Paddington Comes to Synagogue (we miss you, Michael Bond)

The much-loved children’s author Michael Bond died this week. His memory is truly for a blessing, as the flowers and jars of fine-cut marmalade which currently adorn the statue of his most famous creation, A Bear Called Paddington, testify.

I grew up with Paddington. The young bear gentleman with his entourage of the Brown family, Mrs Bird and Mr Gruber, was more frequently at my bedside table even than Winnie the Pooh, or Jennings, or Professor Branestawm. Like millions of children, I loved those stories, and still do.

As a rabbi, I maintained the fantasy that one day I would invite Michael Bond to bring Paddington to the synagogue, out of which a slim new volume might emerge: Paddington Goes to Shul.

I even half thought that the author could be Jewish, in which case, a fortiori, his creation might be too. But this is unlikely, since the very first breakfast the bear enjoys in his new home in London consists of bacon, which he likes so much that he puts the leftovers in his suitcase, leaving the perplexed Mrs Brown wondering why six dogs should have followed them into the Underground later that morning.

But what might have happened had the intrepid bear ventured into the service one Shabbat morning? I never got very far in my musings:

‘Would you like an Aliyah, an honour?’ asked the shammes, or synagogue orderly, kindly, bending down to speak to the young bear who had just entered the service. ‘We could call you up for Shishi?’

Paddington looked upwards. All he could see was the ceiling; there didn’t seem to be anywhere to be called up to. And who, and where, was Shishi? All around him were only men. Then, because he didn’t want to seem rude, he said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and lifted his hat politely.

‘No, no; you keep that on in synagogue,’ said the kind shammes, taking the bear by the hand. ‘In fact, you’ll need one of these’ he added, fetching a tallit prayer-shawl and putting it round the bear’s shoulders where it clung instantly thanks to little lumps of marmalade left over from his breakfast.

A moment later, Paddington found himself perched on a small stand on top of the podium, in front of a hushed congregation. ‘You have had your Bar Mitzvah, haven’t you?’ said another gentleman, in somewhat urgent tones. ‘You do know your blessings?’

Who were they talking about now? Paddington began to feel a little anxious. He’d seen a bar once, on the boat from darkest Peru, but he was sure it hadn’t also been called Mitzvah. ‘Bar-who?’ he said. To his surprise this seemed to go down remarkably well.

Or perhaps there could be an incident over the kashrut of Paddington’s marmalade. Whatever the case, the strange and perplexing rules and rituals of the synagogue are rife with the potential for good-natured incomprehension.

In one sense Paddington really could be Jewish. The little, forlorn bear on the platform at Paddington with his note ‘Please look after this bear’ is like the hundreds of children from across Nazi Europe who found themselves at the end of the platforms of Liverpool Street Station with a number attached to them like a luggage tag, and bewilderment in their hearts. Or, more likely, Paddington represents all the children evacuated from London at the start of the war, in which his creator went off to fight.

I’ve written many painful emails and sent many tweets about terrible events in the last months. I thought I would choose a different tone this week. It’s not because the world has suddenly become free of evil, but because all of us, whoever we are and wherever we live, want our children to be able to be children.

We want every child to enjoy a proper childhood, surrounded by affection, with curiosity, adventure and wonder. We want them to breath in the joy of innocent mornings, with life safe, plentiful and unending; before danger and mortality creep like shadows behind the half-open windows and stare out across the landscape of the future.

And even when they do, we still want Paddington to take his jar of marmalade with him under his hat, and sit down with Mr Gruber to a large cup of cocoa and his elevenses bun, and intrepid and eager, look the world straight in the heart.

Thank you, Michael Bond, for what you have given us: Paddington Marches On.

Listening, with leaders of all faiths, at Grenfell Tower

I was invited to speak at a gathering of faith leaders close to Grenfell Tower yesterday. I went, mainly to listen. We were Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Bahais; we were just people, but people together.

On walls and railings all around are pictures of the missing, children, young couples, all ages: ‘Have you seen…?’ ‘Marco and Gloria, Italy is praying for you’. In the streets, people talk in small groups, residents, school children, police, helpers, chaplains.

There were powerful calls for justice; for all questions to be answered in all aspects; for those responsible to be made accountable. Yet the spirit was solidarity, not anger; togetherness, not division.

Pain knows no age, no colour, no gender, no religion, said the local Sikh leader; humanity is one. He told me these were the words of a colleague who was volunteering among the dispossessed in Syria and Lebanon. London, too, has its dispossessed.

‘We’re here for the long haul’, said the Bishop of Kensington, Bishop Graham, speaking for the local clergy, who’ve been remarkable. ‘We believe in community; we believe in a God who gives hope’.

‘I’m nobody’, said a local young man, ‘But I’m somebody.’ He grew up nearby; as a child he’d played next to, in and beneath the Tower: ‘I’ve friends who didn’t get out’. We’re all responsible for our communities, he said; if only we’d realised earlier; if only we’d done more.

