Parents Learning Project – New for this year!

Why Parents Learning Project?

For the first time ever, The Lyons Learning Project and West London Synagogue are working together to create a series of sessions that will enrich parents’ own learning, give them tools to practice Judaism at home and offer space to think through challenging issues around parenting. Taught by the Rabbinic team of West London Synagogue.


In the coming academic year we are encouraging parents to engage with their own learning, skill them up for questions their children may be asking at home and also emphasise the importance of implementing at home what children are learning at the Synagogue. In conjunction with West London Synagogue we will be offering a course for parents that will include:

  • Judaism 101 – in 10 Weeks – 11:15am-12:15pm
  • Parenthood – Parenting Issues from a Jewish Perspective – 11:15-12:15
  • Hebrew – Crash Course for Parents – 10:00-11:00 (Religion School Parents Only)

One of the things that we know from our conversations with parents is that they can also feel like they need to learn. We also know that parents want to be able to support their children with their Hebrew reading and in Jewish life in their home. There are some really important issues that we all face as parents with children growing up in the 21st century – we think it is important not only to talk about the issues but think about a Jewish perspective on them too.

All of the research into the development of young people is that an enduring love and commitment to Judaism begins with the home. It is the most important place for your children as they grow up. It makes sense, as our children grow up our homes are the living classroom for them to experience the values that we hold to be important as adults. Making those values real in tangible ways is how our children identify what is important – whether it is the regular practice of giving to charity and identifying it as something Jewish or lighting Shabbat candles on Friday night or anything else.

We want to work in partnership with parents in creating a seamless bridge between the home environment and Synagogue. Religion School can complement what the children are experiencing at home but cannot be a substitute! We want to offer the parents the time to learn about this whilst recognising that Sundays are a precious time-out from busy schedules. For that reason we have designed a programme that is not every week but is nonetheless regular. We hope the sanctuary of time to learn with us will be a routine parents come to see as enriching and meaningful.

The sessions will be friendly, informal and an opportunity to meet other parents too. They will be taught by our rabbinic team. The programme is led by Rabbi Neil Janes who is the rabbinic lead for Education at the Synagogue and Executive Director of the Lyons Learning Project. The programme is free, though a donation would be gratefully received to deepen the impact of our work.

Surviving the High Holy Days with Children

Nearly every year in the rabbinate around this time of year a parent says to me, “Rabbi, we enjoy the family services, our children have great fun, we love the synagogue, but we don’t know how to find time as parents for ourselves to reflect on the great themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”

There’s an unsympathetic voice, which I often hear in response from other members, along the lines of ‘well you chose to have children, you have to make sacrifices as parents.’ Which actually I think most parents are very aware of – they would and frequently do put their children’s happiness and well being in front of their own.

I have a sense that what they’re asking me though is very real. They want to be inspired by the majesty of the day – if it’s as important as we say it is, then children or not, the process of self-reflection is necessary. And as lives increase in their ferocious pace and demands on time in the never-disconnected lifestyle, I understand what they mean.

So I ran a session in recent days for parents about how to find the space in the busy start of the school year, back to work after summer, period. Of course, it sounds like a horrendously privileged problem, but I’ve tried to pick things that cost little but may carve out time and space for thinking.



Tashlich is a ceremony traditionally performed in the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. It involves going to a pool of water and taking some quiet time to ‘shake off our sins’ into the water. Micah 7:18-20 is a focus for text:

“Cast all their sins into the depth of the water”.

This is a great activity for the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah for you and your children. It means going out to get some fresh air after being in doors all morning and trying to have a special Rosh Hashanah lunch. Head out to the park or somewhere that you know there is a pond/river/stream. While the children play Pooh sticks you’re certain to have a bit of time to reflect. It goes without saying to be careful around open water with children.

Rosh Hashanah Cards

The custom of sending Rosh Hashanah greetings is a very old one and led to some of the first Jewish greeting cards. There are some amazing images of cards through the ages if you search for them. The greeting before Rosh Hashanah was ‘May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year’, which was then shortened to ‘Shanah Tovah’ or ‘Leshanah Tovah’.

