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You are here: about - Rabbi Wittenberg's address at the Dedication of Belsize Square Synagogue

Rabbi Wittenberg's address at 
The Dedication of the Belsize Square Synagogue

25 Tishrei 5771
3 October 2010
Sacred Community, Rabbi Mariner, Worshipful Mayor, Rabbis, Honoured Guest,
It is an honour, a joy and a privilege to be invited to speak words of Torah, blessing and greeting here today. To build a new synagogue, a new place for people and God to meet and discover one another, is always a great achievement, but for this congregation it is even more so than for most. I have three wishes for you, which I share for my own community: that we should love our new home, that it should frequently be in a mess and that we are never able to agree that the work is finished. But let me come to that wish list later.
This community has a unique and deeply important identity. Its beginnings lie in the raw hearts of refugees, a remnant of great continental congregations, who left everything behind, grateful to find shelter in this country with their lives and, if they were fortunate, with some at least of their loved ones. It grew out of the need for comfort, for the companionship, when so much had been lost, of familiar prayers and melodies, for words of Torah spoken in German and a place for exiles to meet and help each other to create a new home. No doubt that was what led my grandfather Rabbi Dr Salzberger to chose the words from Isaiah read on the Sabbath of consolation: ‘the word of our God endures forever’ which still remain inscribed at the base of the doors to the ark. Over the decades this congregation has journeyed, under the guidance of Rabbi Kokotek and Rabbi Mariner, from survival to renewal and to great creativity, with a strong spirit of music, celebration, joy and humour. It stands in this country as an inspiration to other groups of refugees, struggling to build a new home here and make a contribution to this country.
Because of this history, every act of building, whether in cement and bricks, in bonds between people or in ideas or celebration, is a spiritual victory over the Nazi devastation of Europe, over the 9th of November 1938, on which the synagogues from which so many of the founding families came were smashed and burnt, and over the years of intensifying persecution which preceded and followed them with ever increasing cruelty.
There is a remarkable parallel between this autumn of 2010 and that of 1950, sixty years ago. On the sixth of September of that year my grandfather was among the rabbis presiding at the rededication of the Westend-Synagogue in Frankfurt-am-Main, where he had served for almost thirty years until he fled here with the family. On the 18th November of the same year he led the dedication of this synagogue’s first building, the vicarage at 51 Belsize Square. I remember as a teenage seeing an old letter, for some reason left lying on his desk: it was a request to this community that, following the Biblical tradition of the half shekel, everyone should contribute exactly one pound, no more and no less. (No doubt that same sum also sufficed for the construction of this new sanctuary as well).
As it happens, three weeks from today the Westend-Synagogue will be celebrating its centennial. To my joy, I have been offered the privilege of speaking at that occasion. There is a very special verse around the Ner Tammid there, the Eternal Lamp, from which I will be taking a symbolic flame with which to walk back along the Rhine and light the Ner Tammid of my congregation’s new home. It reads: לא אמות כי אחיה ואספר מעשי י"ה
‘I shall not die, but I shall live, and tell of the works of the Lord’. How moved I was when I read those words for the first time. I think of them now, when once again a dedication here and rededication there come together within weeks. This is what the words mean: ‘In defiance of destruction, despite what hatred can do in the world, and although we have been through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall live and love life and sing of our unvanquished faith in life before our God.’ That, too, is what this building signifies and there is no doubt that it will always be full of song.
Moving now from the past to the present, I begged to learn something of the process through which this new sanctuary was created. I struggle to believe what I have discovered! The entire task has been accomplished in scarcely more than one single year – ‘instant property development’, as I was told. (My shul has been working on its building for a mere fifteen years!) ‘We took three tired and constricted spaces’, said Jonathan Joseph, and turned them into one. I would have thought that ‘three in one’ was more of a feat for the church next door, but I guess this was once a vicarage! The new sanctuary was ready for the High Holydays, so that everyone could be at home and together on the days when one most wants to be home and together. It’s got wonderful facilities for the disabled with, I read, ‘splendid new toilets’, always a talking point at community meetings. The care taken to be compliant with the latest disability access legislation moves me. Two comments have kept alive my motivation through the long years of struggling for planning permission in my community. The father of a child with special needs said to me, ‘As soon as that new building is ready we’ll be able to bring our little boy to synagogue’, and an elderly lady who loves the services but has very limited mobility told me, ‘I’ll be able to join you once again; I’ll be there the second I can’. Every detail of what has been achieved here, the bathrooms, the doorways, the lift for wheelchairs up to the bimah, is part of what the words ‘sacred community’ mean: inclusive community in which the dignity of every single person is acknowledged.  חסד יבנה עולם  ‘The world is built on loving kindness’, says the Psalm. This synagogue is built on Hesed.
I have three wishes for our communities: that we should love your new homes, that they should frequently be in a mess and that we are never able to agree that the work has been finished.
I hope we love our home because it fills everyone with inspiration, because here prayer, music and Torah expand the heart and restore the soul, touching life with beauty and grace. I hope we love this place because here we find one another, share life, listen to each other, cry without fear of humiliation, sing, play with children, laugh and tell wicked, but clean, non-racist and politically correct jokes. As the Torah teaches, synagogues are created by those whose hearts prompts them to give, a condition essential for raising the necessary funds, but which the Hasidic teacher Rebbe Avraham of Slonim understood on the deeper level as meaning ‘anyone who gives his or her heart’. I hope our synagogues and communities will be places where love prompts us to give of our hearts.
I hope this place is often a mess, because anywhere which is always tidy isn’t lived in properly. I remember one afternoon when the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey came with his wife to visit our shul. I was given virtually no notice, the place was a tip and there was not even time so much as to sweep the floor. ‘Crisps on the carpet’ were the archbishop’s first word, ‘That’s good; it shows that there are children here’. May there always be the remnants of crisps on the floor and random collections of baby’s slippers, children’s socks and books like Meg and Mog and Paddington comes to Shul (it’s about time he did!) in among the tallitot and prayer books.
Lastly, may this project never be completed. I’m not thinking of such irritations as running out of funds or a fire alarm with a tedious but incurable habit of going off halfway through services. Rather, the Torah says ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם ‘make me a sanctuary and I shall dwell in the midst of them [the community]’. So long as we are busy doing, making, planning and creating, God will surely be in the midst of us. May our congregations - we are all in the end part of one big community – be beset with too many good ideas, more projects than can ever be accomplished, more plans for study and learning than we can ever sit down to fulfil, and more music than we can ever sing, as the verse on the top of the ark here reads
את ה' בשמחה באו לפניו ברננה עבדו
Serve the Lord in joy, come before God with singing