Words from the Rabbi: Ha’azinu 5780

Shana tova!

I stepped out of our Yom Kippur services last night on a real spiritual high. I had found our service moving and up-lifting. I always love Yom Kippur, but each year, as I look around the congregation and see a mix of new and familiar faces, I’m always freshly moved that so many choose to come to us on Yom Kippur. In a world that offers us so much choice and freedom, it’s a wonder that Yom Kippur still moves the Jewish soul, and that even up to 6pm on Tuesday I was still getting messages from local Jews trying to find somewhere they could call their home.

It was from that high that I fell crashing back to earth, when I switched on my computer and saw the news from Halle, Germany, where it seems that a gunman had tried to break his way into a synagogue before killing and injuring other people nearby. I pray for those who are injured – may God grant them complete healing. I pray for those who are in mourning – may God help them to find comfort. And I pray for the world, that we should finally know a world without senseless hatred and violence.

I want to give my thanks to James Syme and Aaron Green, who literally put themselves on the line keeping us safe. James in particular has been phenomenal at organising our security over the last few years, and I hope you will all be able to join us in expressing our gratitude when we celebrate him as our Chatan Torah on Simchat Torah. I hope that one day the CST won’t be needed to keep us safe, but in the mean time I’m so grateful to our volunteers that work to protect us. Thank you!

Today is World Mental Health Day, and last week, I had the pleasure of attending a Hackney Faith Network event hosted at the Hackney Town Hall, on the topic of Faith and Mental Health, alongside ministers of many other religions in the area. It seems to me that mental health concerns are on the rise, and that our health service, though they are doing a lot, are sadly unable to help everybody, and are often best placed to deal with mental health crises, rather than to help people avoid reaching crisis point in the first place.

I was fascinated to hear from Dr. Kate Miriam Loewenthal that on the whole, religious people have slightly better mental health outcomes than non-religious people, and that this seems to be true regardless of your religion. Studies have shown that more religious people are slightly more likely to be well, to be free from worry, and feel more in control of their lives. Religious practice too seems to help with mental health, tending to lower feelings of distress and lead to better connection with other people and ways of expressing your feelings. You can read more about Dr. Loewenthal.

Nevertheless, it’s clear to me that there is always more we can do to help each ourselves and each other to deal with mental health challenges, and on that basis I was interested to learn about the 5 to Thrive strategy to impact your psychological wellbeing. As described on fivetothrive.net, the 5 steps we can do are: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, and Give, and it is my hope that as a community we can help people to achieve most, if not all, of these goals.

1] Connect

We are healthier when we are connected to other human beings, when there are people that care about us and about whom we care, when we have a support structure of people around us to help us through the rough patches of life. Our shul is one that has always strived to put relationships at the core of everything we do, to reach out to visitors, new members, and old friends, so that everyone feels like they are a part of our community. But this is not something that can be achieved once and for all, but something that has to constantly be worked on and strived for. So next time you’re in shul, make sure you say hello to the people you’re sitting near. Look out for the person at kiddush with no one to talk to. Say hi, and make a connection.

2] Be Active

I confess that we’re probably least good at this one, though after Yom Kippur I certainly feel like I’ve put my body through the wringer!

3] Take Notice

Many of the practices of Judaism can develop our mindfulness. As shabbat times change, we can become aware of the shortening days; as we approach the festivals, we have a chance to tune into the seasons and the world around us; we say blessings before we eat to appreciate the food and recognise its source.

4] Keep Learning

There are many opportunities to learn in our community, from Shabbat morning study to more intense learning opportunities. If you want to learn practical skills, we can help you to work on your Hebrew, or how to lead services, or leyn from the Torah or haftarah. If you want to understand the basics of Judaism, we have a Basic Judaism class that meets on Mondays for 3-4 sessions every couple of months. If you want to push yourself, we have a Talmud class that meets in my house every Tuesday. There are so many opportunities to learn more, and connect with other people as you do so,

5] Give

It’s so important that we aren’t just focussed on ourselves, but can look outward, to other people in the community, in the local area, and in the world beyond. In particular, Marcelle is heading up our new Care Team, and we hope to be better able to support people who are in hospital, or who have just had a baby. Please let us know if you need some support, by emailing Marcelle on care@nsnshul.org . We are also continuing to support the North Hackney Welcome Project, welcoming a Syrian refugee family into the neighbourhood – I mentioned this on Yom Kippur, and I hope to be able to share more details soon of how you can support this family. And you can also give your time to our community – we always need more volunteers, whether its to help set up the shul, or to buy the kiddush or one of thousands of other jobs, there is space for you to give to our Shul as well.

Yom Kippur can be a hard time for those with mental health challenges. It can feel like we spend the whole day recounting our own faults over and over again, beating ourselves up over our failings and shortcomings. It therefore seems fitting that the day after Yom Kippur should be World Mental Health day, and I hope that you can find the forgiveness in your heart, not just for other people, but for yourself as well. Then we can all begin our year with a fresh lightness of soul.

And if you find yourself needing a bit of extra support, or would like a shoulder to cry on, or someone to listen. Please reach out to me sooner rather than later. This is my email address, and my phone number is below.

Shabbat shalom, and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Roni