Music from over the fence: the joy of Lag Be’Omer

The sound of singing came over the fence with such compelling harmony that I simply had to get up from my desk and follow the music. It came from the home of my colleague, friend and neighbour, Rabbi Zahavit Shalev. Seated around the fire-pit in her garden were at least ten people playing the guitar and fifty more singing along. There were parents and children, and grandparents too. There was L. who still keeps the yellow star his family had to wear in the Budapest ghetto in his Passover Haggadah. There was M. who’d never been to a Jewish occasion before. There were lots of teens and young people.

It was the night of Lag Be’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, so-named after the measure of grain offered in the temple on its first night. The counting of the Omer marks the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. It’s traditionally a period of mourning, but Lag Be’Omer is a day of respite, a date for music and joy. ‘Despite the fact that Jewish history has more than its share of bleak and depressing chapters, the tradition sees itself as a joyous one,’ writes Arthur Green on the opening page of his delightful short book, Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas. Seeking God should fill the heart with joy: ‘Love, the wonders of nature, music, dance, and the close companionship of friends are all there to keep you on the path of joy.’ (We each have our strengths: ask me to join the dance and I’ve got two left feet; suggest a fifteen mile-hike in the wild countryside and the boots are on my feet.)

Lag Be’Omer has its hero, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in 2nd century Palestine. Betrayed to the Roman authorities for speaking ill of them, he flees to a cave where he hides with his son for twelve years. A well of water miraculously appears at the entrance, where a carob tree provides all the nutrition they need. Each day, every day, father and son study Torah together from memory.

Eventually Elijah announces that the Caesar who wanted them killed, has himself bitten the dust. Emerging from their cave, Rabbi Shimon and his son are dismayed at the sheer ordinariness of the world: ‘What,’ they exclaim, ‘People mundanely plough and sow, forgetting higher matters!’ A voice from heaven rebukes them: ‘Have you come out to destroy my world? Get back to your cave!’

When they re-emerge a year later (a period, perhaps, to process their post-traumatic stress) Rabbi Shimon has changed. Wherever he looks, he heals. Don’t remember me in sorrow, he says on his deathbed; let the anniversary of my death be a Hillula, a date for praising God with joy. That’s why Lag Be’Omer is also known as Hillula deRashbi (short for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).

This story could be a parable for the whole history of the Jewish People, and other peoples, and individuals too, who’ve faced marginalisation and persecution. Don’t be daunted or diverted; deepen your own identity, seek the nourished of your spirit. Then, if and when the blessings of freedom come, don’t be disdainful of the world, don’t be bitter. Try to be a healer; bring understanding, foster conciliation. Behave in such a way that people will remember you with joy.

Judaism expresses this as the principle of simchah shel mitzvah, the joy which comes with practising God’s commandments, with doing what’s just, kind and good. ‘A mitzvah is a place where you can meet God,’ continues Arthur Green, ‘of course it makes you happy’ [his italics]. I would add that it’s also, or even more so, a place where we meet other people, our friends and companions in trying to bring happiness and healing in this challenging world.

Give me back my heart! The world in search of its soul

I was given a poem this week, an entirely unexpected, wonderful gift. It’s called ‘The Ballad of the Shot Heart.’ It relates to much I care about; let me explain why.
It was written by the Russian poet Nikolai Panchenko who served on the Voronezh front and was wounded twice in the Second World War:

At walking pace, my horseshoes ringing,
I know: my heart is getting smaller,
And suddenly – I have no heart!

With each burst of fire, he ‘donates’ a piece of his heart, losing it ‘bit by bit’ until there’s nothing of it left, because there’s an order ‘Don’t have a heart at war!’
He grows ever stronger; he helps save his country; he survives. But he’s lost his heart. Since then, he goes about trying to reassemble it:

“Give me a heart!” I shall knock at entrance halls.
“Give me a heart!” I shall cry through the door.
“Don’t you know, a man without a heart
Is more terrible by far than a beast who has one.”

