Why interfaith matters

Brendan Cox’s remarkable statement following the trial of Jo Cox’s killer is an extraordinary testament to both her and his vision, courage and love. He described her murder as

An act driven by hatred which instead has created an outpouring of love. An act designed to drive communities apart which has instead pulled them together. An act designed to silence a voice which instead has allowed millions of others to hear it. Jo is no longer with us, but her love, her example and her values live on.

We are living through times when the need both to be pulled together, and to pull together in the issues which confront us all feels more urgent that at any other period in my life.

Hatreds have been released across the globe. Most probably they have always been there, semi-covert, half-hiding, under the lid. But now Isis and affiliated terror organisations preach loathing and practise merciless killing. In the West, the referendum here has revealed new levels of racist abuse and attacks, as recorded by the CST for the Jewish, and by TellMAMA for the Muslim, community. In the United States a language of xenophobia and supremacism has reinvigorated groups on the far right, some of whose deeds in the past have gone well beyond words alone. I find myself thinking bleakly about Shakespeare’s line in Othello:

Humanity must perforce prey on itself / Like monsters of the deep.

In the face of these realities, ‘interfaith’ sounds like a weak combination of opposites: what’s ‘inter’ about ‘faith’? Don’t our faiths tug us towards different and often antagonistic identities and goals?

This is partly true; our faiths ask us to anchor our moral and spiritual lives in the culture, liturgy, and discipline of our respective ancient traditions.

Yet, beyond what differentiates us (and even here our distinctive paths traverse in their particular ways the same landscapes of human nature, with its hopes, fears and fallibility), what unites us is immeasurable in comparison.

We belong to the same oneness of life. We affirm the same commitments to justice and compassion. We have the same needs for sustenance and safety, fellowship and community. Ultimately, our faith, hope and trust, whether we are Christian, Muslim or Jewish, are not hope, faith and trust in different, but in the same values, the same humanity and the same God.

My teacher, Rabbi Hugo Gryn of beloved memory, used to say that the world is divided into bridge breakers and bridge builders. We have a choice; we can either be dividers, or uniters.

But we don’t really have a choice: at this stage in world history the price of hatred and division is unthinkable.

In our community, as everywhere, we must develop our relationships with other faiths and communities, local, national and beyond and increase our shared work for the common good. In widening our contact with other faiths, we also deepen our commitment to our own. Through seeking to understand others, we come to know ourselves more truly and are enriched both by the wisdom and ways of our own tradition and by the one God who embraces us all.

An impassioned plea for refugees

Refugee Children – How We Can Help

Refugees from Nazi Germany, new to London, twice bombed out in 1940, my mother and her family were taken in by a devout Christian couple, the Micklems. These good people welcomed them into their home in Boxmoor, where they stayed until the end of the war. When they were leaving, my mother said to Mrs Micklem:
How can I ever thank you enough?
She answered:
One day you’ll help others who are refugees as you once were. That’s how you’ll thank us.

I was brought up on the values implicit in that response. I have been privileged to watch my mother, now in her nineties, put them into practice towards both Jewish and non-Jewish refugees. Today, we speak often about the refugee children and how she wants to help.

I am lucky to be part of a generous and open-hearted congregation. At times over the last year I have received daily phone calls. The question is always the same: ‘What can I do to help?’ People feel triply motivated: by compassion for the horrors refugees, especially children, are passing through; by family memories of how our families were once refugees; and by the teachings of the Torah that we must love the stranger, that is, seek for them the physical and emotional security and hope for the future which we want for ourselves and our own children. This is why so many were so generous in helping bring unaccompanied children to the UK via the Safe Passage appeal.

Across the globe the fate of refugees and the numbers involved are so overwhelming that one can be left feeling paralysed. The Talmud teaches: Take on too much and you haven’t taken anything in; take on a little and succeed’. So, what difference can we make?

Over the last weeks I have met several times with the leaders of helping organisations and key members of our community. We agreed to forward specific projects for the New North London and its friends to make happen. They are described below, showing why each matters, what difference our support will make, how to find out more, and how to donate.

All the projects are run by well governed charities with strong reputations. It is un-rabbinic to tell people how to choose between them; the idea is that everyone will find something with which they can identify. Almost all the projects focus on the needs of unaccompanied children.

