This weekend marks the celebrations of Shavuot (beginning tonight) and Pentecost, for Jews and Christians, respectively. Synagogues will hold late night study sessions celebrating the gift of the Torah, sessions which I’ve enjoyed in the past (though I’ve never made it past 10 p.m.). Churches will mark the gift of the Holy Spirit to the apostles in Jerusalem, gathered for the harvest festival.
The Holy Spirit is an underrated entry point into Jewish-Christian dialogue. Through most the 20th century, scholars tended to dismiss 1st century Judaism as being devoid of the spirit. Scholars now see it differently – there was huge interest in the spirit within Judaism in the 1st century, and also parallel developments in the wider Graeco-Roman world. And the spirit is also a theme with deep roots in the Hebrew Bible. I appreciate the playfulness of the breath, wind, or spirit of God as it hovers over the waters of chaos in Genesis 1:2, and the breath or spirit of God which renews the spirit of all living things, as in Ps 104:29-30. As I reflect in lockdown, my thoughts turn to the participation in the spirit which the Apostle Paul stressed in his letters. For Paul, who reflected deeply on the experience of Israel sharing and freely giving in the period of their wilderness wandering (as in 1 Corinthians 8:15), the spirit of God was what enabled fellowship and generosity. Jews and Christians will understand the spirit of God differently, but there is much we can learn from one another – perhaps inspired by the playfulness and generosity of the spirit itself.
This week has been busy for CCJ national team, with several events launched on Zoom. The Yad Vashem alumni met to hear testimony from a survivor, and a new Hebrew class began with 25 students. We have also been busy planning a ‘virtual tea party’ for branch chairs and a graduation event for Student Leaders. Our work continues apace.
Tonight I look forward to taking part in Shavuot learning via Zoom. In that spirit of learning and study, you will find much to ponder in this week’s newsletter. Rabbi Charley Baginsky, Director of Strategy and Partnerships for Liberal Judaism, has written a reflection on Shavuot which draws on Ruth and themes of mercy and righteousness in the festival. Our own Senior Programme Manager Rob Thompson reflects on pilgrimage and place in relation to Pentecost. And, of course, we have a cheesecake recipe, too.
Wishing you a restful, joyful, generous and playful weekend,
Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said: “The Giving of the Torah took place in the month of Sivan, but the receiving of the Torah takes place every day.”
The simple festival of Shavuot is an agricultural harvest festival in the Torah. Its association with the giving of the Torah, and definitely with eating lots of cheesecake, came much much later. The Rabbis of Diaspora realised that in Shavuot we had a festival which had no historical event to keep it in the minds of the Jews when the agricultural cycle of the land had lost its significance. So they tied it to the giving of the Torah.
As a congregational rabbi before the days when exciting studying all night programmes were all the rage, as they are now, I definitely noticed that in comparison to the other festivals Shavuot did not get the same numbers. I have often wondered whether it is its association with a moment of revelation that has been a struggle for Progressive Jews. But, as with many Jewish festivals there is a deep agricultural significance to Shavuot and it is tradition to read the book of Ruth.
Rav Yaaqov Medan in his book Hope From the Depths understands the book of Ruth as a text which provides a prototype for how to understand and struggle with a new country’s rules and customs. Medan argues that when Boaz, one of the central characters of the book, asks his field workers who Ruth is, he says: “whose girl is this”? and that here he is checking to see how Ruth is perceived in Jewish society. Their answer is that she is a Moabite girl who arrived from Moab with Naomi. This means that they do not see her as one of their own.
Some commentators see Ruth as misunderstanding the customs of collecting wheat, by her request to collect behind the men. But while Boaz (and Noami) tell her to stick with the women as is the custom, Boaz reassures her that she will be well treated and should stick with him.
When Ruth asks him why he should be so good to her, he explains that he has heard of her generosity and loyalty to Naomi. In other words, while she may have misunderstood some of the customs of his society she has displayed morals and values that he admires. In Boaz we have a man who leads by example and teaches those around him to treat people by their inner value and not by social and tribal prejudices.
This is for me the heart of a connection to Shavuot, to a festival that reminds me that while we may have one day for marking the giving of the Torah, revelation and understanding can be present every day. Shavuot can remind us that the ethic far outweighs the ritual, that we can consistently be people of mercy and righteousness and that is ingrained in us through our history.
