An eighth of a glass

‘Our main area is West Africa, but we were also asked to work in Ethiopia,’ she said. I was in a café in town with one of the leaders of Tree Aid. Having run a half marathon to support them, I wanted to learn more about their work.
‘Ethiopia’s a mountainous country; at the turn of the century forty per cent was forest. Now that’s just two per cent.’ ‘You mean in 1900?’ I asked. ‘No’, she said, ‘2,000.’  Drought had famished the flat lands, so the government moved the population to the hills. The trees were cut down for living space; the soil was washed away and the land became stony. ‘We work with villages and local leaders. They care, because the trees bring food and income. In Ethiopia we’re planting apple and pear orchards. They thrive there; the fruit’s considered exotic and fetches a good price.’
When people realise that the trees are bringing them a living, they plant other species too, good for birds and animals. It turns out that TreeAid works with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Species migrating from Britain have been dying out, because the forests in Africa have been disappearing.  
I left the meeting inspired. It was like witnessing creation: the turning of bare land into green spaces, the return of the birds and animals, the chance for people to thrive.
I walked past Southwark Cathedral to City Hall, to hear the speakers at World Jewish Relief’s dinner. Chief Rabbi Mirvis told of his visit with WJR to Macedonia, where buses with refugees were arriving every ten minutes. We get it wrong, he said, if we translate the verse from Grace after Meals as ‘I have never seen the righteous forsaken’. That would be a downright untruth. What the words really means is ‘I’ve never just stood there and watched when people were left desperate. You get up and do something. You help’.
Fergal Keane told of his many visits to Rwanda. I met this girl, he said, who survived the massacres by hiding under the bodies of her parents. She was emaciated when they found her; she’d lost her arm. When I went back a year later I expected her to have died. But tenacity and love saw her through. Last year she sent me a letter; she’s studying law in The States.
I was in Paris last week, he continued. I was walking down the street when I saw a café full of young people dancing, dancing with all their strength. ‘We don’t yield to hatred’, he concluded: ‘We never give up on life and we never give up on love’.  
On Wednesday night I was back in town for ‘The Great European Refugees and Migrants Debate’ at Intelligence Squared. The suffering, the numbers, the fears, the perplexity over how to cope: the issues were all raised. But it was Lord Paddy Ashdown who summed the matter up: It’s complex, he acknowledged, and we have to think carefully. But if you don’t welcome refugees, if you just want to keep them out, you end up erecting fences and barbed wire. When you put up fences and barbed wire, you lose your humanity, and when you lose your humanity anything can happen’.
Yesterday I helped conduct the funeral for Raymond, the father of David Altschuler. (Our thoughts are with all the family). David spoke of his father’s quiet gift for finding and spreading contentment: ‘Imagine your glass half full’, he said, ‘Then pour it into a smaller glass’.
If we poured even a quarter or an eighth of what is in our glasses into the cups of those who face drought, or floods, or war they would be full to overflowing.
We’re not here on earth to be indifferent.

How a Temple ceremony can teach us about climate change

I’ve always loved people, animals and plants. My nightmares are full of fears about what might destroy them: terror and violence, or pollution and greed.

I imagine the following conversation as Noah’s flood engulfs the Earth.

A father is chivvying his son up the mountain. The boy asks: “Daddy, why didn’t you listen when they warned you?” He has no answer, only guilt and sorrow.

The Talmud notes that it took decades to build the ark, during which time Noah unremittingly urged his contemporaries to change their ways. They mocked his rebukes and countered his every warning with “O, but we have technological answers to that”.

In worse moments, I imagine that conversation happening between myself and my future grandchildren: “Why didn’t you listen when they told you the way you live was destroying the world?” What will I say then?

The forthcoming climate talks in Paris may be our last best chance to create legally binding international agreements to prevent the world’s temperature rising by more than two degrees centigrade. Global warming isn’t a specifically “Jewish issue”; it doesn’t address our most prepossessing anxieties: Israel, antisemitism, terror, assimilation. But it unquestionably is a Jewish issue, because regarding the survival of life on Earth, the fate of one is the fate of all.

