Prickly Subjects

11pm last night was a highlight of my week. ‘Come’, my daughter Libbi called from the garden, ‘Quickly. I’ve seen it.’

‘It’ was the baby hedgehog I’d brought home one damp November night. I’d been out late with the dog on the Heath when I noticed a tiny ball of prickles curled up in the wet grass. Sometimes hedgehogs are born too late in the year to make it through the winter; they have to reach a minimum weight to survive hibernation. Was this baby animal too small? If I took it home to feed it up, would I be removing it from its family, doing more harm than good? But then, we had a large garden with other hedgehogs present and, following professional advice, we’d taken the essential measures to make our garden hedgehog friendly.

The animal fitted snugly in my glove. I ran home, dog leash in one hand, baby hedgehog in the other. I called the hedgehog help-line (yes, Britain has such a thing), took advice from congregants (there’s expertise on everything), bought the right food, fed the animal nightly and invested in a deluxe hibernation home. (‘A fool and his money are easily parted’, says my wife – who would have done exactly the same for an animal, or human, in need).

So, when Libbi called out, and we saw the hedgehog, thin but definitely alive, emerge from its winter sleep, we were thrilled.

I’m writing about this not just because it brought our family joy, and not only because over and again I reli­­­­ve a horrid scene where at a crossroads I watched a gang of teenagers stone a hedgehog to death.

I’m writing because, in a world which leaves so many of us feeling so powerless so much of the time, I am passionate about ‘can do’. ‘You are not at liberty to desist from the work’, insisted Rabbi Tarfon 1900 years ago, words we put on the certificates of achievement awarded by Eco-Synagogue.

We don’t have to watch, like helpless bystanders, the decline of wildlife, or race and inter-faith relations, or teenager safety and wellbeing, or social justice, or compassion itself.

I’ve had a learning week. I met Leket Israel, Israel’s National Food Bank, which last year gleaned 30 million tons of produce from the fields and saved 2 million hot dinners from waste. I saw City Harvest, which has provided 5 million rescued meals in London (they bring food to our asylum seekers drop-in). They estimate that 9.2 million meals are missed each month by Londoners who can’t afford food, while 13.3 million meals are thrown away.

I met with parliamentarians, religious leaders and the heads of The Wildlife Trust to discuss their input into the forthcoming environment act, based on their amazing report Towards a Wilder Britain. Britain is among the most environmentally degraded countries in the world.

Our hedgehog, our garden, our synagogue and Eco-Synagogue will all play a part.

I went to Barnet House to express solidarity against racism and anti-Semitism with members of the Muslim community. I listened to how teenage boys and girls experience our local streets. Last Friday a group of us took gifts to the North London Mosque following the atrocities in Christchurch. In this populism age, with xenophobia on the rise, we need to stand, and be seen to stand, together.

In his excellent book To Do The Right And The Good, Elliot Dorff describes compellingly how Judaism understands the creation of a compassionate, just and sustainable world as the inescapable responsibility of every individual, household and community, – our part in our partnership with God.

When that young hedgehog emerged last night from its long sleep, I felt that it was shaking me awake too, and all of us, to do more for the sake of life.


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People who bring heaven down to earth

‘How beautiful the world still is, how stunning life is’, Simon Lichman wrote to me this morning: nature ‘is not just beauty, it is the finely tuned essence of that which makes it all possible.’

That ‘essence’ is what I mean by God; the better part of me tries to listen for it, everywhere.

I’ve been asked: ‘So what did you do in Israel besides run a marathon?’ The answer is: I heard that voice, many times – as I hear it also here, in London.

I heard it because I met so many people, different, the focus of their lives diverse, who yet had in common the determination to connect. I could list all their names and what they do, but I’m afraid I may leave someone out. So here are only a few:

There’s Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, who created the community Tsion, and who, on Yom Yerushalayim, the date the city was united physically in the Six Day War, unites it spiritually by praying with imams, priests and rabbis together to ‘Seek the peace of Jerusalem’.

There’s Levy Lauer, who knows every detail of what it means to give a decent meal, a place to sleep, a safe roof, to a destitute refugee who would otherwise be homeless and hungry with nowhere for her children on the streets.

There’s Shaiya Rothberg, who teaches mysticism at the Conservative Yeshivah, but isn’t such a mystic as to be afraid to put himself on the line for poor families, Arab and Jewish, in East Jerusalem, so that they shouldn’t be forced from their homes.