On a rainy afternoon, why not have the children design their own Rosh Hashanah cards. There are lots of themes you could use for inspiration — sweet new year, round challah, or you could do apple prints with half an apple. Whilst your children are doing this you can spend some time thinking about who you will email your child’s latest masterpiece. An opportunity to connect with family and friends around the world.

Tzedakah Boxes

The custom at most Jewish festivals is to give charity to good causes. That’s why the synagogue has an ‘Appeal’ at this time of year. We’re told that ‘Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah’ are part of the process of atonement. The ‘Pushke’ – the tzedakah box was one of the most standard items in a Jewish home when raising money for charity in years past. Especially causes in Israel. You can make your own tzedakah box by using a cardboard box and cutting a hole in the top after decorating it. Or you can find the ‘Decorate your own’ Money boxes.

But actually the point of this exercise is for you to bring the discussion to your children about tzedakah (charity) and giving to causes that mean something to you as a family. Whilst your children are doing the decorating it is a good opportunity to think about where you would like to give charity for the year. Which causes will you renew your direct debit with, which charity will receive a new donation, etc.

Auspicious Food

Round Challah

Symbolic food is all around us at Rosh Hashanah (see below). The round challah is a symbol of the new year — it represents the cycle of the year.

Find a challah recipe online or in a Jewish cook book (there are loads). There may be a special recipe for Rosh Hashanah, but you can add raisins and sultanas and sprinkle with coloured sugar strands as part of the glaze. Pretty much any way to make it sweet! There is something about kneading dough — of course if you don’t have someone running under your feet! But it is a lovely activity to do with children

More than Apples and Honey

The apples and honey are the standard for this time of year. But there are traditions of lots of foods with auspicious meaning (or at least clever puns on their names). For example, lamb ’ s neck or fish head is to symbolise — being the head not the tail of the year.

Below are links to some foods which you can try cooking and eating at your Rosh Hashanah dinner/lunch. It’s a great way to cook new foods for your children to try and because it’s almost like a ‘meze’ there’s lots of choice for different foods on the table: From beetroot to green beans, fish, dates and leeks.

There’s a link here to the basic ‘simanim’ for Rosh Hashanah — the symbolic foods. You’ll see the word play for each food on the end column. file/fid/4053

But there are lots of other sites you can get ideas too:

Spiritual Reflections

Selichot services take place, usually, on the Saturday night preceding Rosh Hashanah. They are a great service for adults – since they’re often very late at night and children are not up. The music is usually a lovely selection of melodies that tune you into the High Holy days and the liturgy also has echoes of the liturgy we will read. So it’s a perfect opportunity to book a sitter, go out for dinner with a friend or partner to reflect together on your year and then go to synagogue for quiet meditation.

Mishnah Mornings with The Lyons Learning Project

Over the summer Rabbi Neil Janes has started teaching some wonderful people as part of the Lyons Learning Project. This is his reflection from a couple of weeks ago. For information about Mishnah Mornings groups click here.

Once a fortnight on a Wednesday at 7:45am over a freshly made coffee, we meet at a café near Bond Street to study the Mishnah on Rosh Hashanah. And at 8:30am, we make our way to our respective places of work. Our conversation in just three meetings has covered such questions as tithing, taxation and poverty, the setting of the calendar and the role of volunteers to testify that they had seen the new moon. The intention of the group is our encounter with one another and with our texts. But more than that, we are also committing to fixing a regular time for study, a ritual in and of itself.
The Mishnah is a text edited, according to tradition, in 200 CE by Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the purpose of which is somewhat unclear. It reads in part like a legal code, but more often than not it also has the guise of a library of teachings and a pedagogical text for the nascent rabbinic community in the Land of Israel. It is organised thematically in orders and tractates and contains both legal materials and debates, but also some legends of the sages.
In our last breakfast meeting, we encountered a particularly famous text that is found in our High Holy Day liturgy in the additional service of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are told in the Mishnah that on Rosh Hashanah, everyone passes before God for judgement ‘Kiv’nei Maron’. What is the meaning of ‘Kiv’nei Maron’? There are a number of suggestions – perhaps like sheep being counted by their shepherd or perhaps like climbers on a narrow path to the heights of a mountain. Both images are reflections of how the sages imagined seeing themselves in relation to God. In the 19th and 20th century, with scholarship of these religious texts developing the suggestion was made that ‘Kivn’ei Maron’ was actually ‘Kivnumeron’ – like a Roman army troop (numeron being a loan word from Greek). Lo and behold, manuscripts were uncovered that found just this reading as the earliest form. The Mishnah intends to describe our judgement as if soldiers before their King.
I’m not sure either readings sit wholly comfortably and perhaps that’s the point of metaphorical language, it does not fully express the reality of life because we are pushed and pulled theologically and emotionally in occasionally contradictory ways.
Why do I mention this? Well the season of repentance and self-scrutiny is nearly upon us and these questions about how we view our relationship with each other and God is a worthwhile subject to reflect upon. But also because this conversation is part of the tradition in which we encounter one another and our texts, to which I warmly invite you. If you would like more information or would like to support this work, do let me know –