Tens, if not hundreds, of us are involved in supporting our Drop-In; many have registered with Refugees at Home to offer accommodation; others are engaged in all kinds of different ways. Please continue! But please also help as below. Each organisation is recording our NNLS contributions, so that we can tell you the difference we make.

I’m well aware that I have not been able to consult across the whole community, so I make this appeal in my own name, and as an expression of personal commitment, but in the knowledge that there is substantial support.


How We Can Help

Charity What we do Why it matters Goal
How to donate
In Northern Greece
Refugee Trauma Initiative

An Arabic-speaking therapist

We take therapists to refugees in Northern Greece to support their psychosocial needs. We wish to recruit an Arabic-speaking therapist for this project. Language knowledge is crucial. Refugees in Northern Greece have had, and continue to have experiences, which will in many cases require long-term psychotherapeutic support. £14,000 for a six-month role, to include salary, flights and accommodation. For more information, please click here
Women’s knitting groups To address their growing despair, powerlessness and boredom, we run knitting groups, which are proving highly popular, productive and cathartic. £6000 will fund a knitting group for 40 women, train facilitators and supply wool to each woman in their weekly group for 6 months For how to donate, click here.
World Jewish Relief

Mobile School Programme

We wish to run a mobile school project in Patras for unaccompanied minors in Northern Greece.  We would educate 200 children. Children are missing out on an education, and working with our local partner the mobile school van would offer maths and language tuition as well as health and hygiene education. £15,000 is sought towards the overall cost of £51,845 For more information and to donate, click here.
In the UK
JCORE -
Jewish council for Racial Equality‘Jump’
We provide befrienders for unaccompanied minors who have made it to the UK. We wish to extend this programme by recruiting more volunteer befrienders. JUMP matches young asylum seekers and refugees who arrive alone in the UK with trained, adult befrienders to support these isolated youngsters and aid their integration into society. £1000 will fund a befriending pair for a year.Volunteering as a befriender for a year will help make a real difference to a young person’s life. For more information click here

and to donate, click here
Child refugee support co-ordinator We want to create a new post of coordinator of services provided by the Jewish community to young asylum seekers. This role is to help identify needs and match them with helping organisations; to liaise with other communities’ activities and statutory provision and co-ordinate the supply of and demand for help. £28,000 for a full-time post for a year, to be launched part-time once £10,000 is raised For more information and to donate, click here
Help RefugeesMEENA Based in Birmingham & run by Liz Clegg, MEENA provides unique psychological and legal support to unaccompanied minors. With its personal relationships and experience with the children, it is in a unique position to give close support to local authority and social services. Unaccompanied minors arrive in the UK traumatised and often totally alone. Liz Clegg has a unique and trusted position, having been primary care provider to hundreds of these children living for over a year in the Calais Jungle. She understands the complexity of their needs once they arrive here. £15,000 to employ Liz Clegg full time for 6 months. For more information, click here
To donate, click here
Winter Clothing Few of the camps in Greece have been fully ‘winterised’,meaning that most residents are still living in tents only appropriate for the heat of summer, either outside or in large, open warehouses which lack even basic heating. Many have already had flooding. Softex is a military-run refugee camp in an abandoned industrial warehouse with 900 residents. The need here is absolutely critical.There is a particular urgency for winter coats and jackets £30 per raincoat to protect people while they are outside; £30 x 332 residents = approx. £10,000. To donate, please go the Help Refugees website

At the Cenotaph

My thoughts are at the Cenotaph where, this Sunday, AJEX, The Association of Jewish ex-Servicemen and Women, will hold its annual Remembrance Parade.

Jewish soldiers fought in every arm of the British services during both World Wars. None were more passionate to defeat the Nazis that those Jews who had fled Britain from the clutches of The Third Reich, as Helen Fry so graphically describes in her aptly titled work His Majesty’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens.

After the war many Jewish soldiers from across the Allied Armies became active in the rescue of survivors, especially children who had often all on their own managed to outlive the torments of ghettos, concentration camps and hiding in frozen forests or under an assumed non-Jewish identity.

‘Soldiers, our soldiers,’ one survivor remembers exclaiming the first time she saw fellow Jews in uniform. They were her rescuers, her heroes.

The well-known phrases are simply true: the soldiers of the Allied Forces risked and gave their lives for freedoms we are liable to take for granted.

The only way we can really thank them is by remembering their courage and that of their families, and by using the lives they enabled us to enjoy for the good of our people and all humankind.