There are the Eritrean women at Kuchinate (‘crochet’ in Tirgrinia) creating red and sky-blue baskets, weaving from a past of flight, beatings and rape a future of comradeship, hope and dignity.

There are Art Green and Mimi Faigelson, scholars of Hasidism, who through this language of spirit and feelings help their students discover the pathway between intellect and soul.

There’s Yonatan Neril, off to Kenya where Israeli and British initiatives produce non-polluting solar energy for developing African economies. He picked up a roll the café owners were throwing away: ‘May I give this to the beggar on the corner’. Waste is intolerable, he said.

There’s Simon himself, devoted to bringing schools together, Arab and Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian. It takes him an age to walk up the lane in Ein Rafa because every child greets him, everyone calls ‘Hey! Simon!’

And, and,…What these people and so many others across the world have in common is the commitment to deeper connections: between Jews, Christians and Muslims mind and heart; home and homelessness; humankind and nature. In affirming these links, they help us hear, despite the surrounding racket, the quiet pulse of the hidden life which flows through everything, ‘that finely tuned essence of what makes all possible’.

I respect such people. I honour their fellowship. We must strengthen each other in the bleak times at hand, as fear grows and across the world populism sharpens its weapons.

Such people live by a Torah which, like the fire on the altar in the Temple long ago, burns through the night until morning, ‘lighting the darkness until it is transformed into light.’ (Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Tschernobil)

Late one night in Jerusalem I spotted a light still burning in a ramshackle store. The old man owner turned and saw me: ‘Yes, I have a Tallit, a prayer shawl for you’. There and then he retied the eight-threaded fringes on each corner, humble, devoted, speaking no words of distraction until the skilful work was complete. Traditionally one thread in each fringe is blue, recalling the brilliance of the sky. Thus I bore silent witness to the binding of the knots, the tying together of heaven and earth.

There are many whose lives are devoted to the weaving of such bonds, who make noble the endeavour to be human.


After the murderous attacks on worshippers at Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand

We stand with you in solidarity and sorrow.

Wherever we are in the world, whatever our faith and beliefs, we stand together with you as pilgrims on this earth, as fellow human beings striving to do what is compassionate and just, hoping to share with our loved ones, friends and fellow citizens the privileges and responsibilities of life.

We have no place for racism, hatred and supremacism.

We are appalled and disgusted at the premeditated racist murder of Muslim people, made even more brutal, blasphemous, hurtful and despicable because it was carried out in the sacred precincts of prayer, during the peaceful hour of worship.

We mourn the victims alongside you, children, teenagers, healers and teachers, heroes who tried to save others, people from different parts of the world, contributing to the civic life of Christchurch and New Zealand.

Our hearts are with the bereaved. Our prayers are with the wounded and traumatised, and with all those striving to heal and support them. Our anguished thoughts are with all whose family members are still missing.

We feel for Muslim communities across the world.

The oneness of God and the fellowship of our common humanity unite us. We must stand as surety for each other in times of threat and danger. We must act collectively against all forms of hatred and bigotry. We must foster friendship and understanding between us and all people. We must work together for the safety and good of all life everywhere.

Written in sorrow

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
Senior Rabbi, Masorti Judaism

Visiting Israel March 2019 – A Diary

While in Israel this week, ahead of running the Jerusalem Marathon, Rabbi Wittenberg has visited a number of projects and written a little about them and other areas of interest:

A New Tallit

I’ve loved my weekday tallit. It’s not one he gave me, but it reminds me of my father. I don’t want to part from it. But it’s faded and has holes; sadly, its time has come. Jerusalem is no bad place for tallit hunting.

It’s ten at night, but a small store on King George Street is still open. I’ve often noted the bric-a-brac outside, tourist items, and walked by. This time I go in. The owner, a gentle old man, shows me a Tallit, light, not showy, modest like my father. I bought it at once.

But the tzitziot, the fringes to remind us of heaven and our responsibilities on earth, were torn. ‘I must replace those’, the man said, ‘Can you wait’? He separated four long threads for each corner, folding each set double to make eight. He sat down, said ‘For the sake of the mitzvah of tzitzit’ and began to tie the complex knots. ‘Were you born in Jerusalem?’ I asked. He pointed to his lips: he would not speak, not break concentration until the knots were done. I too sat silent. He finished a corner: ‘In Persia’. I watched him, a man of yirat shamayim, humility before God, of chochmah, fingers skilled in the subtle winding of the threads.

