From darkness to light

These are terrible times in Israel. Many people are simply afraid each time they have to leave their homes and worry constantly for their children. Our thoughts and prayers are with our family and friends and all the people of Israel. Our sympathies are with all the bereaved and the wounded and their families. We stand in solidarity with all people against terror and violence.
We pray that anger and frustration may be replaced by a politics founded on hope, understanding, peace and security for all the citizens of the country, so that no one will have to live in fear, pain or hopelessness any more.
I’ve received many moving and courageous emails from Israel. One of the most striking came from Devora Greenberg of Hanaton, the Masorti kibbutz in northern Israel:
       As the wave of terror continues to engulf the streets of Jerusalem and other cities and communities across the country, our minds are filled with thoughts and prayers for a more peaceful time. Images that we saw through social media shocked us to the core and some footage was eerily reminiscent of memories from the Second Intifada. One of the ways for us to deal with these days of tension, unrest and fear is to respond with acts of love and kindness. In order to counter hate and bloodshed we spread comfort and a sense of gratitude.
She then described how Noam youth together with members of the kibbutz took part in a demonstration at the Zarzir Bedouin village, Jews and Muslims calling together “we refuse to be enemies”.
The Parents Forum PCFF for Israelis and Palestinians who’ve lost loved ones in the conflict are resuming their regular public events so as ‘to be a resource for reconciliation and dialogue and to change minds, one heart at a time, inspiring others to support peace and reconciliation instead of revenge’.
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, active at the forefront of conflict reconciliation through Rabbis for Human Rights, wrote with courageous dignity that ‘We too, even when faced with a wave of murderous violence which might, God forbid, lead us to devalue the lives of others in our fear, must remember that the Torah teaches us that all life is precious, without distinction.’
At a time when it is easier simply to be angry, afraid or hopeless, these remarkable people present examples of fortitude and hope. If they can conduct themselves in this manner while while living in the midst of the conflict, then we in the diasporas, whether Jews or Muslims, must do no less. We must avoid passing messages through social media which exacerbate prejudice, falsely accuse and increase hate. 
Instead we should reach out to family, friends and colleagues in Israel and beyond, help those protecting lives and treating all the wounded, support those trying to build bridges or keep them open, and work for peace and understanding. We should increase our efforts to create connections across our faiths within our local communities.  

I asked an activist friend what we should do from here. ‘Pray’, he replied. We pray that, like God who as we read this week in the Torah decides never again to send a flood, we draw back from the brink of destruction and find a way forward defined by respect and mercy for all life.
Here are two prayers to hold in mind:

  • May God protect your going out and your coming home, now and for evermore.        Psalm 121
  • Our brothers and sisters, the whole house of Israel, and all people whoever and wherever you are,  in distress or captivity, on land or sea, may the All-Present God have mercy on you and lead you from trouble to deliverance, from darkness to light and from oppression to freedom, speedily, soon, now.

On the current situation in Israel

In these terrible, frightening times our thoughts and prayers are with our family and friends and all the people of Israel. Our sympathies are first of all with the bereaved and the wounded and their families. We stand in solidarity with all Israel against terror and violence.

‘We pray that anger, frustration and violence may be replaced by a politics founded on hope, understanding, peace and security for all the citizens of the country, so that no one will have to live in fear or pain any more.’

‘May God protect your going out and your coming home, now and for evermore.’ Psalm 121

‘Our brothers and sisters, the whole house of Israel, who are in distress or captivity, whether on land or sea, may the All-Present God have mercy on you and lead you from trouble to deliverance, from darkness to light and from oppression to freedom, speedily, now, and let us say ‘Amen’.’

