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High Holy Days message from Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

“Show respect to the aged; honour the presence of an elder; fear your God. I am God” (Leviticus 19:32)

מפני שיבה תקום והדרת פני זקן ויראת מאלהיך אני יהוה

Rabbi Laura Janner-KlausnerThis coming year, 5777, in a partnership of synagogues, lay leaders, clergy and the team at Reform Judaism, we are shifting our focus to all ages and life stages. The jewel in our crown is in many ways, our emphasis on youth. We have the largest youth movement in the Jewish community – RSY-Netzer, with 1,000 young people taking part in activities this summer. This is brilliant but now is the time to redress an imbalance and to focus on all ages.

Many in our communities are worried about how we can respond to the social and physical needs of our older members, respecting, nourishing and responding to each other properly. We have a population that has a growing number of people living independently and on the whole, we are living longer. A quarter of our members are over the age of 70.

Many of our older members have time and energy and would love to be more involved in our communities. Those are the members we see – especially if they volunteer and are active in synagogue life – but the often unseen need for many members of our communities is a response to their isolation and loneliness.

They are our founding generation. Isolation and loneliness are the very opposite of what our synagogues are about and so our communities have identified this as a vital and pressing concern. Adult social care concerns affect so many of us – older people; their children and grandchildren; carers and the cared for.

One of the initiatives launched at our biennial – Chagigah (celebration) in July, was dedicated to adult social care. One practical and potentially immensely impactful idea emerged. It pinpoints the feeling, and reality for many, of being cut off from the world, being unable to come to synagogue, go shopping, connect with the world outside and socialise with others due to physical or emotional restrictions.

The project we are launching in 5777 addresses our core values of honouring our elderly or those who are physically restricted at any age by fundraising in partnership with our synagogues for two wheelchair accessible minibuses to cover all of our UK communities. They will provide essential access to those who are most vulnerable, enabling them to maintain their Jewish way of living and alleviate their sense of isolation.

These minibuses are a fabulous and practical means to fulfil the mitzvah of respecting the aged.

The 12th Century French commentator, Rashi teaches that there should not be such thing as defining a person by their age – merely as “an older person”. Instead, we should refer to those who have acquired wisdom. He adds that the honourable way to treat older people (and I would say everyone of every age) is that we don’t usurp their place in society, nor their ideas, or speak instead of them. We should not interrupt when it might take longer to express themselves or be patronising about what other people think or need.

Rashi continues his explanation of the Torah verse above stating that often people do not really see each other. It is our role, our mitzvah, our duty, to make anyone who may be invisible to be visible. Those involved in our adult social care initiative highlighted our many members who are physically restricted and cannot come to synagogue which exacerbates feelings of loneliness and isolation. Rashi compares this to a person consciously closing their eyes to others, shutting people out of their heart. He draws a fascinating parallel to our relationship with God. Disrespecting those who we might prefer not to see, or are just not conscious of, is equal to disrespecting God.

I believe that the meaning of why we live and should live is to partner God in the repair of the world. This is not an abstract theological claim – it is practical. This can be measured, whether by a phone call, a visit or even by enabling our members to come to synagogue with two national Reform Movement minibuses!

Shanah tovah u’metukah. שנה טובה ומתוקה

May we all have a good and sweet New Year.

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