Ne’ilah sermon by Rabbi Raymond Apple
at the Hampstead Synagogue, London
Yom Kippur, 5733 – 18 September, 1972
As this day of solemnity and sacredness approaches its Neilah, I feel very conscious that my ministry in this congregation is coming towards its close, and this sermon will inevitably be a rather personal one.
By the end of the year my wife and family and I shall, with God’s help, be at the other end of the world, there to begin a new life and to face big new challenges in the mother congregation of Australian Jewry.
We did not make out decision to go without long, hard thought. We are not without our doubts even today, as I am not ashamed to admit on this day of honesty and soul-searching.
I have ministered here for just over seven years. In the Bible things which are complete or perfect come in sevens. Our seven years were not perfect: but they were full, busy and happy, and our affectionate regard for Hampstead and its members will go with us always, and I venture to hope that Hampstead will sometimes remember us with a little affection.
Hampstead has a fine reputation. Its spiritual leaders – Green, Gollop and Levy – served it well, in the pulpit and out of it. I was always well aware of the difficulty of following in their footsteps. I have sought to fulfil my responsibility honestly; I have worked as hard as I could; and I have tried to become big enough for the job.
Any success I have had was shared with my colleague, Charles Lowy. He is a man gifted in heart, mind and voice, and in him Hampstead is truly blessed. We have formed a team that worked without friction and without jealousy, and I am acutely conscious that my going will impose extra burdens on him.
Who my successor will be is not yet known. The ministry in England is, alas! depleted, but with wisdom and enterprise the right man can be found. I would, however, like Hampstead to know that in order to get him and keep him, those to whom the future of the congregation is important will have to show statesmanship, imagination and generosity.
They will have to see that he is not allowed to be just a functionary carrying out set chores and sinking more and more into a rut. They will have to encourage him to develop his own sense of priorities, even if it means that less essential things – for all that some congregants make a fuss about them – are downgraded. He must have the scope to develop those aspects of his work for which his training and abilities best equip him.
He must be expected to be an “ideas” man – and a leader. And he must be backed up with support of every kind – as much as you gave me, and even more.
As far as I am concerned, I hope I may claim to have achieved something in Hampstead. I have always tried to follow a balanced, reasonable and positive path; and I have steered clear of parish-pump politics, which are the most exasperating and fruitless hobby there is.
Not long ago someone wrote that “Anglo-Jewry… evinces an endearing brand of English conservatism that is sui generis” (R. Loewe, in review of Brodie Festschrift, JC, 7 February, 1969).
Hampstead in particular evinces that “endearing brand of English conservatism”. But this outlook is not in itself adequate to enable the unprecedented challenges of today to be faced.
So I have tried to add to it ideas, emphases and insights that might adapt it for the seventies. I hope I have honoured the dignity of Hampstead, but at the same time let a bit of fresh air into one or two of the stuffier corners of the Synagogue.
I hope I have made the congregation a bit more friendly and a bit more of a community. I hope I have made it a more positively Jewish kind of congregation: for while respecting the traditions of Hampstead, I have tried to introduce more of the traditions of Judaism, which are rather older and more authoritative than those of Hampstead. And while jealously safeeguarding our reputation for decorum, I have tried to cultivate more devotion – to prayer, to study, and to religious living.
There are still some big gaps in our communal outlook and programme. I had hoped (perhaps too optimistically) that I could have filled or at least narrowed them. There are things I had hoped, but failed, to achieve.
I had hoped to see the Synagogue taken seriously by all the congregation and not just by the lamed-vovniks, the faithful few, on whose quiet, unsung merits the rest of this vast congregation depend spiritually.
Who are our lamed-vovniks? The handful of men who come to make minyan morning and evening… they are saints in my reckoning. The small happy band who have come to adult education courses or shiurim, and those who have met weekly in my home to learn Rambam… they are the saving grace of an amiably ignorant congregation. The few workers who maintain our communal activities in spite of apathy and indifference… they have earned their place in Gan Eden. Above all: those who have homes committed to Shabbat, kashrut, and the Jewish way of living… they guarantee that there will be hope for our future – yesh tikvah le’acharitenu.