‘We too, even when faced with a wave of murderous violence which might, God forbid, lead us to devalue the lives of others in our fear, must remember that the Torah teaches us that all life is precious, without distinction.’ Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann

What we can do:
- Phone and keep in touch with family and friends
- Support medical organisations treating all the wounded (such as Magen David Adom and Hadassah)
- Pray and work for peace and understanding

The dreadful attacks in Israel

The murder of a young Palestinian child in what appears to be a ‘price tag’ extremist attack is utterly appalling and a desecration of God’s name and a perversion of Judaism. Our thoughts go out to the family.
Similarly vile are the stabbings of 6 people at the Pride march in Jerusalem yesterday, allegedly by a man who has perpetrated the same crime before. Our prayers are with all those who have been injured.

Concern into blessings

I open the book to which I turn time and again over the years, Kolot Kore’im leZion, Voices Call for Zion. Here are the words of Jews and non-Jews through the centuries of exile from when Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70CE until the early years of the new country, crying out ‘Yet my people lives’.
Here is the poet Yehudah Halevi as he sets sail from the western Mediterranean to follow his heart ‘which is in the east’. ‘Zion’, he asks, ‘aren’t you going to ask about the wellbeing of those imprisoned for your sake?’ a line which 900 years later gave the name ‘prisoners of Zion’ to the Refusenik movement in the USSR. Here is the Jewish Agency in 1942 declaring that the future homeland will give refuge to any and all who escape Nazi occupation.
But few voices are as haunting as that of Jan Karski. A young (non-Jewish) Pole, he was recruited into the Resistance, smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and the death camp Belzec, then sent on false papers through occupied Europe to Britain and America to tell the world what was happening to the Jews. Reflecting years later on why his message went largely unheeded by Allied politicians and Jewish leaders alike, he said that the tragedy of the Jewish People was that it had no state, no internationally recognised political leadership to make itself heard.
We who were born since the establishment of Israel cannot fathom the depth of the difference which the existence of the state has made.
Today, the complex political, social and military issues concerning Israel, and the often ignorant and strident rhetoric with which it is discussed, mean that when we so much as hear the country mentioned our anxiety level often instantly soars. Yet this in itself is a measure of engagement, and there are two kinds of involvement from which, whatever our politics, we cannot and in my view should not be free.
I don’t know whether to call the first love, fellowship, participation or pride. It concerns each and every remarkable facet of Israel’s life: the replanting of forests and restoration of beautiful plants and animals which filled the land in Biblical times (in which I’ve participated with joy); the creation of medical care and facilities for the elderly which rival anywhere in the world; the deep, enduring  courage and skill of generations of Israeli soldiers (which we respect even more deeply with IS, as well as Hamas and Hizbollah, on the borders); democracy and the vibrancy of free and open discourse; the passion for social justice (such as the daily redistribution by Leket Yisrael of tons of otherwise wasted food to the poor); the establishment of outstanding universities; the brilliance of high-tech achievements; the reputation of Israel’s artists, especially in music and literature.
The second is worry, anguish, questioning, fear. It concerns every aspect of the challenges facing the country. How can Israel defend itself in a vicious world? What does that cost in Israeli lives; what does it cost in lives of hapless others? What of the prophetic dream of social and economic justice between different sectors of society, and between all peoples? What of the urgent need for equality of hope and opportunity for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens? What of the consequences of occupation for Palestinians; what of the consequences for Israelis? What of the long term impact on everyone of violence and its rhetoric, angers, wounds and griefs? What of the many in every faith and region who live below the poverty-line with constant food insecurity? What of the future of Israel’s and its neighbours’ beautiful natural environments? What of the future? What of the hope, however distant, for peace?
We care. We worry. My argument is simply that we should and must do both. We are not at liberty not to care, or to fail to turn that care, wherever we live in the world, into active engagement. There is no sphere in which there is not good we can do; possibly no other country in the world has so many avenues to express the ideals of tzedakah and hesed, justice and compassion, both hands-on and from a distance.
I don’t believe that every single Jew must necessarily live in Israel. I believe also in vibrant Jewish communities across the world. I believe in partnership and interaction with people of all faiths and none in the pursuit of universal ideals and the creation of free, open and plural societies. But I do know that wherever we live, our destiny is bound up not just with all humanity and life, but specifically with the Jewish People and that Israel is a central part of this identity and peoplehood. Israel concerns us all, and the more we can turn that concern into blessings, the better.

