I Used to Think that (International Youth Day) – 9 August 2017
Now it’s time for Pause for Thought, I’m Rabbi Jeff Berger of the Rambam Sephardi Synagogue of Elstree & Borehamwood.
It sounds quite foolish at this advanced age, but as a teenager I used to think I’d live forever. Now approaching 60, it’s more realistic to discuss with friends our retirement plans and where we expect to be buried.
My grandmother used to always say that ‘Youth is wasted on the Young’. But adolescence is such a wonderfully optimistic time in one’s life.
In my case, we grew up quickly, were spoiled by our parents and lived hugely self-centred lives, listening to the counter-culture tunes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Cat Stevens and James Taylor, the abstract poetry of Leonard Cohen and the adrenalin-laced sounds of The Boss. Things seemed to change so rapidly in the 70s.
We did our homework in a library, spoke on analogue phones; and were intent on being independent of our parent’s views, yet, paradoxically spent lots of their money.
We were taught to be patriotic and that community counted. Yet it was also the Vietnam War era and older students who were likely to be drafted, openly protested; tragically, some were shot by the National Guard.
Our ambitions were; to find a girl- or a boyfriend, get into a reputable university and find a good-paying job. We were naïve and insular; private schooling, closed communities. Occasionally, our tranquillity was spoiled by a racially-motivated fight with local gangs. But terrorism or even large scale social unrest had yet to penetrate our consciousness.
It was a permissive decade, of non-traditional courses in very traditional universities. The radicalism of our day was anti-Apartheid, anti-Imperialist rhetoric.
None of this appealed to my existential angst or the desire to find a deeper meaning in life. Eventually, having tested many different ideas and ideologies, and still feeling restless, I went off to seek spiritual solace – eventually to discover, that with persistence and effort, immortality does exist – but only for our souls.
My grandmother was a tiny lady who lived well into her 90s. Her own adolescence was quite traumatic having to flee war-torn Eastern Europe and move to the United States in an immigration wave of enormous magnitude. Perhaps her message to us was about appreciating our privileges; and, about taking into consideration how quickly in retrospect time passes.
My Favourite Elvis Song (40th Anniversary) – 16 August 2017
We were too young to appreciate the sex-appeal of Elvis Presley in his prime. By the time I came of age, he’d already been eclipsed by the Beatles and held little appeal.
But Elvis’s music was massively popular and over the years many budding singers would rework renditions of his songs. Always on My Mind, takes me back to an incident I’ll never forget, as long as memory allows.
In the late 1980s, having graduated university with a degree in Finance & Marketing, I set off to live in Japan – the Mecca of international business. There was, as you may already have guessed, a Japanese woman involved – a bright student from a top local university, fluent in English, whom I’d met the previous summer at a month-long international student conference.
Relationships are fraught with misunderstanding, the more compounded by differences in social culture & background. I can’t recall the reason for the argument we’d had on the telephone the previous evening; most likely she was being sensible and I, self-centred.
The following day we were supposed to meet at a public fountain not far from the (Tokyo) Imperial Palace. These were the heavy, humid days of Japanese summer and we’d agreed to meet just before sunset to stroll through the cooler gardens.
It was the era before smartphones. Feeling agitated, I remember arriving early, waiting to continue the argument. But when the appointed hour came and passed, it left me with a feeling of trepidation. Perhaps I’d made of mess of things and she’d never see me again.
A sequence of images quickly flashed across my mind. I’d moved to a completely foreign country, was hardly able to speak the language, and knew virtually no one. What if she’d had enough? Uncannily, at that moment Willie Nelson’s sombre rendition of Always on My Mind came wafting through the air from a nearby kiosk.
It was a protracted and uncomfortable period of self-reflection – before finally, the woman – who would become my wife – arrived. It taught me a profound lesson in ‘appreciation’ that’s lasted 3 decades!
The Time of My Life (Dirty Dancing Turns 30) – 23 August 2017
We have teenagers in the house who are lovely but struggling to make that difficult transition from youth to adulthood; it doesn’t help that they’re ‘preacher’s kids’. Beyond their lack of patience, stress attacks, emotional volatility, moodiness, and all the other challenges that come with adolescence, there’s the struggle to find their own identities without being prodded by the expectations of members of our religious community.