A longer essay on this subject is found here.

Parashat Emor: Limmud On One Leg

Rabbi Neil Janes wrote this week’s ‘Limmud On One Leg’, you can subscribe to future issues here and read what he wrote below:

The narrative portion of Parashat Emor appears briefly and, almost as quickly, our attention is drawn a few verses later to the ‘Tit for Tat’ law of ‘an eye for an eye’. The story describes a man of Israelite and Egyptian heritage who, in fighting with an Israelite, blasphemes and is taken to Moses; Moses holds the unnamed man in custody whilst the decision regarding what should be done with him is conveyed from God.

In February and March, I facilitated a group studying this section as we created our own Torah commentary as part of the Lyons Learning Project. One of our group reported that the Talmudic discussion of ‘Tit for Tat’ was probably the first rabbinic text he ever learnt as a child. As if to say, in the textual lines of continuity and change, this is where our rabbinic interpretations radically shift the focus from physical retaliation to monetary compensation. We do not believe in the literal interpretation of this law. One of the other students in our group remarked how this was so fundamental to the development of Jewish jurisprudence that it always made her recognise the brilliance of our traditions.

Upon studying the story of the ‘Blasphemer’ narrative, it is easy to recognise the echoes of an earlier point in the Torah. In the account of Moses growing up and affirming his Israelite heritage over his Egyptian upbringing (Exodus 2); in this chapter Moses not only kills an Egyptian taskmaster he also tries to stop two Hebrews fighting together. The Hebrew men rebuke Moses and he flees wherein he finds and marries Zipporah. The name of their son is Gershom, for “I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22).

The midrashim already connect this episode in Moses’ life with that of our Blasphemer. For they imagine that the Egyptian taskmaster was none other than the man who raped the Blasphemer’s mother, Shelomit bat Divri. In the midrash Leviticus Rabbah 32 this act is described as קילקל – euphemistically the Egyptian ‘spoiled’ Shelomit, clearly an echo of the ויקלל (cursing) of God used in Leviticus 24:11. In a deeply problematic and unsettling way, Shelomit is subsequently blamed for the downfall of her son, who is executed for his sin of blasphemy. The Blasphemer, who goes unnamed, is surrounded by names and identities which already determine his fate. And in a cruel act of victim blaming, as if the social isolation of being recorded as ‘the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man’ (Leviticus 24:10) was not enough, his mother’s status is ruined too. Rape in the Bible is a social death.

So we return to the law of ‘Tit for Tat’ and the work of the wonderful scholar, Tikva Frymer Kensky z’l. She showed how the ‘tit for tat’ rule in another Ancient Near Eastern code, the Code of Hammurabi, only applied to full citizens. On the other hand, our Torah reads, “You shall have one rule for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Eternal am your God” (Leviticus 24:22). Which is to say, in the middle of this text and intertext, that play to our subconscious perception of those who we suspect of not being fully part of the ‘in-group’, there are certain universal rules about how we treat one another.

This message is surely one we should, more than ever, be paying attention to in how we think of our Jewish community today. Beyond status there is a question about the names we use, the names we curse, the names we seek for ourselves and the strength of having one rule for stranger and citizen alike. I suspect, like Moses, we all feel like strangers at some point in our lives.