These lines at once reminded me of another poem, by Avraham Sutzkever, about the lead plates of the Rom Printing Press, the best Jewish press in the world. The Rom Talmud serves to this day as the prototype for further editions. I’m lucky enough to have a set from the 1870’s, complete with the stamp of the Tzarist censorship. When I use a volume, I feel generations speaking from its pages, rich with the indentations of the letters. Sutzkever describes, in Yiddish, how he and other resistance fighters steal out of the Vilna Ghetto

…to seize
The lead plates at the Rom printing works.
We were dreamers, we had to be soldiers,
And melt down, for our bullets, the spirit of the lead.

One can turn a heart into heartlessness, and generations of culture into ammunition. But how does one turn them back?

Mercifully I’ve not been in the front lines. But I’ve met many whose souls carry the wounds of war, and of other forms of life’s many conflicts. I’ve learnt that repairing the heart and restoring the soul is the core of what religion is about.

Tikkun is an overused word, especially in the phrase tikkun olam, ‘repairing the world.’ But its true kabbalistic context remains closely relevant: it’s about reconnection, the part with the whole, the exhausted mind with the flow of life’s spirit. In the language of the mystics, it’s about restoring the spark of holiness, lost within us even to ourselves, to the healing divine radiance.

People don’t knock on my door, or on the gates of synagogues and churches, saying ‘Give me a heart.’ But that’s not because this isn’t what we want. It’s because we’re shy of such words, because we haven’t phrased our concerns in such language, even to ourselves. Or perhaps it’s because we aren’t consciously aware that it’s just this that we most need.

If, or rather when, we’re asked, what do we say? If we ourselves were asking, ‘Give me back my heart; restore me my soul!’ what would we do?

The Psalmist has an answer which speaks to me: ad avo el mikdeshei El, ‘until I come to God’s sacred spaces’ (73:17). I appreciate the plural because there are many such places: the quiet of prayer, which isn’t really about asking for things, but about re-finding ourselves in the presence of God; the welcome of a kind community; the affirmation which comes from being listened to with solicitude; the solitude and companionship of nature. All these are God’s sacred spaces.

We all need our hearts back. The world needs its heart back.

So much injustice: we’re not at liberty to do nothing

One WhatsApp, two emails, and three rabbinic sayings. (Is it only me, or is the attempt to catch up with all those texts an experience of constant failure for others too?)

Here’s the WhatsApp: it’s from X, who stayed with us some years ago for a few months before he got long term leave to remain in the UK. I’ve stopped filing his messages under ‘refugee’ and put them in the ‘family’ folder instead. He wrote:

‘Lost 4 kilos. Lost my momentum. I’m in hospital tonight. Covid negative.’ Then came ‘Sending me home in a taxi. I can’t speak properly.’

That had Nicky and I searching for his flat number in West London late last Saturday night with a bag of food and jars of soup and, specially requested, flowers from our garden. Bless him, he’s a lot better now. There are some requests to which it’s easy to respond.

Next the first email, which came on Wednesday. Others receive dozens like it:

This family haven’t had a hot meal or anything cooked since Sunday. No cooker, no house ware. There are 4 children aged 6 – 13. Address in previous email. Delivery ideally today/tmw. If I can update them with something definite, that will reassure emotionally as well as practically. Neither parent has the right to work. I just don’t know how they’re supposed to survive.

By the time I got this alert several people had already helped. The family are refugees. But as we know on this icy first day of T S Eliot’s ‘April, the cruellest month’, you don’t have to be a refugee to be unable to afford both food and heating, or either, or sometimes neither. We’re a country of massive social inequality.

Now the second email:

I’ve heard from my family at last. They’ve managed to get out of Ukraine. We’re the only relatives who can help. They need to be near us. Do you know hosts who’ll sponsor them?

Fortunately, we do. The reason I’ve never left my community is because of the number of people who’re committed to living actively and consistently by the laws of justice and kindness.

Here, then, are the three teachings of the rabbis (freely translated). The first is the most famous:

Hillel used to say, ‘If I don’t stand up for myself, who am I? But if I exist only for myself, what am I?

In other words, who I am isn’t just about me but how I interact with and contribute to others.