On the walls, among the pictures of the missing, are small hand-written posters:

Broken but United with My Neighbours (in many colours)
Life does go on. But now it has to change
Listen. We are still here…

I spoke about listening; ‘Shema; Listen!’ is the first word of Judaism’s most important meditation. I told the story of the man whose friend assures him that he loves him. ‘If you love me’, he replies, ‘tell me where I hurt?’ ‘How should I know?’ the man remonstrates, ‘I’ve no idea where you hurt!’ ‘Then you aren’t truly my friend,’ says the man.

We must not become a city so separated into sub-communities divided by ethnicity, religion, income, prospects and such different daily realities that we’ve no idea where others hurt. We must not remain a society in which, when one group cries out ‘I don’t feel safe’, the rest don’t hear, perhaps don’t even care.

We all have the power to turn a nobody into a somebody, by listening and caring. We can also make a somebody feel a nobody, by closing our heart. It happens all the time and we are all responsible.

Before the gathering, I met Father Alan Everett, who’s coordinated much of the support. We talked about resources for the long-term… As for lessons, he said: Be organised and prepared. Know each other; know your local communities, councillors, faith leaders, police, fire services, teachers. Meet, discuss, plan for eventualities. Have up-to-date contact lists; keep them up-to-date.

Above us all is the tower, charred and silent; full of stifled voices which will cry out in the hearts of parents, children, friends, neighbours, firemen, rescuers, forever. I think of Rachel Bluwstein’s words, written soon before she died:

Will you hear my silence, -
You who did not hear my words?

 

Muslim Welfare House mosque, Finsbury Park

We stand together in solidarity with our Muslim fellow-citizens after the terror attack on worshippers leaving the Muslim Welfare House Mosque last night in Finsbury Park. This is a shocking and despicable hate crime.

The victims were leaving the mosque after a day of fasting and prayer on one of the holiest nights of the month of Ramadan. Our thoughts are with them and with their families and their community.

This appalling act is a desecration of the name of God and a crime against all the citizens of London who seek to live together, celebrating our differences and creating a just, vibrant and compassionate society for us all.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

In tribute to Jo Cox MP

The London and Manchester terror attacks, the horrifying fire, – they make us think about the frailty of life, but also about its value. No one can ever assess the worth of any human life, but the criteria which speak to me most are simple:

What impact have we had on the lives, hearts, minds and souls of others? Have we alleviated suffering? Have we shared joy and appreciation? Have we brought companionship and love?

Jo Cox was murdered exactly a year ago, on 16 June 2016, just before her 42nd birthday. Labour MP for Batley and Spen, she was killed because of her open, inclusive and deeply compassionate values. As Sarah Brown said in tribute: ‘Jo reserved a special place in her heart for the most vulnerable and the poorest citizens of the world. She was fearless, she was endlessly upbeat…’

Before entering Parliament, she worked for 10 years at Oxfam, becoming the head of advocacy and policy. As then Prime Minister David Cameron said, she ‘epitomised the fact that politics is about serving others’.

The very day his wife was murdered, Brendon Cox issued an extraordinarily courageous statement:

Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.’

At Brendon’s request, this weekend of 16 – 18 June is dedicated to The Great Get-Together, to motivate us to create in Jo’s memory a societywhere we know our neighbours, invest in our communities, and are able to keep an eye out for each other’s children…Jo was ambitious for what could be done…’

This is the plain meaning of the quotation from the Torah inscribed next to the Ark on the eastern wall of our synagogue: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. When Jews gained civic equality in Germany (for all too short a time) Samson Raphael Hirsch interpreted these words to mean that we must seek for every member of our society, irrespective of their faith or ethnicity, the very same rights and opportunities we want for ourselves. We could add that we should also try to provide for others the same security, reassurance and loving kindness we hope will surround us during our journey through life. For life can be cruel, lonely and wretched.

Brendon Cox could not have known that this weekend would come at such a painful and fragile time in the life of the country. In the last two weeks, we have seen the horrors of both physical fire and the fire of hatred.

But we are also witnesses to the great outpouring of kindness, generosity and solidarity which has characterised the huge public response, including people of all faiths and none, and across all sections of society from the Queen to the homeless.

This is a moment when the heart of humanity is open and we are called upon to be part of it.

To those who will now be governing our country

I hope and pray that whoever runs the country following the complex results of the election will show strong leadership in the protection of everyone’s safety, the respect for dignity and equality, the promotion of justice and compassion, and in unyielding commitment to the defence of the environment, the future of life itself.

Four issues concern me deeply, and have been especially poignant in the last week.

The first is safety. Like all of us, I’ve looked many times at the pictures of the people murdered by Islamist terrorists near London Bridge. ‘She died in his arms’: the utter cruelty of destroying the life, love, hope and joy of others with such evil and wanton intent is beyond comprehension. I went to Potters Fields, joined the minute of silence, and listened to the defiant and compassionate words of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn. The headlines will pass, but not the pain of those whose lives have been transformed by injury, trauma and grief. Our hearts go out to them.

