turned it into a vision. Without that vision, the people of Egypt would have perished in the famine.
- It’s important to have shared dreams and a common vision for the future. When Joseph was a teenager, he had dreams that his family would bow down to him and serve him. It created animosity and led to him being sold into slavery and his father thinking that he died. His teenage dreams were self-aggrandizing. As an adult, Joseph’s dreams were not just his own. He helped to interpret and realise the dreams of someone else, Pharaoh, for the benefit of all the people, not just himself. Dreams and visions are important, but they need to be positive and for the greater good. We learn this too, not just from Joseph’s example, but from the next part of King Solomon’s teaching. Remember how he began by saying, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The next part says, “Those who keep the Torah, though, are happy.” Joseph said to Pharaoh that it was not him to thank, but God. While Joseph did his part, he credited God, and acted l’sheim shamayim, for the right reasons, for the benefit of the greater community.
- Shared dreams aren’t enough. Hard work is important too. It took Joseph years of hard work, with all of Egypt contributing, to get through the famine. No one can achieve what Joseph achieved alone.
Dreams like this aren’t limited to Joseph. Let me tell you just a few parts of someone else’s dream—the dream, the vision of the founders’ to build a synagogue in Bromley. Their vision for the synagogue created vibrant Jewish life here. They brought Torah, and I’m very happy to say, we did not perish! If I could adapt a saying from Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, “Im tirtzu ein zo aggadah, lihiyot beit k’nesset b’artzeinu b’eretz Bromley, b’South East London. – If you will it, it is no dream, to be a synagogue in our land, in the land of Bromley, in South East London.”
So how does the story go? Well, thanks to some of the founding members who have shared stories with me, and most especially to Barbara Kurtz, the author of the official history of our synagogue, I can tell you a bit.
Back in the early 1960s, a number of Jewish parents would schlep their children every Sunday up to West London synagogue for cheder. Some adults would stay for courses, there, as well. In fact, so many families were going up to West London Synagogue that the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain began to take note. An advert was placed in the JC that anyone who wanted to establish a Reform cheder in South East London was invited to a meeting at the home of John and Joan Fry. No one is entirely sure how many people showed up to that meeting. Some say it was as few as 40. Others say it was as many as 80. Rabbi Dr van der Zyl came to speak, and soon it was apparent that those who showed up at the meeting wanted not only to establish a cheder in South East London, but a synagogue. Mervin Elliott agreed to chair a steering committee. The committee met for the first time on 6 August 1964 and not long after, the first Shabbat service was held on 7 November 1964 with approximately 200 people in attendance. A bit more than a year after that first service, our synagogue officially had 88 families, about 300 people in total, who were members of the synagogue. Cheder enrolment at the time was at 75 students, and annual subs were an enormous £16 per member.
Since coming to Bromley a bit more than a year ago, one thing is very obvious to me and we can be incredibly proud of it. Our members are very hands on. We are a DIY shul. The members built our synagogue from the ground up. We are here because we want to be and we worked hard—most especially the founders. Back in 1990, founding member Sid Grant wrote:
It must be difficult for newer members to visualise what confronted the task force of voluntary would-be builders, with few skills, but a fanatical dedication to turn a block of four flats into the building you have today. Ivor Lask, Philip Michaelis and I (Sid Grant) became joint foremen as well as consultant architects. I shouldn’t mention names. Because almost every member at the time did some labouring, painting, electrical work and plumbing…Nobody felt it was beneath their dignity to lend a hand and give up business time.
Our members have not only given their time and talents to the building, but to all parts of synagogue life. Even before we had our first full-time rabbi, lay-readers ensured that a Shabbat service was never missed. Sidney Chaytow was the first member to take a service, but was followed soon after by Mervin Elliott, Sid Grant, Ivor Lask, Philip Michaelis, Manfred Bernstein, Arthur Klinger, Michael Fisher, and a very young Tina Elliott. We were a full-service synagogue almost right away. As Cantor Jacobs is with us this morning, I should say that one of the very first Bat Mitzvahs that we celebrated in the synagogue was her mother, Debra Garrett, now Debra Jacobs.
According to the stories that Barbara Kurtz has compiled, I think I found out at least one reason of what drew people to services. It was the Kiddush afterwards, particularly Fanny Lederman’s home-made biscuits and cake. At the time, Laura Mittelman, then Laura Lask, wrote:
Every Saturday…my mummy, Hugh and me go to Shool at the Village Hall. Usually there are not very many people at Shool, so the children do jobs that the grown-ups have to do, like opening the Ark and saying the Haftorah and dressing the scroll, saying the Shema and the blessings over the wine and bread. When we put the scroll back into the Ark all the children go onto the bima and say, ‘Dwell O Lord among thy people…’ That is on page 30. Mr Michaelis always gets the announcements mixed up. After that we sing Ein Keloheinu and Adon Olam and say the Kaddish. Then we go to the other end of the hall and have Kiddush. I like that bit best because there is always nice cake, orange juice and wine.
Barbara Kurtz wrote in her history of the synagogue, “Perhaps the greatest testament to the success of the Beit T’fillah can be found in Bromley’s ‘home-grown’ rabbis, Helen Freeman and Nathan Alfred. They are joined by Rabbis Larry Becker, Kate Briggs and Hadassah Davis.” Perhaps we can have just a little credit, too, for Cantor Jacobs, as your family has a bit of a history with our synagogue?
When I was inducted as the rabbi of this synagogue, not very long ago, I shared these words with you:
The members of this synagogue took many chances on creating, growing and nurturing Jewish life in South East London for the past fifty years. They—you—invested your time, energy, and love into this place, hoping and dreaming that it will be turn out to be meaningful and successful. And look at what a place we now have.
This synagogue has every reason to be proud of its history. This year marks our Golden Jubilee, fifty years as a congregation. Over that time, with the leadership of Rabbi David Freeman, Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild and Rabbi Tony Hammond…as well as countless lay leaders, this synagogue is now flourishing in many ways. Some who are here built this place to be what it is now. Others of you, like me, are inheriting it. To the synagogues founders, to its leaders, both past and present, I say thank you.
Our job now is twofold. First and foremost, we have to continue to work to realise the ever-continuing dream that started our synagogue in the first place: the vision of strong, progressive Jewish life in South East London. That vision led our founders to build a synagogue community where we come together for moving prayer, it led our founders to create a learning programme for both children and adults that inspires and transforms, and it led our founders to create a community based on the deep bonds of caring for one another. The vision of the founders belongs to all of us now. We accept their vision with both pride and humility. As we do that though, there is one more thing. We must also follow the example that the founders set for us: to think big, to act daringly and to work hard. I look forward to doing that with all of you.