A Pentecost Reflection
Senior Programme Manager, Rob Thompson, writes:
‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place’, begins chapter 2 of the Book of Acts. There are two tantalising hints at context in the Pentecost reading which Christians will study this Sunday. Firstly, of course, there is the reference to Pentecost and later we read that at that time ‘there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem’, thus placing this event in a festival period when Jews would undertake pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Secondly, there is the description of the disciples gathering together in one place so that we know who was there. The context of Pentecost has therefore a lot to do with both pilgrimage and place.
Celebrating Pentecost in Lockdown, these two things stand out on a fresh reading of Acts: because both of these things are things we cannot do right now. We cannot go on pilgrimage, and I know of many Jews and Christians whose visits to the Holy Land this year have had to be postponed. And our sense of place has been challenged as our travel has been restricted, as we cannot gather with fellow disciples, and we have been locked down in our own homes.
Prevented from travelling, I’ve been remembering past journeys and it is four years since I first visited Jerusalem on pilgrimage and stood on Mount Zion where traditionally many Christians believe the events of Pentecost took place. The so-called Upper Room, venerated as the site of both the Last Supper and Pentecost is filled with Islamic art from Ottoman Jerusalem and stands next to the traditional site of David’s Tomb. Here is a place which witnesses to shared histories and shared living, reminding us that pilgrims encounter pilgrims of other faiths and that learning from one another and respecting each other’s journeys is an important marker in our own life pilgrimages.
A pandemic has caused us to learn other things, especially about place: that a safe home is a privilege which not all of us have; that there are some places we had taken for granted for which we yearn from the bottom of our hearts; that though church and synagogues may be buildings, they also embody community which no online platform can wholly recreate. Place matters: things happen there, they inspire story, they form the body of our dreams, they represent our hopes, and they can be the meeting space—in prayer and word and song—for communion with one another and with God.
So, whilst I give thanks for the place I call home and the safety it represents, Pentecost is an opportunity to pray for the places of my faith journey—here in the UK and, perhaps, one day too in Jerusalem, places where I hope to one day return, not only to ‘dream dreams’ and ‘see visions’ (as Acts 2 records), but also to play the part to which we are called to change the whole world into a better place for the numberless pilgrims who travel in God’s image and in God’s love.
Pictured: an excavated C1st street leading from the Mount of Olives to Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Picture by Rob Thompson.
Yad Vashem Alumni hear the testimony of Channa Meiri
This week we were honoured to have the opportunity to "meet" Holocaust survivor Channa Meiri via Zoom in a special session for alumni of our Yad Vashem seminars. Channa, whose son Yiftach leads our seminars at Yad Vashem every year, joined our online event from Jerusalem and shared what she knows about the story of her early years. Channa was born in Poland in 1941, raised secretly by a Polish Christian family and adopted by a Jewish family following the end of the Second World War. Channa has never been able to find out the identity of her birth parents. She emmigrated to the State of Israel and grew up on a kibbutz. Channa shared her reflections on the complexity of her identity, family history, and personal story. It was a very moving session, a joy to see Channa and Yiftach together, and over 40 alumni from across the UK were able to ask further questions and reflect together.
Senior Programme Manager
Pictured: Yiftach and Channa Meiri speak to Yad Vashem Alumni via Zoom
Remembering a CCJ seminar at Yad Vashem
Two-and-a-half years ago, thanks to CCJ, I attended a 10-day seminar on the Holocaust at Yad Vashem. The topics were understandably distressing, but we were guided through them with patience and good humour by our teacher, Yiftach Meiri. After a week of intense learning, I think our group hit a kind of despair. There was a powerful sense of collective guilt, not just as Christian clergy (the history of antisemitism had been part of the curriculum), but also simply as humans. So after hearing about yet another atrocity, one of our number spoke up. "Given the right circumstances," he observed gloomily, "I guess we are all capable of such things." I will never forget Yiftach's reply.
"No," he said, "No! This is not so! We are not all capable!" He proceeded to tell us about the Ulma family from Markowa, a rural area in south-east Poland where a comparatively large Jewish community lived and worked alongside their Gentile neighbours.