Pope Francis’s outstanding encyclical Laudato Si speaks of the Earth as “our common home”, drawing on the Hebrew Bible as its primary source.

The rabbinic phrase “partners with God in creation” encapsulates exactly the nature of the responsibility to which he calls people of all faiths and none: “I urgently appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet…the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots… affect us all.”

There is no room, he insists, for obstructionism, indifference or blind belief in technology.

Contrary to how it has often been represented, the Pope notes that “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures”. Rather, we are stewards entrusted with the wellbeing of all creation. Equally, as Naomi Klein states bluntly in This Changes Everything, there’s no place for the unregulated power of money and economic growth as the unrivalled determinant of what societies mean by success. We therefore need to change both out thinking and our conduct.

Where is the Jewish voice in this crisis of civilisation?

Contemporary theologian Arthur Green focuses on the spiritual dimension of ecology, God’s presence in all living being. He finds the call to action in God’s one-word challenge to Adam in Eden: “Where are you?” What God means is: “Where are you in helping me to carry this project of creation forward?” We must deepen our awareness of the basic unity of all life and our responsibility towards it.

He has therefore reintroduced the ancient tradition of ma’amadot, vigils, at Hebrew College in Massachusetts, where he’s principal. In Temple times, when the priests from any town ascended to Jerusalem to serve their shift at the altar, the local people gathered daily for ma’amadot, the recitation of the section from Genesis I, recounting the creation for that day of the week. Explaining the practice, the Talmud quotes Jeremiah: “God has a basic covenant with day and night, with the very laws of nature” (33:25).

Our way of life risks undermining those laws and making our world uninhabitable. The ma’amadot teach us to change. Through daily attention to each facet of creation, light, water, plants, animals, humankind, we deepen our appreciation of it, our determination not to pollute or destroy it and our commitment to work for ecological harmony and justice.

A ma’amad can be as simple as reciting the verses for the appropriate day. It can be a solitary meditation, or a reading in the presence of hundreds. It can be enhanced by poetry, music, pictures and reflections. But it should lead to commitments. The phrases are familiar: conserve more, waste less. Every individual can do something; communities and corporations can do more. Ultimately essential are national and international commitments to renewable energy and a limit on fossil fuels. We mustn’t invest in enterprises which destroy the world. We mustn’t consume their products. We’re all guilty and must all modify how we live.

I’m a lover of woodlands and wild places, but climate change isn’t just about nature. It’s about stopping making the poor pay for our wealth by contributing directly or indirectly to the destruction of their incomes, homes and countries. As Jews we empathise, rightly, with refugees. If we fail to act on climate change we will see refugees in even greater numbers as entire peoples strive to escape floods, droughts and wars over the still habitable corners of once fertile lands.

We owe it to life itself, and to this beautiful world with which we are entrusted, not to let that happen.

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.