‘I want to sell my stock and close’, he said later pointing at the remaining Judaica, touristica. ‘Won’t you miss this?’ ‘No; my wife died. I can’t do this alone.’ ‘Recently?’ ‘A year. She was kind, wise, good.’ He looked down.

We said warm goodbyes. ‘I’ll think of you when I wear this Tallit’, his presence, and memories of my father, woven into the threads.

The Library

‘Can you look over my grandfather’s books,’ Rivana asked me. Since he’d passed away his library was housed in her mother’s flat, next door to where she and Simon Lichtman had kindly enabled me to stay.
There were the Talmuds, Babylonian and Jerusalem, a heavy set of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, two-hundred-year-old volumes of the Chummash and Tenach, books in Yiddish on history, politics, science, poetry. There were four volumes on the history of the Jews of Lithuania, – from after the terrors. Yiddish must have been for him where Judaism and the rest of the world met.

‘Tell me about your grandfather.’ On the wall was his semichah, attesting to his ordination. It was from the great Lithuanian Yeshivah of Slobodka, dated 1927.

‘Soon after, my grandparents came to New York. My grandfather was interested in everything; he was widely learned. When anyone came to see him about conversion, he would say “Let’s see how we can make this work”. In 1943 he joined a march of rabbis to Washington to protest America’s treatment of refugees.’ I want to know more about this.

There was a second certificate on the wall, in honour of Rivana’s grandmother. The Rabbinical Seminary of America thanked her for her support of the congregation and the rabbinate. It was as far as an orthodox body could go in recognising the contribution of a remarkable woman.

Open their covers and books yield the soul the person who loved them. We sat quietly with the spirit of Rivana’s grandparents.

After plentiful rain in the last weeks the small meadows between the suburbs of Jerusalem are verdant, brilliant in the sunshine. The grass is full of small flowers: anemones, iris and, among the stones, cyclamen. The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens are blue with swathes of lupins.Can anyone name for me this tiny bird, drinking sap from a cactus flower?

I only managed to photograph one of a pair of hoopoes, the duchifat, Israel’s national bird.

I met with Yonatan Neril, who founded the The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

I’m meeting later today with EcoPeace Middle East, who work with Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians for the good of the whole region.

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Kuchinate – קוצ’ינטה – African Refugee Women’s Collective:

“I walked through South Tel Aviv, past the Central Bus Station, where refugees from Eritrea and Dafur gather, sleep in street corners and try to find work, down to the unprepossessing building where Kuchinate has its premises.

I climbed the stairs into a different world. Here were baskets in the most brilliant colours, vibrant blue, glowing red, baskets in bright bands of white and black. Here was life and creativity. Kuchin-at-ei means ‘crochet’ in Tirgrinia.
A group of women were sewing while talking quietly together. Their smiles in greeting communicated a warmth and gentleness which could only derive from a profound resilience, considering what they had been forced to pass through. It’s not the way among Eritrean women, I was told, to speak of what happened in the past.

Though the government takes substantial taxes, the women are able to earn a basic if meagre living through their work. However, it’s not just the money which sustains them but the sense of community and solidarity which the staff and volunteers help the women to provide for each other.

I’m bringing home to our community as many baskets as I can carry; they’re ideal containers for Mishoach Manot, Purim gifts of food and drinks. You can also shop on line.
I hope we’ll make links with this remarkable project of healing and creativity. Top in Maimonides’ hierarchy of tzedakah is affirming people’s dignity by enabling them to earn a safe living.

Please look on and

Why I’m running for the guide dogs

I can’t fully explain why I’m crazy enough to start running marathons when I’m sixty. It’s partly to control my diabetes (a shorter distance would do!) it’s partly to make up for how useless I was at sport at school; it’s largely the pleasure of sharing, whenever possible, an activity with my son Mossy. And running in Jerusalem is a tribute to my father, who was here from 1937 – 55, in charge of keeping the blood banks cool during the siege in the War of Independence in 1948. It’s a tribute, too, to the history of our people, the Jewish People whose dreams and destiny have been intertwined with the fate and spirit of this extraordinary city for three thousand years.

Most importantly, I think of this as a marathon of hope, an HaTikvah marathon, that this remarkable civilisation of temple, synagogues, spires and minarets will one day be fully and completely Yeru-shalem, the abode of shalom, peace, the town shechubrah la yachdav, the city whose faiths and peoples are united all together. However grim the politics, I can neither count nor adequately appreciate the people I know whose lives are courageously and tenaciously devoted to just this vision.

