“Our lives are fashioned by our choices…” I thought this was a particularly apt quotation from Anne Frank as we begin Yom Kippur.  On Kol Nidre – translated as “All Vows” - we seek absolution for all the sins and wrongdoings we have committed during the previous year.  The choices we make will define our lives in the coming year.

Yom Kippur is a time for intense personal reflection, to consider individually the mistakes we have made, the wrongdoings we have committed and how we could have done better.  In my professional life, when I coach people, I encourage them not to dwell only on their shortcomings but also to reflect on their achievements and successes.  Repeating the activities and behaviours that worked well for them, focussing on the positives, will – in theory – lead to a virtuous circle of personal growth and increased success.

Applying the same approach on Yom Kippur, reflecting on the good deeds and the sins, where we did well as well as when we fell short, may – I suggest – have a similarly powerful impact on us as we try to be better people in the year to come. Now, I’d like to extend this idea further and consider how we reflect on our performance during the past year as a community, not just as individuals.

Ten days I ago, some of you will have heard my brief D’var Torah on the weekly parashah of Nitzarim.  A particularly interesting portion, it deals with the Israelites address by Moses before they enter the promised land, and it is relevant to this time of year as one of the principal messages is that the people must follow God’s commandments if they are to survive and flourish.  And so, in reiterating this covenant between God and the Children of Israel, the tone is set for the ten days of penitence.

The key message I took from Nitzavim, that I talked about in the D’var Torah, was the unity of Israel.   Moses tells the people,

“You stand today, all of you, before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, and every Israelite man; your young ones, your wives, the stranger in your gate; from your wood-hewer to your water-drawer.”

When Moses delivers his final sermon to the people – the community of Israel – he speaks to them all, not as individuals, but together.  All of them, irrespective of status and rank.  But the text goes even further. Moses says

“I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us on this day before the Eternal our God and with those not with us here on this day.”

In other words, the duties of Klal Yisrael – the community of Israel – apply to everyone, those standing together and those who are absent.  And this is interpreted by some scholars to mean that it applies to all future generations as well.

We come to shul on Yom Kippur or stream the services on the internet in our new hybrid world, to reflect on our deeds during the past year and to pray for forgiveness.   Or to resolve to do better. And, as we learn from Nitzavim, we should do so not just as individuals, but also as a community.  Those that are here and those that aren’t. The community as one, in the same way that Moses regarded the Children of Israel.

There is no doubt that the past year has been one of the most challenging we have ever faced as a community.  The Covid 19 pandemic and its impact on us as individuals, and as a community, have been unprecedented.  The shul itself – the centre of our community - was closed for 15 months, and no in-person events took place as we were all prevented from any form of social interaction.

Whilst it has been undoubtedly challenging for us all, on reflection, I think there is a huge amount that we have achieved of which we can be immensely proud.  There are many positives from which we can draw strength. We moved all of our religious services online and through the effort and skill of our dedicated technology team, we have become recognised leaders in the provision of online services, using innovation to enable high quality transmission, a comprehensive reach and extensive community participation.

Education and social events have also moved onto zoom and have enabled the continued interaction of the community. Enormous efforts have also been made through community outreach to connect members with each other and to support the more vulnerable members of the community.

And as the world has taken tentative steps to reopen gradually in the past few months, enormous efforts by many have enabled in-person services to restart and groups to be re-established.  And in the absence of a rabbi, members of the community have stepped forward to lead services and important life-cycle events.

These are amazing achievements and as we reflect on Yom Kippur, we should be proud of them and commit ourselves to do even more in the coming year.

But as we reflect as a community, we also know – if we are honest – that there are areas in which we have fallen short.  Tensions have at times run high and tempers have, on occasion, flared over different views concerning matters that are important to the community. These are genuine deeply held views and it is a positive feature of Sinai that people feel so passionately about how it should be run and developed for the future. I love a broiges as much as the next person and – let’s be honest - it’s part of what makes us Jewish. Disagreement and debate are part of what it is to be a Jewish community.  But – I suggest - we need to learn to do it in a way that is respectful of each other’s views, in a way that doesn’t divide, but creates bridges.  As we say on Owlstalk – my football supporters’ chat site of choice – debate the post, not the poster.

If we are to heal the divisions in our community, we need to reflect, learn from our mistakes and resolve to do better. And Yom Kippur, is the ideal time for us to do that, as a community.

One of the things that I enjoy most about coming to shul on the High Holidays is reading the quotations and study passages in the Machzor from religious and secular Jews from Biblical times to the present day.  Believe me, as someone brought up on the Singer’s Prayerbook, being able to understand the English, let alone the Hebrew, is a bonus.

One of my favourite quotations is from Victor Frankl, of whom I had never heard before reading his quotations in the prayer book.  An Austrian psychiatrist, Frankl was a survivor of Auschwitz and was the creator of logotherapy, a therapy based on the search for meaning in life.  Quoting from the Machzor, Frankl wrote

“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn from ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men (in the concentration camp), that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks it constantly sets for each individual…

And his view is summarised in the following further quotation:

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”

 One of the causes of tension within any group or community is change from the status quo.  Many people find change difficult, me included, and in a Jewish context, change is particularly challenging because much of what makes us feel comfortable in our Judaism is the familiar; the tunes we recognise, the food we eat, the traditions that we follow.