When the Nazis arrived in Markowa, these neighbours hid their Jewish friends. The Ulma family hid 8 of them. When they were discovered, the German police shot all 8 Jews. And then they shot Józef Ulma, his pregnant wife Wiktoria, and all 6 of their small children. After this terrible thing, others who were sheltering Jews became very scared. Many immediately turned the Jews out of their houses and denounced them to the German police. Some even shot the Jews themselves.
But... and here is the point...many did not! Even after seeing what the Nazis were capable of - a family of 8 wiped out down to the smallest child - many still continued to do the right thing. They kept on sheltering their Jewish friends and neighbours at the most enormous risk to themselves. "And so," said Yiftach - and I remember his passion - "I do not believe that we are all capable of such atrocities. There are many who would not and could not do such things. There are many who will do the right thing no matter what."
Looking back, I am humbled by Yiftach's generosity towards representatives of a faith that has long persecuted his. He gave to us weary students the gift of hope. I am also humbled that a teacher whose specialism is the Holocaust can maintain any kind of faith in humankind. I have since read elsewhere - can't remember where - that 10% of people will do the right thing, no matter what. And 10% of people will choose to do wrong, no matter what. But the other 80% might go either way, depending on the leadership of others. I don't know who came up with these figures, but they make a certain intuitive sense. I recognise myself as part of that 80%. My moral courage fails me all too often. But ever since I heard of the good neighbours of Markowa, I have pondered upon what that means for ministry: how week after week, we are immersing ourselves and our church communities in the love-ethic of Jesus, and grounding all we believe in the practice of worship and prayer and service. So that when the test comes, we might prove faithful.
The Revd Dr Frances Henderson participated in CCJ's annual Yad Vashem seminar for Christian clergy in 2017. She is a Church of Scotland minister in Shetland.
Pictured: Yad Vashem
Sharing Recipes and Building Community
Thank you to Rachel Harris for this recipe for cheesecake, just in time for Shavuot!
1 1/4 tubs of curd cheese
3-4 ozs sugar
2 eggs medium size
1 lemon (juice and zest)
• Place eggs and sugar in a large bowl and beat until very thick and creamy
• In another bowl beat cheese and lemon juice
• Combine the two bowls and beat further
• Place crushed digestive biscuits on base of baking tin
• Add combined filing
• Bake on 160/170 for 35/40 mins until it is firm to touch
• Topping: mixed tub sour cream, sugar and lemon juice
• Smooth over cake and bake for a further 8 minutes
Leave to cool in oven.
Your Window View
Many thanks to Deanna Van der Velde for sending us this photo.
Suburban Newcastle on Tyne. Known as The Moor, this stretch of greenery is owned by the Freemen of the city. From April to October cattle are allowed to roam on it.
Applications open for 2020-21 Campus Leadership Programme
CCJ is recruiting Student Leaders to create interfaith projects which meet the needs of their universities. Through the programme students develop the leadership skills needed to be interfaith leaders at their universities and beyond. This year the programme will begin remotely with online interfaith training in September, and will support students to create interfaith initiatives which respond to new ways of doing university.
For more information on the programme and how to apply, please contact Campus Leadership Manager Katharine Crew
Applications for 2020 Yad Vashem Seminar extended until
The application window for CCJ’s annual seminar at the International School of Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has been extended until 1 June. The seminar—which will take place Monday 12 to Thursday 22 October 2020—is open to ordained Christian clergy and lay church leaders. Now in its 14th year, the seminar is a unique opportunity for church leaders to learn about the Holocaust, pre-war Jewish European life, and post-Holocaust theology from the world’s leading experts. In doing so, participants will become part of our active network of over 250 "alumni" across the UK, committed to passing on Holocaust learning in their churches and communities, championing Christian-Jewish relations, and challenging antisemitism.
For more information on the programme and how to apply, please contact Senior Programme Manager, Rob Thompson, at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the next Birmingham CCJ online meeting focussing on Abraham, Father Allen Morris will explore Christian readings of Genesis 22:
Tuesday 9 June 19.30: ‘Reading Isaac, Seeing Christ’ (Genesis 22) with Father Allen Morris.
Contact the Birmingham Branch for further details.