However, I can explain why I’m running for Israel’s guide dogs. Yes, I am stupidly sentimental about animals. Yes, I love dogs. But it’s more than soppiness; it’s the feeling of oneness in their company, how the spirit of the God of life flows quietly through us all. It can’t be by chance that our black-and-white border collie came with his own tallit. We humans have to put it on as an extra garment; on occasion I’m foolish enough to feel – selectively of course – that animals and trees wear their spirituality naturally.

As for the ‘guide’ aspect, I’ve seen how these remarkable dogs, beautifully trained, can restore not only sight but independence, confidence and joy to their human partners. Today dogs guide blind people, assist those who have physical disabilities and become companions in trust, affection and resilience to civilians and soldiers with PTSD. It’s not just primary schools who have a resident hound to calm childrens’ – and teachers’ – nerves. In exam term certain universities have puppy corners too.

‘It’s not so much what he (Napal, a black Labrador) does for me physically – the assisting, the service,’ writes Jason Morgan in A Dog Called Hope, ‘so much as what he does for me socially and psychologically…he was my bridge to the outside world.’ Jason was severely wounded in an accident while on a mission with an elite US military unit. He would wake up at night screaming with physical pain and mental terror. But now ‘with Napal among us we feel like a family again.’ The children are once again ‘blessed with a dad who smiles.’

If I can contribute to at least one such canine-human partnership of faithfulness and love, I’ll be happy. Last year people privileged me to raise enough funds to sponsor half a dog, from the tip of the tail to the centre of the heart. This year I’m hoping to manage the other half; from the heart to the tip of the nose.

As for guide dogs in Israel (I support guide dogs in the UK as well, and wildlife projects in many places) I can do no better than echo what the young man said on the promotion film when asked why he didn’t import a ready-trained animal from America: ‘If my dog hadn’t been educated in Israel, how would he have known to go straight to the front of every queue?’

‘Be my eyes’ is not in fact the recommended greeting when owner and guide dog first meet. It’s a quote from the Torah. For there are many kinds of eyes and many ways of seeing. Animals, perhaps dogs especially, have often helped humans to see with the heart. I can’t count the number of people, animals, gardens, wild places and wild flowers which have enriched my sight and deepened my insight.

Today I’m stocking up on vitamin C to get rid of a cold and food for energy. Above all I’m storing in my thoughts the love and support so many people have given me. Thank you for your encouragement! When my stamina runs low (somewhere or everywhere between 18 and 35k – after when I hope I’ll feel that even if I have to crawl I’ll make the finish) I know that my friends and community are behind me, saying: ‘Treat as a sermon; just keep on going for four and a half hours.’

God, an old Kentish orchard and a prayer for people of all faiths

It’s the simplest Hasidic interpretation, but it’s beautiful. It’s how Yehudah Aryeh Leib, the Rebbe of Ger, reads the opening words of the 2nd paragraph of the Shema:Im shamoa tishme’u’. Any grammarian will tell you that the repetition of the root shema, ‘hear’ is for emphasis only.But the rebbe understands it differently: ‘If you listen’, he explains, ‘You will surely hear’.

But where should we listen? And to what?

‘Anywhere’, he would answer, ‘And to anything’; because the presence of God is in all things, and all life speaks God’s secret speech. We only have to listen.

That awareness overcame me this morning, looking at the willow catkins, the almond blossom, the daffodils beneath the yew. The voice of God is in all creation.

I felt the same when I attended the morning service for Ash Wednesday in St Margaret’s Church next to Westminster Abbey as a guest of Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkins, chaplain to Parliament and the Queen. There were a dozen Christian worshippers, silent, immersed in prayer, and there was Nicky and me. We didn’t join the prayers, but we did join prayer, because the quiet concentration which is prayer’s heart comes over one ineluctably in such silence, such attentiveness.

Sometimes the language and imagery of other faiths troubles me; I hear a note which is difficult for Jews. But more often I feel moved, especially in ancient churches hallowed by generations of worship. I’m carried down to the depths of echad, the oneness of God, the oneness of all life which embraces and humbles us all.

Aida Edemariam wrote a wonderful piece in yesterday’s Guardian about the lost art of listening. The essence, she said, is ‘to find the humility to set aside the needs of self and listen’. The Rebbe of Ger would have agreed. There is only one condition, he explained in a letter to his children: to set aside self. Then the holiness which abides in all things becomes apparent. Listen, and you will surely hear.