And although we may not immediately think of Judaism in this way, it has been subject to constant change throughout its history. After all, we don’t stone people for adultery anymore, or sacrifice animals.  We will see it in our own liturgy tomorrow when, in Musaf, we will replace the animal sacrifice of the Temple days with prayer.

I have spoken before of my interest in family history and my proclivity for hanging around various cemeteries in the Manchester area. Next week, I am meeting a third cousin, whom I met on a genealogy site online, for the first time to locate the graves of our shared great great grandparents.  I am fascinated by Jewish geography and history, but as they say, it’s all relative.

One of the aspects I find most interesting is how, in the space of a mere hundred years or so, lives, circumstances, beliefs and practices change so much, but at the core some things remain the same. My great great grandparents came to Manchester from Riga, in Latvia, in 1890 to escape the pogroms.  My great grandfather was just three years’ old.  They had very little and lived in the poor immigrant area in Red Bank, just north of Victoria Station. They were very observant Jews and were founder members of the Adath Yisroel Synagogue, which is what we would now term Ultra-Orthodox.  I remember going to that shul as a very young child on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It was a very different environment to where I now stand.  But the Orthodox Jews of North Manchester at the turn of the 20th Century no doubt thought they were very modern and progressive compared to their ancestors in the shtetl.

My grandparents were what we might now term modern orthodox.  I remember walking along Leicester Road in Salford as a child and seeing the ultra-orthodox Jews walking to shul in their black hats and gaiters, with the women I sheitels walking ten paces behind the men.  I always felt that they looked at us with disdain and my grandma told me that they wouldn’t even recognise us Jewish.  But then the mainstream orthodox tended to feel like that about Reform Jews.  I once had an idea for a comedy sketch along the lines of the class sketch with John Cleese and the Two Ronnies where the Middle-Class Ronnie Barker looks up to the Upper-Class John Cleese and down on the Working-Class Ronnie Corbett.  But in my version, it was the Ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox and Reform Jews.  You get the idea….

The point is that I have been Jewish for over 50 years and my views and practices have changed throughout my life.  I had an orthodox Bar Mitzvah and a Reform Wedding.  I’ve lived as a secular Jew, and my levels of observance have fluctuated over time.  I’ve adapted my tribal practices in ways that are sometimes illogical.  Yet, I still feel Jewish. My ancestors’ beliefs, behaviours and practises were very different to mine, and their ancestors will have been different still.  Yet despite these changes over time, there is a thread that connects us, that makes us Jewish.

The same can be said for everyone else in this community.  We all have different backgrounds, a variety of upbringings.  Some of us have chosen Judaism.  We are all different, and we have changed over time, but something remains constant.  And that applies across the Jewish world.  Even in orthodoxy, the way in which Judaism is practised has evolved.  Shabbat lifts. Mobile phones.  Eruvs.  These did not exist in our grandparents’ time, let alone our great-great grandparents.

Change is part of life.  And it is part of our Jewish life. In fact, it is the very essence of Reform Judaism, which evolves and adapts to modernity, yet retains the core of what it is to be Jewish.  Torah, our traditions, and our customs.  The thread that binds us together, the unity of Israel across the generations.  As it says in Nitzavim.

Now, you may yourselves, why on earth is he going on about family history and change within Jewish practice and our interpretation of Jewish belief over the centuries?  Well, for one thing, I think it is profoundly interesting.  But, more importantly, as we have noted, change is a cause of tension within communities, and, as the inspiring Victor Frankl pointed out, we have a responsibility to manage our reaction to those changes.

Our community will be faced with some significant, perhaps transformational, decisions over the coming year.  We will need to decide on our approach to rabbinic recruitment.  We will need to determine, once and for all, how we deal with our aging synagogue building.  And our reduced membership over the past decade means that we will need to make some difficult choices within affordability constraints.  At the same time, we need to recognise that the world out there has changed.  The pandemic hasn’t gone away, many people have got used to the convenience of online services and there are people within our community who wish to access their Judaism in different ways from how they did so in the past.

These are all big issues, which are likely to mean significant change for our community.  We will need to engage in debate and make important decisions, together.  We will disagree.  We will have different views on how things should be done.  But as we join together on Yom Kippur, let us reflect on what we have done well as a community.  And let’s learn from the things we got wrong.  There are difficult decisions we will need to make, significant change to manage.  As we have seen, we have been changing throughout our history.  Let’s discuss and debate.  Let’s disagree.  But let’s maintain respect for one another.  As we learn from Nitzavim, let us do so in the spirit of the unified community, remember how we reflected on Yom Kippur and in the knowledge that we have been changing for hundreds, and thousands, of years and yet still maintain our Jewish identity.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.  A final and good seal.  May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life.