Values in a frightening time

It’s three and a half thousand years, according to the traditional Biblical timescale, since God said to Abraham ‘lech lechaGo!’ Go, God said, from a city tyrannised by power and violence and create a land ruled by justice and compassion. Thus began the Jewish journey, and the journeys of other faiths, and all our individual journeys in search of what is right and good, journeys full of inspiration, also sometimes misdirection, and which remain today far from their envisaged messianic goals.

The world is not in a good place on that journey just right now. This Armistice Day I shall light my candle and wear my poppy for all who gave their lives fighting for a more compassionate earth, and all whose lives, rich with hope, were squandered by tyranny and evil.

At this strange and difficult juncture on the path of civilisation we must not lose our vision or our values. This week I heard the word ‘post-factual’ several times. It frightened me. It also set me playing with other prefix combinations: post-truth; post-humanitarian; post-compassionate, and now, with the sad passing of Leonard Cohen, post-Halleluyah. I don’t want to live in a ‘post’ world.

So here are some key values.

Honesty matters; facts matter. Facts are not the measure of everything; one would hardly expect a faith leader to argue that they were. As Shakespeare wrote, sometimes ‘The heart has reasons that reason cannot know’. Facts, too, have always been mustered, configured and fingered to support one’s own argument. But, as battleofideas puts it: ‘Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of “secondary” importance’. In a post-truth world Holocaust deniers hold equally valid opinions, and Judaism and Jerusalem need have no historical connection, if you choose to think so.

No; we must search for truth and listen to truths, even, and especially, inconvenient ones. Truth is our guide to integrity and justice.

Humanity matters. It consists primarily in the awareness that we share the privilege of existence with all other human beings; that we are all mortal, vulnerable and often afraid; that nevertheless we are endowed with creativity, conscience and the inexhaustible capacity for wonder and love. Such humanity is our guide to empathy, compassion and commitment to one another.

Faith matters. I don’t mean by faith that we know with absolute conviction what God said and whom God likes. I especially don’t mean that we know with absolute conviction whom God does not like. I mean the faith that everything has value, and not just ‘market value’; that life is imbued with a property which is hard to define but may be called ‘sacred’; and that there is a wonder and a oneness to the essence of all life. This is our guide to humility, awe and service.

Music matters; poetry matters. I doubt if anyone wants to live in a post-Halleluyah world. ‘Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord’, begins Leonard Cohen’s perhaps best-known song. Without it neither the heart of every culture nor the heart itself would be able to express the beauty of what the spirit knows but words alone cannot tell.

We must not desert these values, lest they desert us.

Thoughts on the Anniversary of Kristallnacht 2016

It’s seventy-eight years since the Night of Broken Glass, when Goebbels unleashed upon the Jews of Germany the full of violence of Nazi hate. Though he described the subsequent horrors as the unpremeditated and spontaneous expression of the Kochende Volkseele, the boiling public mood, the smashing, burning and killing were co-ordinated across Germany and beyond. Nor was the timing incidental. It’s widely thought that the failure that summer of the rest of the world to increase their quotas for refugees from Nazism gave Goebbels a moral victory, enabling him to claim that nobody else wanted the Jews either, and gave Hitler the green light to act against them as he pleased.

I was in Frankfurt yesterday, where the Jewish Museum hosts an annual evening of study on the day before Kristallnacht. The subject was the rabbis of Frankfurt who fled the Nazis, and their legacy, focusing on my grandfather and his close colleagues. I re-visited his testimony of those terrible years. I read how he preached of his pride in the appellation ‘Israel’ after the Nazis forced all Jews to add it to their name. I stood where the great Boerneplatz Synagogue was burnt to a ruin. My grandfather was outside, summoned by the Gestapo. My father’s uncle’s family were inside; they lived in a flat adjacent to the lady’s gallery. He was arrested and taken to Buchenwald. His pregnant wife and their four children were hastily taken away by relatives, haunted by the sight of the blackened cupola, now visible through the burnt-out doors, of the great house of prayer. The baby died at birth.

Outside, many thousands of memorial tiles line the walls of the ancient Jewish cemetery.

I was shown pictures of the 1930’s, a Sabena aeroplane like that on which my family escaped, the airfield at Croydon where they landed – the very part of London where refugee children have now been arriving.