Experts in child-rearing advise parents to concentrate on the unique personality of each child. Our daughter at age one showed incredible determination and wilfulness, getting out of and pushing her pram up to the top of Primrose Hill as we stood in awe watching. When she started school and we walked her from our flat, she’d explore every front garden and staircase for blocks before arriving at nursery. Later, there were ballet and piano lessons, birthday parties and shopping, family holidays together.
Admittedly I’m not the easiest parent to live with, but somehow we manage to keep harmony in our house. So it’s hard to watch a child struggle, to helpfully offer suggestions that are rejected outright, to stand back and refrain from interfering – ready to step-in only in an emergency.
What keeps me going is that I know one day, G-d willing, our children will marry, and we’ll walk them down the aisle to their Marriage Canopy. I expect on that great day, my wife and I and whichever of the children it will be, will have tears in our eyes. Tears of thanksgiving, tears of matriculation, tears of anticipation – each for our own joyous reasons.
Where were you when (Remembering Princess Diana) – 30 August 2017
On 31 August 1997 I was living in New York City on the 28th floor of a high-rise building with views over Manhattan’s Upper West Side, working for a well-known children’s television network. I remember seeing the news of Dianna’s death and feeling sorry. Not understanding the history, my heart simply went out to her and her children.
Diana’s death was a terrible loss – to her family, to the nation and to the many charities she worked with since becoming a Princess. The nation mourned, it was a time of great British sentimentalism which morphed into anger directed at the press and others.
Diana’s funeral is said to have been watched by an estimated 2.5 billion people. Inadvertently, it led to the emergence of online news. But it has taken 20 years for her children to begin speaking-out about their immense grief.
In the Western Sephardi tradition, there was a time when grave stones were embellished with carvings to identify something unique about the deceased. You can see this still in Jewish cemeteries in the Caribbean Islands and elsewhere. The sign for a life tragically cut short was the image of a young tree felled by an axe.
No doubt it is difficult being constantly in the public light. Perhaps this explains the sad end of so many celebrity lives. But we need to ask ourselves to what extent we, the viewers, perpetuate this insatiably vain, superstar culture.
Religion on the other hand prizes modesty and discretion. Famously, the prophet Balaam who tried to curse the Children of Israel during their desert sojourn, instead praised them with the words ‘How Good are Your Tents O Jacob.’ for the way their tent openings faced away from each other, ensured family privacy.
The ultimate lesson from this tragedy is the one Prince Harry has recently so publicly highlighted – not underestimating the need to grieve – and ultimately, the immense importance of looking after our mental health.
First Day of School – 6 September 2017
Undoubtedly, every parent has had the experience taking a child to their first day of school. Like weaning from breastmilk to solid foods, starting school signals the transition of the centrality of home to engagement with the wider world.
The barren Biblical figure Hannah who prayed for a child (Samuel), kept him at home as long as possible, before delivering him to the Temple where he would be raised. Hers, were the difficult but precious moments of learning to let go.
Though children are quite young, they often maintain a memory of their first school experience. Mine must have been around age 4 or 5 going to Nursery. I don’t remember the clothing I wore or the way we travelled from home to school. But the memory of crying when my mother took her hand away, that momentary sense of complete abandonment and fear of the unknown, sticks with me to this day.
A clever teacher took my hand and drew me into a circle with other children; connected, we danced for a while and sang. The sense of movement and music was calming, (and as we’ve seen so often with our children), soon my tears were replaced with joy and laughter. I don’t recall if the same fear accompanied me on Day 2, but I went back every day thereafter, enjoying it.
School is important in our children’s lives. Ideally we want them to learn socialising skills; making friends, learning to be citizens, adopting values of the larger culture and when they’re capable, getting good marks.
Ten years ago, and 40 years since my own experience, we watched the same thing with our children. Though I felt that emotional pull on my heartstrings, of wanting to comfort our children’s fears, experience taught me there was no alternative but to let go.
Though it may seem like much harsher times, people of all faiths and backgrounds have similar 1st day school experiences – worrying about what lies ahead for our children. Like Hannah, praying they will grow up well.
My Favourite Quote – 13 September 2017
One of my roles as a communal rabbi is to teach ancient philosophy and religious works. This summer, a university student in our community asked me to help him deepen his understanding of our tradition. So we met together on a number of occasions to study one-to-one.
We chose Ethics of the Fathers, a text dating back about 1800 years and containing the famous quote from Hillel the Elder – ‘If I’m not for myself who will be, but if I’m only for myself, what am I; and, if not now, when?’
