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Sermons and Thoughts

Celebrating 60 Years and Being the Ark

11 May 2024
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Civic Service Celebrating 60th Anniversary

Parashat Kedoshim, Shabbat morning, The Ark Synagogue 5784

Eitz chayim hi la-machasikim ba v’tomcheha m’ushar – it is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it, and all who cling to it find happiness.

These words, engraved above our beautiful ark, encapsulate perfectly the essence of our community. Throughout the past 60 years, this congregation has indeed been an Eitz Chayim – a tree of life – to its members and all those who entered our sanctuary in person or through the marvels of technology. And so it is still most fitting that the Hebrew name of our synagogue is Eitz Chayim –tree of life. In addition to the inscription above our ark, the imagery of the tree can be seen around the synagogue and at the centre of the ark itself and for much of our history was also reflected in the logo of the Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, as we were lovingly but not so snappily called for more than half a decade.
Yet, it was the experience of the Covid lockdowns and the forced isolation, which prevented us from gathering in person in our sanctuary, that triggered us to reflect that we had become more than a tree – we had become an ark.

From the very first day of lockdown, our community made the bold decision that what we would experience through the period of the pandemic would not just be second best. It would be a time of experimentation, learning, and growth so that we would emerge even stronger.
As Rabbi Aaron reflected in his sermon in October 2020, and I paraphrase slightly:

“We are Jews. We know about survival, about having to survive, not knowing how, just the fact that some have and others have not. … Perhaps understanding the fragility of life, of our mortality, we are a People that places the importance of life above everything.

[Noah’s] Ark may have begun as a vessel that allowed for survival; but in holding its load, it was transformed into a life-sustainer. The ark becomes a vessel, a platform of potentiality, an opportunity to imbue life with meaning and purpose, hope and joy.”

We celebrate with great pride the legacy that the founders of this synagogue have passed on to us. Watching with nostalgia some of the recordings of services of our community from long before I joined this congregation more than a decade ago, I was struck by how familiar it all was, how little had really changed.

As the saying goes, there is no need to reinvent the wheel, and yet, the kind of wheels you really want are changing and depend on what you are trying to achieve. Just like our cars are radically different to the cars from sixty years ago, so too has our community evolved.

Becoming The Ark Synagogue was not just an act of adopting a new name and logo but rather, it allowed us to reflect deeply on our core values, on what it is that makes our community truly remarkable. It is because we focus on the personal, because we are caring and by placing belonging at the heart of what it means to be a Jewish community that we can be both bold and, at the same time, true to our Liberal Jewish traditions.

Lily Montague, one of the three M’s who are credited with the founding of Liberal Judaism, realised more than 120 years ago: Judaism is a lived religion that must be experienced. She realised that if individuals were denied access to experiencing Judaism, they would eventually lose their faith. Rather than ignoring the realities faced by so many, Lily cared to notice, creating worship opportunities for those who were denied access to existing services due to their Shabbat work commitments. But just as our Torah portion reminded us that alongside a spiritual commitment, it is the centrality of the ethical commandments that allows us to bring God’s holiness into our lives.

And so, Lily’s emphasis on Judaism as experience did not end with services, her social work and devotion to helping others were all expressions of her Judaism.

Inspired by Lily and generations of Liberal Jews after her, we continue to place value-rich Jewish experience at the heart of what we do; because we believe that this is the only way to create commitment, relevance and emotional engagement, whether we share these experiences in person or online, within the walls of our beautiful synagogue or unrestricted by geography extending our community into homes all across the globe.

As a community, we show up – for each other, for the wider Jewish community in the UK, for our siblings in Ukraine and Israel and for the Czech and Slovak communities tied to us through the legacies of their Torah scrolls. And we show up in civic society.

it is with great pride that I want to just take a moment to acknowledge those members in our community who show up. There are too many of you to name each of you but I invite you to rise and then remain standing if one of the following applies to you: you are or have been a volunteer in our synagogue or another communal organisation, a charity trustee, a school governor, a teacher, nurse, dentist, doctor, police officer, magistrate, civil servant, ambassador, local councillor, member of Parliament, member of the house of Lords, or even the Lord Lieutenant.

And if you have or are taking on the mantle of civic leadership in a role that I have forgotten to mention, please rise as well. And if you are standing right now in front of your TV or computer screen, give us a quick shout out in the chat by posting where you are joining from!

As we celebrate our 60th anniversary with today’s civic service, let us take a moment to look around, to shlep naches, to take pride in the contribution that so many of us make to the society in which we live. Thank you for your service – and you may be seated!

Today we reflect on the past 60 years, as we recall those who have led before us, may we be stirred to meet the duties that lie ahead with renewed vigour. And may we feel God’s blessing always for the sacred work of showing up.

As we gather today here in the Ark Synagogue, may our community be a vessel sturdy enough to carry us on the journey toward the next sixty years. Together may we always aim towards a destination that promises justice and peace, tranquillity and joy, hope and fulfilment.

Whether we sail through smooth waters or navigate stormy seas, whether we come together for joyous celebrations or solemn remembrance and contemplation, by showing up for each other as a community, may the Ark always be a symbol of continuity, hope and assurance, but above all, may it be a space of belonging, sharing of personal stories and Jewish experiences, with a balanced dose of boldness and care, a source of happiness and with the power to provide meaning to our lives and the satisfaction of our needs.

Ken yehi ratzon – For that is indeed God’s will.