I sat at length with the director of the Jewish Museum discussing Frankfurt’s Jewish legacy: Ludwig Boerne, ‘the father of modern journalism’, born in the Judengasse, exiled, like Heinrich Heine, to Paris; and Samson Raphael Hirsch the great neo-orthodox rabbi who taught that ‘love your neighbour’ means seeking the same rights and opportunities for every citizen as you want for yourself, irrespective of religion or race. He taught, too, that the moment you abrogate in any way the rights of the stranger, or make the rights we owe each other conditional on any other attributes than the very fact of being human, created in the image of God, you re-open the gates to ‘all the horror of the slavery in Egypt’.

On the train home I passed through the Ardennes, the landscape of Hitler’s bitter last offensive, mercifully thwarted by Allied courage. The route went not far east of the terrible graveyards of the First World War, which we remember this Sunday on Armistice Day.

I followed responses to the US elections on twitter. And, not by any means solely for that reason, I feel afraid. I fear for my children; I fear for the earth. The world, it seems, is reverting to tribalism; maybe fear itself is part of the cause. I don’t know where or why this began, or if it is always thus. My next writing deadline is about the anniversary of the attack on the Bataclan theatre in Paris.

That is why it is essential to say ‘No’ to racism; ‘No’ to anti-Semitism; ‘No’ to the hatred of Muslims, ‘No’ to the denigration of women.; ‘No’ to xenophobia. That is why we must assert the centrality of the commandments, the very core of faith and humanity, to ‘do justly’, to ‘love compassion’, and never denigrate the image of God in anybody, or act with wanton destruction towards this beautiful world, God’s world, the world of which we must continue to say, conducting ourselves accordingly, ‘And God sees that it is good’.

It’s not only elections which make a leader

My colleagues in America circulated the following Communal Prayer in Anticipation of a US Election Season. It reads, in part:

Help us to recognize the gift of our vibrant and open democracy and the responsibility to nurture it. Strengthen us to take our duties as citizens seriously, to hold in our minds and hearts all that is at stake in this election and to fulfil our obligations with integrity. May we discern Your Divine presence and amplify Your teachings through our actions and commitments.

It’s a beautiful prayer, composed in the context of a most unbeautiful campaign. This morning’s New York Times refers to the latest poll, not about who’ll win but about how Americans regard the whole process:

An overwhelming majority of voters are disgusted by the state of American politics, and many harbor doubts that either major-party nominee can unite the country after a historically ugly presidential campaign… With more than eight in 10 voters saying the campaign has left them repulsed rather than excited, the rising toxicity threatens the ultimate victor.

One can only hope that out of this mire, true leadership will somehow emerge. It is not only in America that it is needed.

But what is real leadership? The Torah, as so often, answers the question indirectly.

It’s customary to contrast the ‘leadership styles’ of Noah, this week’s hero, and Abraham. But a comparison with Moses is no less telling.

Noah does what God tells him. ‘Make an ark’; he makes it. ‘Take two of every species’; he rounds them up (it would be fascinating to know how.) ‘Enter the ark’; he goes in. ‘Exit the ark’; he comes out. He speaks not one word. Only, according to the Zohar, when he sees the devastated landscape after the Flood, he weeps. ‘Why’, God then chides him, ‘Didn’t you weep before?’ It’s hard on Noah, who, following a different – rabbinic – tradition, tried to no avail for over a hundred years to persuade his contemporaries not destroy to the earth. Perhaps it was despair which reduced him to speechlessness, and tears.

Moses is not a man of silence, notwithstanding his protest that he lacks eloquence. He’s a person who lacks the dubious capacity not to get involved. Watching Moses catch sight of the burning bush, God observes that ‘he turned aside to see’. The obvious meaning is that Moses turned off the beaten track to take a closer look at this strange horticultural phenomenon.

Rabbinic tradition understands God’s observation more profoundly. God isn’t interested in being a prototype of Google Earth. What God sees is how, at the sight of the toiling slaves, Moses ‘Prince of Egypt’ leaves his royal entourage to ‘behold the burdens’ of the most despised and abject outcasts from society. He observes their labour not with objective vision only, as the object of passing curiosity. Instead, he sees ‘with’ their sufferings; he looks, and at once he feels. By the time he returns to the palace, a crucial question of identity has been resolved forever in Moses’s heart: it is this people who are his people; it is the slaves, not the Pharaohs, who are his true brothers.

That’s why God makes him leader.

May we have leaders who ‘turn aside to see’. May we recognize those who ‘turn aside to see’ as our true leaders.

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