There are 3 parts to this; ‘being for one’s self’ – means confidently pursuing what interests us;, ‘being for others’ – implies not being so self-centred to the exclusion of helping another, and ‘acting now’ – is because there’s no time like the present.
We read this age-old quotation on a very hot sunny day in the afternoon, sitting in the shade and sipping ice water in the back garden. Then he told me a shocking story – that in his first year of Uni one of their flatmates had taken his own life.
There’s no doubt the transition from secondary school to university is a big step forward for young people. But there’s nothing more tragic than someone taking their own life for reasons which seem entirely avoidable. In 2013, Sir Anthony Seldon, head master who introduced happiness training into Wellington College, called for universities to provide better pastoral care.
Suicide is rarely a sudden decision, it usually is the end of a process of emotional isolation. Tragically, it is the second most common cause of death among young people. Some stresses associated with youth suicide include; alcohol & substance abuse, academic pressures and loneliness.
Psychologists now have evidence that human beings are hard-wired to care for each other, and that serving and helping others raises our self-esteem, while being selfish and solitary does not. Experts also inform that anyone of us can help a person in distress by showing them it’s alright to discuss their emotions, and by explaining that life isn’t always perfect.
Pathways to Peace (International Peace Day) – 20 September 2017
For the past 4 years I’ve been involved in Inter-faith work. As a rabbi, it’s important to be in contact with my colleagues via our local faith forum. This year has been harder than previously because of horrific events that occurred in the UK and specifically in London. Too often in synagogue we’ve offered silent prayers for the souls of the departed.
But in June it seemed there weren’t enough words to reassure congregation and public, that we’re living in times that, no matter how bleak they appear, are still far better than the lifestyle of kings and noblemen only 100 to 200 years before.
The former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks points out that our current world view, at the core of Western consciousness, is the belief in Liberty, Fraternity and Equality.
An additional principle that guides me daily is based on the verse in Genesis that G-d created humanity in the Divine image. That, if we make the effort, we can always find the Divine in each other.
In early July in our neighbourhood we joined in the Great Faith Get Together where 60-or so residents participated in an Open House & Walk hosted by 3 faith communities; Christian, Muslim & Jewish. By opening up our Houses of Worship, we allowed ourselves to see the Good in each other and experience the serenity in each of those sacred spaces.
But, more importantly, what we discovered is that despite the significant divergence in our ritual observance and theological beliefs, deep down we each peacefully worship the Divine – and have been doing so for generations. It was a remarkable way to spend a Sunday afternoon!
There’s no way to replicate this experience other than through participation. More and more, such events are occurring throughout the country and gradually we’re all realising that the benefit of establishing friendships and trust with those from backgrounds different than our own, will be more powerful than anything that tries to pull us apart.
Angels in Disguise – 27 September 2017
There is a folk tradition in Judaism that in every generation, the world is sustained by the good works of 36 righteous individuals. Were it not for their presence, humanity might actually destroy itself. The only twiddle is that we have no idea who these 3-dozen hidden personalities are.
Anyone who has lost a loved one at an early age knows the importance of receiving support in times of grief. What most don’t know is that studies show those who’ve suffered such a loss, are more inclined to become great leaders and role models – in part because they understand the importance of compassion & empathy.
My sister-in-law in Atlanta, Georgia has known more than her share of sadness and yet is one of the most amazing people we know. Having lost her father as a child, and then her mother, as an adult, to cancer, she’s not unfamiliar with the lonely corridors of hospitals and hospices. And yet, you couldn’t find anyone more devoted to kindness and charitable causes than she.
Whether it’s for Pancreatic Cancer Research, for a local nursing home or the council, her energies are dedicated to so many people, so unselfishly, it defies the imagination.
While many of us find it frightening and awkward to visit a hospital, Beth sees beyond the obvious into something deeper. She senses the ‘person’ not the patient, feels their anxiety and empathises on instinct, rather than trying to avoid their gaze.
When it came to my mother’s passing in the summer of 2016, Beth was there, organising the care rota, conferring with the nursing staff, and spending hours by Mum’s bedside.
The Bible teaches us that we should ‘do unto others as we would have them do unto us.’ Whether Beth is one of those 36 hidden righteous people or not, the angels must adore my sister-in-law – applauding her for spending her days in more acts of kindness than the rest of us can keep track of.