Official news!

We’re excited that today we received news that we are registered with the Charities Commission and are now a Charitable Company. Our work continues to grow and our plans for the coming months are exciting. We’ll be able to announce September’s programme very soon. It will include sessions for parents, year long courses, developing Talmud skills and an exciting possibility just discussed today – watch this space!

Please register for our events in May and June which are on the website.

In the meantime, here is a guide we wrote for families daunted by the prospect of leading the Pesach Seder for the first time:

Seder made easy handout

If you’re looking for good haggadot (the guidebook for seder night) here are a three options of many:

Haggadah B’chol dor vador – Published by Liberal Judaism – contains the Liberal Haggadah in one direction, children’s haggadah for pre-readers and early years from the other end of the book!

Haggadateinu – Published by the Movement for Reform Judaism

The Schechter Haggadah – Published by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies – a brilliant piece of scholarship is contained in this by Dr Josh Kulp. A timeless resource for those looking for a serious piece of learning about the historical origins of the text of the haggadah. Also contains images of some wonderful illuminated manuscripts.

Finally, search for Haggadah Supplements 2016 and you’ll find no end of extra/alternative materials to use.

Do we care about tomorrow enough to do something with our today?

In the last term the Lyons Learning Project ran its first serious 8 week course for students of different levels. Upwards of 40 people were engaged in learning. The wonderful Rabbi Lior Nevo, led sessions on 12 Jewish Questions – ranging from prayer, belief, miracles and Shabbat. Others have joined me (Rabbi Neil Janes) unpicking texts of the Talmud, discovering that Jews have always asked questions, challenged accepted norms, worried about identity and God and struggled to find their voice in our ancient texts. We have also had the opportunity to write our own Torah commentary which will be shared at the Shira Chadasha service on 14th May at WLS and the Lunch and Learn that follows it. Finally, I led the first work place programme for a law firm in the City providing a session about Judaism as part of their inclusion and interfaith programme. Now we look forwards to the Spring and new year.

You’ll see the programme we have planned for the Spring and in September 2016 we will be launching our year long programme, including, we hope, a year-long programme of learning on the Melton programme from the Hebrew University.

This spring, I am thrilled that Rabbis Danny Rich and Charley Baginsky will be joining us for our Spring Series of the Lyons Learning Project. They will be responding to the title ‘The Question that keeps me up’. I want us to hear what our leaders think about the issues facing the Jewish world today. We spend too much time reacting to either violence between Israelis and Palestinians or reports of antisemitism in UK and Europe. Of course, those are pressing concerns when they happen, but we are at risk of only ever being reactive and never contemplating what the future might hold and why we should care about the Jewish future at all. Rabbi Danny Rich is the Senior Rabbi and Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism and is therefore one of the most important leadership voices for progressive Judaism. Rabbi Charley Baginsky has recently been appointed to the Alliance for Progressive Judaism and is the only leader in the whole of the UK currently working in a role that is intended to bring the Reform and Liberal movements together on shared projects and issues.

For me I worry about two things: Firstly, will progressive Jews take their learning seriously as adults. We would not expect our children to stop learning about science or history at the age of 13 or even 15. And many of us have felt that moment of anxiety when our children’s homework outstrips our own knowledge (or at least has us scrambling for the laptop). Just last term I found myself reading up on the spread of the Great Fire of London and reminding myself of the Taxonomy of the Animal Kingdom. But I worry that we are satisfied with essentially early-adolescent understandings of something essential to our very sense of self – our Judaism. I want us to be confident in being part of the Jewish conversation and that means, in part, our understanding of one of the primary modes of Jewish expression, our texts.

Secondly, and perhaps more vitally, I am worried that as progressive Jews we will no longer have an ability to explain why it is important to be Jewish in the future. We will be satisfied with goodness and universalism and forsake our heritage and our future as Jews. If we cannot explain why it is important to be Jewish and surrender the space to those who explain the answer in exclusivist, isolationist terms, then I’m afraid we might as well kiss a pluralist, open and tolerant Judaism goodbye.