I’m not very good at attaining such inner silencing. But sometimes it attains, overcomes me. I had such a moment a week ago in Nicky’s beloved native Kent, in the orchards next door to the house where she grew up. Immediately afterwards I was asked to compose a prayer for an interfaith service:

I write as the February sun shines through the branches of old apple trees in a venerable Kentish orchard, disbursing the mist above the frost-hardened grass. In my soul is thanksgiving for the privilege of life, this gift of awareness in a world full of wonder.

Trees, birds, animals, people, all creation alive at this moment, we are entrusted to each other at this critical hour on the journey of our planet.

May neither fear, greed, ignorance, heedlessness, heartlessness nor lack of imagination misguide us into hurting, fighting and destroying each other. May our different ways to God educate and enrich our spirit so that, even as we follow our own path, we find companionship and inspiration from others who follow theirs.

May our humanity not make us arrogant, as if we owned creation. Rather, may the sensitivities and vulnerability of our hearts deepen our consciousness, so that we recognise with humility our fellowship and interdependence with all existence.

Together, may we be moved to love life more deeply. May we be inspired to serve the God of life by working, each with our unique gifts, insight and energy, for the good of all living beings.



On anti-Semitism and racism

I was having a coffee at Charing X Station when a man approached me and asked with bemusement, ‘What’s this anti-Jewish thing?’

I muttered something about hate, racism, age-old, when he asked again, ‘What’s that ‘s’ word?’ ‘Anti-Semitism?’ ‘Ah, yes, that’s it’, and he wandered off.

I was left asking myself why I didn’t have a proper pre-prepared one-liner. The answer is partly because books are being written on the subject, currently by Deborah Lipstadt in the States, and another, I believe, by Rabbi Dame Julia Neuberger here. But it’s also because I’m not willing to say anything which might invite the response: ‘Well, if you weren’t successful…; if you didn’t keep yourselves to yourselves…; if you didn’t have Israel… people would like you more.’

It’s no doubt true that different groups can always do more to open the door, build bridges, make themselves better understood. I believe in such activity.

But it must not lead to blaming the victim. The responsibility for hating lies with the hater. We are neither able nor entitled to take away other people’s answerability for their conduct. The responsibility for racism lies with the racist.

It must be faced, individually and institutionally. It won’t do to think, as it seems some in high places do: ‘I’m ideologically anti-racist. I always have been. Therefore, nothing I do can be anti-Semitic’ or anti-Muslim or anti- any other group.

Like love, hope, fear and anger, hate is a human response. None of us is immune. I’m uneasy when anyone says, ‘I’m not prejudiced’. Prejudice springs eternal in the human breast. Uncertainty, frustration, envy, even too many people in the waiting-room: we fix on someone to blame. The someone easily becomes them; they become a conspiracy. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was exposed as a vicious forgery in The Times in 1921. But tragically, like fake news, it’s not the facts which have the impact but the supply of a seductive story which suits, promotes and magnifies peoples’ prejudice.

Vigilance against racism, anti-Semitism, any form of bigotry which fixes on a collective target, must begin at home, in the mind and conscience. Self-deceit is easy. So is blaming the victim for being upset at the perpetrator. It’s a truism that not everything a ‘victim’ says is necessarily fair: everyone carries their history, sensitivities, prejudices of their own. But the refusal to meet, listen to and engage with the coherent responses of victim groups is a further and clear sign of bigotry.

Vigilance must extend to public discourse, the media and social media, the pulpit, local and national politics and the law. Lives are at stake: the safety in the street of people like you and me, sometimes Jews, sometimes Muslims, sometimes people who are black, sometimes refugees. The reputation of the country is at stake.

In the growing environment of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia I’m especially concerned as a rabbi with how we develop individual and communal spiritual resilience, show solidarity with other vulnerable groups, and understand identity.

A cynic once called anti-Semitism ‘the rabbi’s friend’; it makes more Jews feel Jewish than the longest of sermons.

I don’t love what I’d call such ‘negative identity’; it’s not the Judaism I want to promote. Professor Arnold Eisen writes about the difference between a covenant of fate and a covenant of destiny. One doesn’t choose the former. It happens by birth; it’s reinforced the moment someone says, ‘You Jew!’

The covenant of destiny is what we make of our given identity. It’s how we live, love, cherish, and study it; how we interact with its ancient wisdom and contemporary communities so that they deepen our conscience, open our hearts and guide our values and actions. That’s my focus on this Shabbat UK.

Humanity hasn’t got the time to waste on hatred. There’s too much, too important, to be getting on with.


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