Rosh Hashanah sermon – Harry Grant

The lay sermon that Harry Grant gave to Mosaic Reform on the second day of Rosh Hashana was particularly well received.  If you missed it on the day, you can read it below:

2nd Day Rosh Hashanah, 5779

Why do so many people come to Shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? They were designated the ‘High’ Holydays by our rabbis and forefathers, but in reality, how Holy are the thoughts behind you and me actually being here for these few services?

Some come because they do so every year, without really thinking why. Possibly out of respect for their family traditions. Possibly respecting the memory of their parents, or giving guidance and example to their children. Possibly because they have the day off work or off school. Some come because they reckon that, with some thoughtful study over these few services, they can gain enough goodwill with their Maker to keep them in credit for another year. Others come to remain in contact, getting a buzz from being in a place where they feel at home, seeing friends, some of whom they only see from one Yomtov to the next.

We each have our own motivation for what we do, or indeed do not do at this special time of the year, and that’s ok!

My late father would avoid Shul on Yomtov at any price. He did not like crowds, and reckoned that God had so many people needing to speak to him in that particular week that he would save God a little aggravation, and speak to him if necessary during the other 51 weeks of the year, when God wasn’t so hard pressed.

We’ve had a selection of Torah readings yesterday and today, including fire and brimstone, blind faith, jealousy, women manipulating family situations, the usual stuff for Rosh Hashanah. And its not surprising really, as with a decent crowd in, it was obvious that the Rabbis would choose passages likely to stir up interest and passions. But let’s face it, how many of us actually listen to, and actually absorb the Torah readings that we hear. There are few weekly Torah readings that get a bigger audience than yesterday and today, but do we even remember the readings and their significance.

We’re normally much busier wondering what new fashions people are wearing, or will the service finish soon enough to get to our cousins in time for lunch. The duty on Yomtov appears to be little more than putting in an appearance, and making sure that we have been seen. And there is nothing wrong with that, as the Synagogue started off life being a meeting place, long before it became a house of prayer or of study.

One way or another, we show ourselves to be creatures of habit, doing broadly the same things as we did for many years, as our parents taught us, and as we pass on to our children, tweaking slightly as we get older, but generally remaining within our comfort zone, because that is where, and forgive me for stating the obvious, we feel comfortable.

So, we’re all here and there were many more yesterday, or at least I guessed so, when I wrote this last week, and the one overriding thing bringing us all together is our Community.

Because, whether we are fashion spotting, being noticed, meeting old friends, or maybe even praying, we are all doing so in the comfort of our own Community. Somewhere where we feel a strong sense of belonging and of ownership.

But ownership of what? Do any of us when we come here think ‘Great, I own part of this building’. Well you do, but in reality you don’t. when we looked at getting closer to Kol Chai several years ago, one or two members thought that, with rationalising of premises, there should be a cash pay out to members. Well dream on, because as a charity, the last thing we can do is dish out dividends to members. And even then we cannot do so, so effectively it would not even be the last thing. It can’t be done.

No, our ownership is of something far more valuable than the bricks and mortar within which we are meeting, it is ownership of that very act of meeting, for doing that, wherever we are doing it, is the real value that we get from belonging to our Community. By getting together, we cash in on the value of interaction, praying together, playing together, working together, helping together, being helped together, planning together, arguing together, and hopefully laughing together.

And ‘wherever’ is now the key question that we face. For more than 25 years we have recognised that 39 Bessborough Road is not the ideal location for our home. When first created, Middlesex New gained most of its members from an area shaped like a figure 8, with the Shul at the centre. Many Members historically lived in Wembley, Kenton and Kingsbury, and the Jewish population of Pinner and Northwood was growing rapidly. But few lived within a mile of Bessborough Road. As time passed, the Jewish population south of the Shul dwindled, as north of the Shul grew, but few still lived within close proximity. We have toyed with the idea of moving, but only in the last 7-8 years have we taken the need to move more seriously.

And inevitably any move must be in a north easterly direction, as that direction represents where many of our members now come from, and where the Jewish population is actually growing.

And so we find ourselves at a crossroad in the life of our Community, mirroring the fundamental decisions being made around us as we lurch inexorably towards some form of Brexit, with the challenges, opportunities, threats, and excitement that it brings.

It is said that many Synagogues are organic, living entities, with birth, development and ultimately demise, as they mirror the characteristics of the Community which initially gave rise to their creation.

A good friend, David Jacobs, spent much time studying Jewish Cemeteries, as they gave indications of Jewish Communal life sometime in the past. He found countless old cemeteries interestingly in the coal mining valleys of South Wales, where there is now no evidence of Jewish Communities, but he learned that there had been many in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. This confirms that we Jews are a nomadic lot, rarely settling anywhere for very long. Go back 50 years, and the Jewish Community in Kenton Kingsbury and Wembley was thriving, and Harrow seemed the obvious place to build a Synagogue. But not anymore.

Go back 30 years, and friends in Northwood built a new United Synagogue, as a satellite of the larger and well-established Pinner United. But Northwood has not grown, and few Jews now move into the area. It is only a matter of time before Northwood moves back into Pinner. And that is only if Pinner survives. The demise of the Jewish population in this area is best reflected in the only Kosher butcher shutting shop. While there were petitions galore for him to remain, actions spoke louder than words, and the Jewish population of the area could no longer support his business.

So what do we do about it?

The answer in words is simple. We must pack up our bags and move on. That is really easy to say, but challenging to do.

We have possibly found a new home, and from the 8 or so years that we have been looking seriously, we know that it hasn’t been easy. Even now, when we have found a location which might work for us, there are so very many stages to work through to turn this dream into reality. I won’t list the endless specification details that we are having to address now, even though we haven’t yet even applied for planning permission. We have no idea of how much work a few members are currently putting into this project, going through countless hours of contract negotiations and detailed specifications. They don’t need mentioning by name, they know who they are, and we are deeply indebted to them already, even though their work is far from over.

And remember that, if it becomes a reality, this new home will hopefully be home to three Synagogues, not one.

We won’t all agree on the colour of the sanitary ware in the loos, and there will be endless argument over the right or wrong way of making tea and coffee on Shabbat morning, or even making it at all!

It was good to see 200 or more at the open meeting we held last month, and much has been done since then. We must continue to embrace as many as possible into all aspects of this project, and must be careful to listen to the views of all members, and especially those with the softest voices.

And above all we must remember that the building and the moving are merely physical aspects of our greater responsibility, creating and improving our Community, for the benefit of us all.

Our Chairman Lawrence Chadwick was turning out some old papers recently, and came across the notes of a meeting held back in November 1974. The meeting was held to decide on whether or not to build this very Synagogue. Two quotes from those notes merit repetition: “We must build now. The alternative is never” and “The needs and interests of all those groups likely to use the building would be fully considered. However, it was clearly impossible to meet the legitimate needs of all. Some compromise would have to be reached if we were to achieve success.”

These are indeed interesting times, and I do not allude to Chinese interpretations of that expression. They are exciting, daunting, challenging and tough. With so many hurdles still to jump, we may not succeed, but our endeavours to find a new home will make us stronger, wiser, and an even better Community.


Harry Grant

September 2018



October 10, 2018