The second is the most radical:

There are four attitudes to money: 1. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. But there are those who say that this is the way of Sodom.

‘What’s mine is mine’ sounds fair at first hearing. But what kind of society are we if I don’t care where that leaves you? ‘You haven’t enough food for your children? Your problem!’ How can such an attitude conceivably be just?

The third saying is the most chastening for those of us fortunate to have plenty today:

Poverty is a turning wheel.

I often find myself thinking about my father. He fled aged sixteen from a middle-class home to virtually nothing. I remember him speaking about ‘that gnawing feeling of constant hunger…’ He was in the siege of Jerusalem: ‘People were eating grass,’ he said.

When X kept saying thank you after he’d stayed with us for a while, I told him: ‘Who can know? Maybe one day your descendants will be looking after mine.’ Obviously, I hope not. I hope there’ll be a better world for everyone.

What’s happening right now is overwhelming. We can’t do everything, but we must do something. There are thousands of ways to care, from bringing people joy through music, to helping children learn to read, or cooking for a shelter. We are not at liberty to do nothing.

 

 

The necessity of hope

Who can live without hope?

I went running late last Friday, as I often like to do. There’s something special about the night of Shabbat, more deeply resonant, as if among the trees one could overhear God blessing the work of creation.

But what was that noise from the river below? Could it really be birdsong? It wasn’t an owl’s call, or the alarm with which a rook might charge to a higher branch. It was a hovering music, anxious yet sweet, a salutation from the soul of the mysterious dark. It was that cry I’d longed for years to hear,

That deep thrilling note that is wilder than all,
The voice of the wailing curlew. (James McKowen)

I don’t often spend Shabbat at a Christian retreat in the Yorkshire Dales. But I was invited by leaders of A Rocha, the Catholic organisation which created Eco Church, on which we modelled EcoSynagogue. I haven’t joined in meditation before with farmers, leaders in forestation, officers of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for all of whom their patient work was a commitment rooted in faith. Faith in what? The prayers were brief and simple; in my thoughts I periodically substituted the words ‘through the eternal God’ and, with that, felt completely at home. For this was faith in life itself, the enduring strength of its deep roots.

A team from the Scottish Highlands spoke of their hopes for the next hundred years. The head of Forestry England referred to plans for the next two centuries, before acknowledging that climate change would inevitably necessitate as yet unpredictable adaptations.

One, two hundred years: those figures stuck in my mind. The timescale of climate emergency is a decade, twelve years minus the months since the clock in Time Square was set ticking its countdown to catastrophe. I believe in the severe urgency of the hour; action now must be a non-negotiable commitment. We owe it to our children.

But it’s equally essential to listen to the language of hundreds of years. For here lie vision and hope. I won’t see the branches of the oaks I helped plant reach out and attain their crowns. Yet the thought that they, or other trees, shall, – that comforts me; it leads my soul the quiet waters by.

There’s an evil war in Europe; Mr Putin knows neither humanity, justice nor mercy. Millions have lost everything. Around the world governments, seemingly with little moral compass, make short-term decisions for which the poor, the young, the least powerful and the non-human worlds of nature must suffer most. Who wouldn’t feel despair?

Yet against this humanity in many millions sets compassion and determination: we’ll give what we can, we’ll offer our homes to refugees. We’ll protest until our local council and MPs make the essential, right decisions. We’ll put up bird boxes, plant trees. If there’s no social justice, we’ll fight for social justice. If there’s not enough environmental care, we’ll go out and we’ll care.

Yet even as we are impelled by that ‘fierce urgency of now’ we need hope in the future. We need the language of long-term. We don’t know what trees will thrive best for the next hundred years or what birds will sing and where. But there shall be trees, and birdsong, and life.

I went out again next day, and the following night, and heard that music again. ‘Piercing, soul-aching,’ Mary Colwell calls it in Curlew Moon:

The pauses are as poignant as the cries themselves; they define the silence and fill it with expectation and emotion. Given a religious turn of mind, you could almost describe it as a benediction.