I joined Muslim, Jewish, Christian and police leaders at a press conference expressing sorrow for the victims and condemning terror, all terror, everywhere. I was not alone in saying how sorry I feel for the vast numbers of Muslims whose faith, so dear to them, is being hijacked by terrorists, but that, at the same time, there are challenging questions to be asked, and urgently pursued, as to why Islam is repeatedly used as cover for such wicked abuse.

I am full of admiration for the courage and professionalism shown by the police and emergency services, and the selfless bravery of so many local people and passers-by.

The second issue is the fate of refugees and the homeless. We currently have a charming lady staying with us who’s been a refugee in the UK for twelve years. She told us that when she has nowhere else to go she sleeps on the night buses. In the last months, I’ve travelled a lot; I’ve seen people sleeping on the streets and in the porticos of London, Berlin, Paris, Geneva. It’s almost impossible for a person without an address to get a job. If one has no work, how does one reconstruct a sense of one’s own life and worth? I was asked to speak at an OECD conference about what faith communities can do for refugees: the phrases I heard again and again were ‘the opportunity to learn the language’; ‘apprenticeships and jobs’; and, very importantly, ‘we need to think not just about the refugees but also the unemployed and poor in the communities where they arrive’.

The third concern is the vulnerable. Time and again when I speak with doctors, social workers, therapists, I hear of doors closing because of cuts in funding, excessive bureaucracy and resultant poor morale. (Yet I also frequently witness the heart-felt dedication of nurses, physicians, OT’s, volunteers…) Where are people to go now, who need care or counselling, or simply a compassionate ear in a compassionate environment? It makes me all the more determined to increase the resources and resilience of our, and other, faith communities. If we shut our doors to the needs of body and soul, what open doors will there be left?

Last but not least, is the matter which embraces all humankind and life on earth itself. I co-wrote and co-signed a letter to The Times (published yesterday) from leaders of all religions:

Our respective faiths unite us in the affirmation that all human life is of infinite value and that caring for our planet is a sacred responsibility. We are answerable to God, each other and our children’s children for the wellbeing of this earth. Life is too precious, the earth too wonderful and the demand to act for environmental justice too strong for us to remain silent.

I hope these basic Jewish, and universal, values will be central in the hearts of those governing our country and the world.

 

President Trump: Why many of us are angry

I struggled with a surge of anger last night as I listened to President Trump announce the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate agreement. Like millions of others, I’m trying to work out how to direct my outrage constructively.

Beneath the anger lies pain.

From my earliest memories, I’ve experienced the world as a place of wonder.

That nature is a sacred gift is not merely some intellectual idea which makes sense to me after due consideration. I feel it viscerally, intuitively, in my very bones. It’s not a thought, but a command. It calls out from every tree, river, bird and animal. I hear it as God’s voice throughout creation. It has the eloquence of the wind and the waves; the vast sky is its articulation. It speaks in the tiny eyes of baby animals and the urgent cries of fledgling birds. Its voices are the silence of hungry children and the sickness of families with no source of clean water, and the hunger of men and women whose land, the earth which fed their ancestors, has turned to desert, or lies beneath the rising waters.

This voice penetrates the consciousness more powerfully than any form of merely human words. But if I must translate it into language, what it says is simple, brutal and commanding: ‘I am life; do not destroy me’.

I am often ashamed of my own existence, fearing the damage I may inflict on what I reverence, the woodlands and fields, the animals and birds, children. I’ve long ago resolved to be a planter, not an uprooter, of trees, and not to kill for my food. But still I feel faithless to this great world of sanctity and beauty.

It was with these thoughts of wonder and shame that, alongside hundreds of millions, I welcomed the Paris agreement and felt great relief in its wake. Whether the 2 degrees centigrade limit on global warming is too high and should be 1.5 degrees; whether the accord is enforceable; whether signing was for certain leaders no more than an act of public show; how the accord relates to social justice: all these remain vast areas of uncertainty. But Paris was a huge move in the right direction.

Now one man has made what may be for him a small, almost casual step backwards, but it is a vast leap in the wrong direction for all humankind.

Part of the reason I’m angry is because of the contempt shown towards the 195 nations who signed in France. The agreement was the result of a vast international effort, supported by the leaders of all faiths and none, headed by Pope Francis in his magnificent encyclical Laudato Si.

But I am mainly angry because of the cause itself. President Trump’s claim that he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” is indeed true. But what good can global warming do to Pittsburgh, or Chicago, or Detroit? Research and industry are themselves already (finally) moving towards renewable energies and different technologies. Is the aim to penalise his own country?

Closer to home, doesn’t the President of the United States represent his own children and grand-children and their future on this earth, not to mention my children and yours, and all the children yet unborn who will inherit the wrongs on which our generation turns its back?

The hope is that the President doesn’t represent the USA, let alone the globe, and that his intentions will be challenged in states, cities and courtrooms. Perhaps he will yet experience a change of heart.

The hope is that we will not agree to let this wonderful, breathing world be asphyxiated by our own indifference or negligence, that we simply love it too much, that we will do more because others threaten to do less.

 

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