So do we care about tomorrow enough to do something today? We must be part of the conversation, we must be learning and we must be prepared to make a commitment to our Jewish future.  For updates follow us on facebook and visit our website

Learning Grows at the Lyons Learning Project

Since this series of learning began with courses on Talmud, 12 Jewish Questions and Writing our own Torah Commentary, we have seen more than forty people coming through the doors of the Lyons Learning Project. This project is growing a20160215_192922nd the vision to bring more and more people into the important Jewish conversations is unfolding.

In Talmud, we have had conversations ranging from what it means for Judaism to evolve generation to generation, how we interpret our texts and what they mean to us. Last night, we touched on the questions of how we include or exclude people based on the types of questions they ask. The amazing thing has been the ages, experiences and knowledge that have been part of the learning.

In 12 Jewish Questions, with Rabbi Lior Nevo, learning has covered miracles, prayer, kashrut, and many of the other questions that we must be asking. Rabbi Nevo has brought a wonderful vibrancy and intelligent, warm learning environment to classes.20160229_112214

Yesterday, Rabbi Janes visited a law firm in the City to speak about Judaism generally and Judaism in the workplace. There was a packed audience and the discussion covered aspects of antisemitism, theology, keeping kosher and many more things. All over a generous lunch. This talk is available to any firms looking to raise the level of interfaith dialogue and conversation amongst employees and managers.

Judaism for employers

Launch Reception for Lyons Learning Project with Thomas Harding

Daniel Mackintosh describes his passion for Jewish learning.

More than 150 people packed the celebratory launch of The Lyon’s Learning Project, the UK’s latest Jewish education initiative in West London Synagogue’s Stern Hall on Monday evening, 25 January. They were captivated by the guest speaker, Thomas Harding, and inspired to take their learning further by powerful testimony from members on the night and on video.

West London Synagogue’s Senior Rabbi, Baroness Julia Neuberger, welcomed guests, acknowledged the generosity of the legacy that facilitated the creation of The Lyons Learning Project before introducing Rabbi Neil Janes.

Volunteer and student, Yehudit, presents Thomas Harding with a gift of thanks on the night.

Under Rabbi Janes’ leadership, the mission of the Lyons Learning Project is to offer transformative Jewish learning opportunities for adults that focus on enlarging the Jewish conversation and community life. Rabbi Janes enthused the audience with the courses on offer and said the project would once again place learning at the heart of our communities. He also introduced the news that the Lyons Learning Project plans to run the Melton Courses in September 2016 and was also keen to offer breakfast and lunchtime classes in people’s place of work.

Thomas Harding spoke brilliantly about his book The House by the Lake, based on his family’s experience in pre-war Berlin. He likened the lessons of his book to the key principle of The Lyon’s Learning Project, that history can provide unexpectedly appropriate messages for future generations. A thoroughly engaged and visibly moved audience quizzed the author about the book and in particular about the revelations thrown up by research.

Rabbi Helen recites a closing blessing for Tu Bishvat and planting the seeds of learning.

Rabbi Janes said, “Thomas Harding’s description was stunning and deeply moving, we were so grateful that he could give his time to the launch of the Lyons Learning Project. We must create vibrant communal conversations and embody the adage in Mishnah Avot 2:4 in the name of Hillel, ‘Do not say when I have free time I will study, perhaps you will never have free time.’ Now is the time; The Lyons Learning Project is the place; the conversation is ours for the making.”

He encouraged people to participate in Project Zeraim, an online initiative of the Lyons Learning Project.

For more information contact Rabbi Janes.

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Video Project: I get a lot of joy out of learning

The fourth of our Lyons Learning Project videos is now available, we’ll be adding to them as we draw closer to the Launch Reception. A recurring theme in conversations is the way that we must be able to define Judaism for ourselves – which includes skills, values and knowledge related to Judaism. The 21st century is one that theoretically enables the hierarchies of knowledge to be broken down and the hierarchies of power in the community are also shifting. We no longer rely on our rabbis to let us know what, how or why we do things and our communities, boards, and rabbis no longer have the power to determine authentic Judaism.

Our fourth video contributor – Charlotte – describes an experience of realising how little she knew as an adult, seeking a place of learning coherent with her politics and values and shares her joy in learning and the millenia old conversations.