We will be stronger than every army in the world

There is no language adequate to express our horror over the terror attacks in Paris.
Our thoughts are with the bereaved; our prayers are with the wounded, the traumatized and their families, and with all who strive to help them and work to protect life and liberty.
Acts of mass terror by Islamist extremists have been perpetrated in many parts of the world, in Israel, Africa, Asia and the West. But Paris is near, a city like ours, and most of the victims were young, enjoying life, doing what we and our children like to do. The random viciousness is therefore all the more frightening and closer to home. My Bnei Mitzvah class expressed their bewilderment. ‘But why?’ they asked, ‘Why do people do things like that?’
Aside from political and military considerations, policing, vigilance, intelligence work and countering radicalization are all urgently important, all matters of life and death. Even so, no one believes the risk of terror will swiftly be lifted from our world.
How then do we live with that threat? Only our enemies want it to undermine our attitude to life and our values.
The heart of the matter is spiritual. In crisis, Judaism, like all true faiths, teaches us to deepen our connection with God. This isn’t about affirming beliefs. It’s about recognizing the sacred and the wonderful: it’s there in the everyday and ordinary: we may find it in a leaf, a bird, a cloud; in a poem, a song, a prayer; in a child’s joy, or the smile of an old person. Any part of life belongs to the whole of life, to the sacred vitality of all things, the presence of God in everything. Stillness, prayer, contemplation, music: these spiritual disciplines connect us with life at the deepest level. They nurture and purify us. They keep our heart open to wonder, compassion and understanding.
The issue is also communal. We all need fellowship. We must maintain our engagement with family, friends and community. We must study Torah together; it brings us the wisdom and resilience of our ancestors through the vital words and practices of our tradition. We should celebrate life together, sustain one another amidst fear or pain, and draw in those who are isolated and alone. ‘Better two than one’ wrote Ecclesiastes, ‘and the three-stranded cord cannot readily be broken’.
The question concerns society as a whole. Wherever possible we need to meet in solidarity with other communities, of different faiths and none, in shared expression of our common joys, hopes, needs and challenges. Without being naïve, we need to challenge suspicion and prejudice, and work carefully but constantly to create an embracing society expressive of our shared humanity. Complex communities are easily torn apart; that is the aim of terror. Sustaining such societies is an often moving, sometimes painful, always patient task. But there’s no other way for the world to be made safer in the end.
Amidst the sorrows of the week, I’ve been specially moved by the words of two people. Diane Foley’s son Jim, a courageous journalist, was executed by so-called Jihadi John. She said ‘God has been our strength. God was suffering with me; God was crying with me. My challenge is to keep walking in faith…’ Hatred, she added, only increases suffering, ‘and our world needs the opposite’.
Antoine Leiris lost his wife Helen in Paris. He said: ‘Of course I am devastated with grief’, but ‘my son and I, we will be stronger than every army in the world….this little boy will be happy and free.’ What courage, and what love.

I was asked to offer a short prayer:

All-Present God, comfort the bereaved, heal the wounded and traumatised, be with all those who care for them, and give strength and hope to all who strive for life, freedom and peace.

God, guard us, our countries and the world
against violence, hatred and destruction.

God, penetrate all our hearts with respect and reverence for life
and guide us by means of wonder, compassion and wisdom.

עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום
עלינו ועל כל ישראל ועל כל יושבי תבל ואמרו אמן

May God who makes peace in the high places, make peace for us, for all Israel and for all the peoples of the earth, and let us all say ‘Amen’.

Statement after the terror attacks in Paris

We respond to the appalling terror attacks in Paris with deep sorrow for the families of all those murdered, and with prayers for the wounded and traumatised.

Our thoughts are especially with Professor David Ruzie, a member of one of our Paris communities, who lost his grand-daughter Justine in the Bataclan theatre, and with all his family. May the All-Present God bring them strength and comfort.

Our spiritual response to terror is a profound affirmation of the value and sanctity of life as affirmed throughout Judaism, in every true expression of faith, and it the hearts of all who genuinely trust in God.

Living in frightening and dangerous times, we seek our strength in solidarity with all people of good will, in prayer, in the study of Torah, and in working for compassion, justice and peace.

Every gathering and event we hold will be an affirmation of these values.

In these dangerous times it matters more than ever to live by our values.