Together on the side of life

Please don’t lose heart in these cruel times. (I’m often talking to myself when I write these Friday notes). We shan’t and can’t lose heart.

These are harsh weeks. We constantly hear bad news: many among us worry about beloved family and friends caught up in this brutal war on Ukraine; all of us worry about those who worry. But we can’t and shan’t lose heart, because we’re together on the side of life.

In Jerusalem, it’s Purim today. The streets are full of children, and grown-ups, in fancy dress. Millions are busy practising the commandments of the festival, mishloach manot, bringing gifts of food to friends and neighbours, and mattanot la’evyonim, giving where there’s need. These simple actions convey a simple message: I care about you.

The Purim story is nasty and mean. It’s all there beneath the purple trappings of rich, indulgent society: trafficking, exploitation, manipulation, racism and attempted genocide. But hate is not the message its heroes sought to promulgate. ‘Remember!’ they taught, – but do so in order to seek peace and goodness. Start by showing in small, daily kindness that the people around you matter to you.

I often think about the Biblical meaning of the Hebrew verb yode’a, which translates as ‘know’. Except that it expresses something more than neutral cognition: what yode’a really means is ‘know and care.’

Lo yadati says Cain after killing his brother: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ – I don’t know and I couldn’t care less. Lo yadati says Pharaoh to Moses, ‘I don’t know God’ and therefore I don’t care about you or your ridiculous demand for freedom.

When people attain power who don’t care about the lives of others and who consider themselves accountable to no one, neither to God nor humanity, they inflict immeasurable hurt.

We fight back by caring. The Torah tells us that God ‘knows the pain’ of the Children of Israel in their slavery. We each contain a fraction of that God who knows. That infinitesimal portion may be invisible, dissolved somewhere within us, but it’s what gives us our conscience, heart and spirit. It’s what makes us love. It’s what makes us horrified when millions of people are bullied and bombed out of their homes and forced to become refugees. It’s what makes us say, ‘What can I do to help?’

There’s something essential which unites people who care. We may live in separate countries and have no common language. We may be concerned, at least ostensibly, about different matters: for children, or people rich in years, or animals, or nature. But we are all touched by the same spirit and impelled by the same imperative: life matters; life must be cherished; I have to do something for life.

I recently heard Hugh Warwick speak about hedgehogs. I love them, he said, so I fight for them. He was voicing a truth which embraces far more than those prickling animals, endearing as they are: we fight for what we love.

Loving life teaches us to love the lives of others, and to fight for them, and for life itself, in any way we can. Even if what we do feels insignificant, trivial, not much more than nothing, we should never say ‘It makes no difference.’ The issue is not ‘it’s so little that I do,’ but ‘What’s the little that I can do?’

I’m inspired and humbled by people who really care. It’s not just what they do; it’s the spirit they impart, the strength and solidarity they convey – that we’re together on the side of life.

It wasn’t nothing

I had a humbling visit last night from Mr Makaya, his wife Christine and two of their friends. While Mr Makaya was imprisoned in Congo Brazzaville, his wife came to our synagogue and attended Seder at our home. She asked us to pray for her husband and spoke of her deep faith in God’s redeeming power. I feared we would never see Mr Makaya alive.

Last night he came to say thank you for our community’s help. ‘We did nothing,’ I said. ‘It wasn’t nothing,’ Christine replied. ‘The deputy American Ambassador came to your synagogue. You introduced me to her and she connected me to the Ambassador who made sure the White House knew how my husband was being mistreated. That protected him.’

‘We need your help now to keep going,’ the friends explained. ‘How can we sit here and have tea and cake when our people are dying back home because they haven’t even the money to buy aspirin on account of the corruption of one ruling family who controls everything?’

I’m sharing this now because the murderous attack on Ukraine may make us feel helpless and useless. But we must do whatever we can. We must believe that our actions, however tiny, are not nothing and that, please God, they may lead to more than we think.