And if you happen to mutter, “But it’s the same everywhere!” – I reply, “But isn’t Hampstead supposed to be a leader and example among congregations?”
I had hoped to see the Community Centre become more than a building. I had hoped to wear it out with use night by night, indeed day by day, for activities for a multitude of age- and interest-groups.
I am not immodest when I say I have a little ability in this field. A few of us did our best for the Centre: but our success was only partial. In youth work, especially, we have gone back in the past year and not forward. Fortunately, the board of management has now some novel and ambitious plans, worked out in partnership with the Victoria Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, and these will in due course bring tremendous life and excitement to Hampstead.
Among specific changes, I had hoped to see our mixed choir replaced by a male choir. In Jewish Law and tradition a mixed choir, like mixed seating, is not permitted during worship, and the passing of time and the changes in the nature of the commmunity make it possible in our generation to move to a position more in keeping with the din. I have advocated change over a period of several years. I had hoped that, through a policy of quiet persuasion and peaceful evolution, the movement for change – as has so often been the case in Hampstead – would come from within the congregation.
I leave my successor much to do. He will, like me and my predecessors, find long periods of satisfying effort here, far outweighing the moments of frustration and despondency.
He will also find colleagues and congregants capable of firm friendship. Over the years my wife and I have been proudly grateful for the courtesy and consideration unhesitatingly exxtended to us. During these holydays I looked out over my vast congregation and I do not mind admitting that I felt pangs of pain to think that cherished links of friendship might soon have to loosen, and to reflect that only God knows whether we shall ever see again some of those to whom we feel linked by bonds of affection.
I am not going to say any more that is so personal. I will only say before God and this congregation that I ask forgiveness if I have offended anyone by things said or left unsaid, done or left undone. And if anyone has offended me, please be assured that I no longer recall it.
I shall, please God, still occupy this pulpit until the end of October. But because today is the peak of the holyday season, and the eightieth anniversary of the Synagogue, I want to add a parting reflection concerning Hampstead.
Eighty years ago to the day, according to the secular calendar, the Synagogue was opened. Those were restless days eighty-odd years ago when our ancestors decided not just to establish a house of worship to serve a suburban community but to launch a movement. But it was a movement concerned mostly with minor changes in Synagogue procedure and ritual. Hampstead has survived as a Synagogue – but as a movement it has long since been overtaken by events. The controversies in Jewry since 1892 have not been restricted to the prayerbook.
Fundamental questions concerning the divinity of the Torah and the authority of the mitzvot have wracked Jewry, and Anglo-Jewry in particular. The Holocaust in Europe has raised agonising questions of theology. The State of Israel has profoundly affected every Jew in his relationship with his people.
And the complexities of living in an affluent society, a technological society, a nuclear society, a permissive society, have challenged Jews to find answers to deep human dilemmas.
If the best minds in Anglo-Jewry, of whom a number are still associated with Hampstead, were to get together in 1972 to found a religious movement, they would have to set up a dynamic powerhouse of Jewish learning and thinking, capable, on the basis of Jewish tradition, of coping creatively with the real problems of a new generation.
Would Hampstead as it stands be able to be harnessed to this supreme task – or have we sunk into a senile twilight in which, secure in our mellow tradition, we look back but not forward?
In many ways I know Hampstead more deeply than do any of you. Its past I know as the author of the history of the congregation; its present I know as the spiritual leader who has been involved in so much of its recent development. And I am convinced Hampstead has mighty potential for the future. For seven out of Hampstead’s eighty years I have sought, with whatever intuition of our generation that I possessed, to utilise that potential and to construct the beginnings of a response to the challenges of today.
You must now ensure that Hampstead – as a movement, not just a Synagogue – embarks on its second eighty years with renewed dynamism and reborn creativity, so that the faith of our fathers can guide the perplexed and inform and inspire our children.
May God’s name be ever hallowed, and his Torah magnified and glorified, in your midst. May you have life, peace and health; and may Hampstead renew its youth like the eagle: tit’chadesh kanesher ne’uray’chi (Psalm 103:5).