For this we are all responsible

‘Stay here in Canaan; don’t go to Egypt because of the famine’. In this manner God prevents Isaac from becoming the second environmental refugee in Jewish history. The first was Abraham, when hunger forced him to seek the mercies of Pharaoh.
Yesterday I was at the refugee camp in Calais, with an interfaith group of leaders. In an hour I’m off to join the start of the pilgrimage to Paris, prior to the climate talks. Refugees; environment: the two concerns, the greatest for our day and age, are devastatingly interconnected.
It wasn’t hard to talk to people at Calais. Many of the young men who thronged the so-called street that made its way among the hundreds of tents and wood-and-plastic-sheeting shelters wanted to speak. Had they crossed seas and walked two-and-a-half thousand miles in search of a future for their stories to be shut down here?
‘Where are you from?’ ‘Afghanistan. I worked with the British army 5 years at Camp Bastion’ His friend was there 7 years. Now they’re stranded here.
‘We’re Kurds. From Iran, Iraq. I taught computers at college.’ ‘We’re Kurds too, from Iran, from Iraq. They try to kill us. Two people drowned from our boat.’
‘I’m from Syria’. The man makes the action children make in playgrounds as if they are holding an imaginary machine-gun. ‘All my family are killed.’
‘Shalom’ says a voice behind me. I hadn’t thought Hebrew would be an asset here; Arabic, Pushtu, of course. ‘I’m from Sudan. I was in Tel Aviv, Eilat; I had a visa, no work. I went back to Sudan, they try to kill me.’ He invites me to his tent, living space for two, smaller than the surface of a kitchen table.
‘I’m a medic. I want to save lives.’ ‘My sister and mother are in the UK; they can’t get me out of here’.
It’s cold as the group makes its way to the Church of St Michael, a place of beauty created somehow midst the turmoil by refugees from Eritrea. A man stops me: ‘It’s winter soon: the rain; the snow; the cold.’ He points around at all these people; what are they to do?
Amongst ourselves we share our impressions: It’s an abomination. It’s tragic. This place ought not to exist. Here, in the heart of 21st century Europe! What’s to be done?
‘Doctors are needed, to volunteer at weekends. Money will be needed for decent winter meals. And here is far from the worst place. Think of the Balkans, the Turkish borders, Greece…And that’s only the immediate necessities. The real need is for a path to their futures. There has to be an agreement across Europe.’ Yvette Cooper, chair of labour’s refugee taskforce, speaks to us eloquently: such suffering should not be, especially for the children.
Back home, I’m asked why these people want to come to the UK. (Compared to the total numbers of refugees, the figures are small.) Many have family here. An expert in post-trauma work explains: ‘An island country with a reputation for civic accord, where the police don’t carry guns, where it’s known people smile in the street, has a special appeal for those fleeing murderous conflict.’
Within the abomination there is also inspiration: the resilience of those we meet, their aspiration to create new lives, the will for life.
What must be done? The short term goal is to give destitute people hope, help and a future. The long term goal must be to stop more and more of the world becoming less and less habitable for political, military and environmental reasons. For this we are all responsible.

Letter from Berlin

I’m shown a child refugee’s drawing of the journey to Europe. It’s graphic, with people drowned on the way. Another depicts a Daesh beheading.

“Expression can relieve stress,” says Yotam Polizer, director of IsraAID’s field work, as we walk through a huge refugee reception centre in Moabit, a neighbourhood of Berlin.

Hundreds of people mill around, waiting. First they need to be issued a number; next, they have to wait until it comes up. Only then can they register. Everywhere, charities have set up tents. There’s also food, and an X-ray clinic to check for TB.

As well as assisting in Germany, which is absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees, IsraAID is already active in Greece, Croatia, Kurdistan and Jordan.

Mr Polizer tells me: “We’ve two teams on Lesbos. An island of 85,000 people, it’s had 100,000 refugees arrive in a single month. One team is medical; they stay above the beach, watching the boats arrive, then run to where they are needed. Boats come in at night. Rubber boats for 20 people bring in 50 or 60. There are many cases of shock and hypothermia.

“The UN High Commissioner for Refugees asked us to be a focal point for victims of shipwrecks, because of our experience with trauma. Many have lost their children; they stay until the bodies are found. There’s no Muslim burial on the island. We try to accompany those families, often for one or two months.”

Back at the reception centre, Mr Polizer points out the photos on the walls: missing persons, about whom relatives long for news; wanted persons, too. There are people from all over, he tells me; Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Africa, Chechnya, Kosovo. Many get temporary leave to remain; others get deportation orders.

He says: “The big gap we’ve identified is psychosocial. In Germany our focus will be mainly mid- and long-term. Experts come from Israel as volunteers for several weeks, providing training and support. They’ll work side by side with the Germans.’

A particular area of IsraAID’s expertise is its work with victimised women. Christian and Muslim Israelis from Nazareth and Galilee come, Jewish Israelis, Bedouin. There are few trauma experts from elsewhere who speak Arabic.

“Syrians are surprised, then glad, Israelis are helping them,” Mr Polizer explains. “One Syrian doctor said: ‘My worst enemy has become my biggest supporter; the people supposed to protect me chased me away.’ It’s a chance to build bridges.”

Last week IsraAID hosted shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper on Lesbos. It would welcome volunteers with appropriate skills and support from the UK too.

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This originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.

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