 

Fighting evil

What can one say? Where’s the limit to the brutality, cruelty and lies? In the chilling words of Yuval Noah Harari, it’s those who did Homs and Aleppo who are now aiming at Mariupol, Kyiv and Kharkiv. (See video here). We stand with Ukraine in the face of the crimes committed against it before our eyes. Today Ukraine is the front line of civilisation.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Zachor, on which we are commanded to remember Amalek, who attacked the weak and helpless as the Children of Israel traversed the desert on their exodus from Egypt. Amalek the nation has long ceased to exist. But as an attitude, a way of behaving, with its contempt for hospitals, children, civilians and the sovereignty of other nations, here its behaviours are before us, wanton and merciless.

The Hasidic leader Rebbe Yitzhak Meir of Ger (1799 – 1866) explains that the root of the Amalek-ism is the denial of accountability: the world is random; there is no God and nobody cares. That is false. At this very moment the world is filled with the visible proof that millions upon millions care very deeply. If conscience is ‘the God within the mind,’ then God in the form of the collective conscience of humanity is even now holding Mr Putin and the perpetrators of this war to account. Those who mastermind and carry out this atrocity are answerable for ever before the families of every one of the dead and before every refugee.

The Torah teaches that God, our very God, is at war with such evil. Therefore, all strength, courage and success to those who stand bravely on the front line against this brutal outrage.

Those of us who’re more distant must not be mere spectators. Our arms are our commitment, humanity, generosity and compassion. Our weapons are the open doors of our hearts, and, when refugees reach Britain too, our communities and homes. This must not be limited to our immediate response towards people from Ukraine only; we can, and must, oppose brutality and cruelty through solidarity with any and every kind of suffering and need.

For practical actions we can take, click here: these are our immediate responsibilities.

But if you, like me, still feel helpless and frustrated in the face of this horror, there is something more to say. It goes to the heart of Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath on which we recall Amalek. Though the specific instruction is to remember and fight evil, behind it is the injunction to recall the Exodus from Egypt and, beyond that, the commandment to remember the seventh day and keep it holy.

For we oppose evil by refusing to be halted on our journey from slavery to freedom, from injustice to justice, from division to inclusion and from indifference to lovingkindness. Therefore, any action we can take to help any living being, to liberate any person anywhere in any way from any form of suffering, takes us onward on that journey. For we are summoned by the goal of a world in which all life is sacred and all the earth God’s holy temple. Therefore, there is never nothing we can do in pursuit of that vision. Every kind deed, every creative project, every act of healing is a step on our challenging journey. We are not at liberty to stop.

 

Ukraine: Don’t be silent now

‘Min hameitsar karati – From this narrow space I call out to you, God.’ As we speak these words of the Hallel, the short selection of Psalms read on the new moon and festivals, we hear them cried out loud from friends, colleagues, fighters, children, in bunkers in Kyiv, Kharkiv, across the Ukraine.

If you’re like me, you too probably feel useless, powerless to help. For now, the message from humanitarian agencies remains clear: what’s needed is funds, funds, funds (click here). When refugees do arrive here in the UK it’ll be different; we, like millions of people in East and Central Europe, will greet them with signs of welcome. (Meanwhile there are so many refugees and victims from other vicious conflicts, calling out from Afghanistan, Xinjiang, or as asylum-seekers nearby, needing help. Down the road are people struggling because of the pandemic, rising prices, the cost of heating, queuing at food banks.)

‘From the straits I call to you, answer me with the freedom of broad spaces:’ That you is not just God; it’s us. It’s not within our individual power to respond militarily. But we can and must offer the ‘broad spaces’ of our humanity, heart, solidarity. Here is an extract from emails between John in our community, and his colleague Taras, trapped in Kyiv:

John: We see what extraordinary resilience you show in the maintenance of your own state… The courage of the Ukrainian people is inspiring the world. I have been listening to your MP, Leseya Vasilenko, talking about taking up arms as a woman to stand in defence of her town, her children and her society.  She is lucid, clear-headed, purposeful, determined.

Taras: I want you to know that your letters… are very, very important to me and to everyone here. I may not be able to respond quickly, or at all, but the feeling of your presence, your sympathy and support is extremely valuable. In the current catastrophe not only sympathy, but also the most active actions are vital from you and from all our friends in Europe and beyond. I beg you, shout at all corners, tell everyone you know, use whatever leverage you have at your disposal to stop this madness immediately, so that the invaders cease fire and get out of our land…

We must not be silent. This was President Zelensky’s explicit message to Jews around the world: ‘Do not be silent now.’ Consciously or not, he was repeating Mordechai’s words to Esther as their entire people stood in danger of annihilation: ‘If you keep silence now…’ This in turn echoed the Torah’s injunction, ‘Don’t stand idly by your fellow’s blood…’

Without making their existence even harder, keep contact with friends and colleagues in Ukraine, fleeing Ukraine, who have relatives there or nearby, or who are supporting refugees. Be in touch with those in Russia too. Write to your MP for us to do more; (See the advice from World Jewish Relief) Share poetry, music, art from the Ukraine; say out loud what you are doing.

The bombing of Babi Yar by the Russian air force re-opens the graves of the victims of the worst outrages perpetrated by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen on the body of the Jewish People. This reveals to the whole world the wretched sum of what dictatorship, brutality and mercilessness achieve. We can all see. It shows, written in bones, what we must never allow.

This is existential, for the physical lives of many, and for the moral and spiritual lives of all. It goes straight to the core of the Jewish and universal values learned in the crucible of slavery long ago: human dignity, freedom, justice and the infinite value of life.

Today is the first of the true month of Adar when, the Talmud teaches, ‘joy increases.’ I doubt any of us feels that way. But behind true joy lie courage, generosity, faith, care for others, and freedom in body, heart and soul. Let these increase, now.

Ukraine: How we can help

How horribly apposite the words of the Psalm for Wednesday are: ‘For how long will the wicked rejoice? They tell lies. They kill widows, refugees and orphans. They say, “God isn’t looking.” (Psalm 94)

We ask ourselves what we can do to help as we feel helpless, watching the brutal invasion of the Ukraine. We must not do nothing. If you have friends with family in the Ukraine or nearby, be appropriately in touch; don’t let people feel alone. If you can, donate (see our appeals below; there are many others too). For the present, the most useful thing most of us can give is money. The organisations we support are helping neighbouring countries cope, too, as refugees arrive in hundreds of thousands in Poland, Moldova, Hungary and beyond. ‘You can see the trauma in their faces,’ a colleague in Budapest told me.

The Prime Minister has referred to as many as 200,000 refugees been allowed into the UK. There’s been mention of individual and corporate sponsorships; as soon as details become available, we will share them with the community. Please join tonight’s briefing, organised for all our communities by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon. Please join tomorrow’s session on refugees, focussed both on Jewish values and practical ways of helping. We mustn’t forget at this time that refugees from Afghanistan are still – refugees from Afghanistan. If we feel powerless to affect events across the world, there are many close to home, like local food banks, who need our help.

Jewish communities and leaders across Europe and beyond are finding ways of supporting each other, practically, with morale and in prayer. Adapting the words of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto,

Mutual sharing and helping is not limited to giving charity. When one hears of the troubles of others and does all one can to help, if one’s heart s broken…then this too is a gift we receive from one another… (March 16, 1940)

Wishing all of us the strength to help wherever we can and to support one another.


Masorti Olami Ukraine Appeal

Masorti Olami, which supports Masorti congregations across the world, is appealing for our direct help. They write:

We are in close contact with our communities in Kyiv, Chernivtsi, Odessa, Kharkov and Dnipro who report that they are currently safe and at home, but are worried about the future and are in a state of uncertainty, not sure when an invasion could occur or how it would play out. They have conveyed to us their current fears and needs and we have created this campaign, calling on the assistance of our supporters around the world, to help them.

Click here to donate to their appeal via Masorti Judaism in the UK. Click here for further information.


World Jewish Relief Ukraine Appeal

World Jewish Relief has launched a special appeal:

Russia has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Our 29 partners across the country describe fear, panic and disbelief, and are doing everything they can to protect their communities in the face of active conflict.

No one knows how far-reaching the consequences of invasion will be, but we know that for the communities we have supported for 30 years the impacts will be catastrophic.

We will respond to the most urgent humanitarian needs as they arise, prioritising food, cash, medical, material, and psychological support for the worst affected, whether fleeing their homes or unable to escape violence.

For details and to donate click here.

Responding to the war against the Ukraine: never give up faith

‘I never thought we’d see this in our lifetimes:’ how many people have said those words in the last two days. Our hearts and prayers go out to the people of Kharkov, Kyiv, all the Ukraine, and to the world, to the children of now and the future, because once again tyranny and destruction have been let loose.

I think of Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian-Jewish poet who perished in transit to Stalin’s gulags. In January 1937 he wrote from exile in Voronezh

What shall we do with the plains’ beaten weight?…
And crawling across them
is that not the one whose name we shriek in our sleep –
the Judas of nations unborn?

People across the Ukraine, who are all on the front line facing this terrible betrayal of their humanity, hope and freedom, urgently need our help. Last night, at a service joined by hundreds across the world, Rabbi Reuven Stamov spoke from Czernowitz, explaining that people were gathering there in the west, currently the safest part of the country. They need food and shelter. There are already tens of thousands of refugees, and many elderly, unable to travel, left behind. There are hundreds of centres taking in people on the Polish border. Below are the details of our appeals and prayers.

Just now on Radio 4 a brave woman, speaking from the shelter where she spent the night, said ‘We need your help. We are your front line in Europe.’ She may well be right; this is war in Europe.

No doubt, in the coming years citizens of Russia too will pay miserably for this needless war, in money spent on armies and conquests instead of on their civic needs.

What in times like these, does Judaism teach us to do? One feels powerless and useless. The little good one tries to do seems like nothing, like dry earth disintegrating into dust in one’s hands. As the morning prayers say, ‘What can we tell you, God? The powerful are like nothing; the wise know nothing…’

Yet throughout the tribulations of history, Judaism has taught us to keep faith. There is a tried and tested resilience in the practices, prayers and values of Jewish life.

This faith is two-fold. In the first place it is faith writ large, the undying hope that one day the sun of righteousness and justice will shine forth, with healing on its wings; that one day all humanity will understand that this is God’s earth and behave towards each other and all life with integrity and respect.

In the second place, and this may be more important to us today, it is faith writ small. It is the faith which tells us never to succumb to the feeling that we make no difference or that our actions don’t matter. It’s the day-by-day faith of the ordinary mitzvah: keep going, keep helping whoever you can, keep giving, keep blessing God and life and for the small things, keep doing what’s good and fair, keep a hospitable heart and home, keep planting hope, keep validating what we and others can – and often succeed – in doing, take nothing for granted.

None of this everyday wisdom can withstand military might. But it takes shelter in billions of hearts and homes and will outlive the rockets and bombs and those who mastermind their unjust and cruel deployment.


 

Appeals and Prayers

World Jewish Relief have launched a special appeal. Paul Anticoni writes:

World Jewish Relief has been supporting Jewish communities across Ukraine for over 20 years. Our 29 partners are rooted within local communities. Our support provides daily help to almost 10,000 Jewish elderly, to those looking for work, to families living in poverty. We saw in 2014 the displacement of over a million Ukrainians who fled the conflict. World Jewish Relief and its partners in 2014 then helped provide emergency support, accommodation and longer-term assistance for thousands…

For details and to donate click here.

Masorti Olami, which supports Masorti congregations across the world, is also appealing for our direct help. They write:

We are in close contact with our communities in Kyiv, Chernivtsi, Odessa, Kharkov and Dnipro who report that they are currently safe and at home, but are worried about the future and are in a state of uncertainty, not sure when an invasion could occur or how it would play out. They have conveyed to us their current fears and needs and we have created this campaign, calling on the assistance of our supporters around the world, to help them.

Click here for further information or here to donate to their appeal (select ‘special programme’ and specify ‘Ukraine Communities Campaign’).

A Prayer for the Ukraine can be found here.

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