The work of the living God

‘By open, I mean open’, he said, ‘We’re all together here, Jews, Christians, Muslims; we’re all human beings and that’s what’s important to me’. I’m sitting in the kitchen of the artist Eytan George with his cat on the chair next to me. ‘When I came to Acco after the accident, I fell in love with the place. When I first moved in the neighbours’ children used to throw stones at the cats. Now if they find an injured animal we take it to the vet together. I make art out of stones and rubbish. When the police first saw me picking things up they asked for my identity card; now they drop things round at my door.’ His home is full of beautiful ceramics, the garden full plants he has grown. The artwork, crafted of the simplest things, rice, pebbles, richly coloured threads, has a haunting grace, especially the depiction of his beloved horses. What he sells is for the benefit of Reuth, the rehabilitation hospital in Tel Aviv which brought him back to health.

From his home we go together to Kishorit, a caring community of adults with special needs. We rejoice in the organic vegetable garden where the broccoli and sweet peas, the tomatoes and peppers set a challenge for our little synagogue garden. ‘Would you like to see the goats?’ ‘But of course!’ The smallest kids are scarcely one day old. After a while I retreat, nibbled by a dozen small but versatile mouths. Across the yard are the free range organically fed chickens, laying thousands of eggs each year. I’m hoping we shall have some too in our back yard; the local foxes have already voted unanimously in favour. I meet James, who lives here, whose Bar Mitzvah in our synagogue on Shabbat Chanukkah I remember with love. He’s spent the morning picking strawberries. On Friday he’ll be running the half marathon. There are people in this village of all ages, from every kind of background.

The next day Simon Lichtman and Rivanna take me to the Nissui (experimental) school in the centre of Jerusalem, a supporter for over twenty years of their work in bringing Arab and Jewish Israeli children together. The hallways are cold in the bright February morning but the school is warm with affection for the children. We sit with the headmaster and discuss the importance of encounter in education, of the creation of a confident understanding of self which is open and nuanced, rich with the plurality of the cultures which nourish us and open to others who are different from ourselves. To have such a dream in times of ease is one matter; to refuse to abandon it in years of threat and tension is another.

We warm ourselves up over coffee with Ala, a young Muslim from Ein Rafa, where Simon and Rivanna also work. ‘We have a responsibility’, he says. ‘Anyone can make the worst of a situation; we must seize the chance to make the best of it. Jews, Arabs, people are intelligent, aspiring; we can work for life.’ He devotes himself to creating engaging and enterprising activities for the youth of villages where there is little spare money, opportunity, or parental time.

That evening the conference for the Masorti rabbis of Europe begins with a talk by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. Her presence expresses a radiance which can only emanate from a person who is whole-hearted in her aspirations. What does she care about? – A Judaism which is deeply and passionately spiritual; a love of the land which is both ancient and modern and inclusive of all its peoples; an understanding of Jewish law in which men and women are equal; a deep acceptance of people as they are; a renewal of values and the restoration of the true meaning of community.

Yes, there are plenty of details to attend to, and matters to be mended, but the hours at the Conservative Yeshivah (an institution with which we should all cease to be unfamiliar) fly by in study and debate, drawing our colleagues closer across the pages of the Talmud. In the words of the famous saying ‘These and these are the words of the living God’, and the art, the organic vegetables, the goats and chickens which feed on them, and all these people who have the courage to follow their visions are the work of the living God too. Thank you for your inspiration!

The ultimate desecration

There is no date on which we refer to ‘the God of life’ and ‘God who delights in life’ more than on Yom Kippur, the very day on which we contemplate our mortality, wear shroud-like white, and neither eat nor drink. Nothing can constitute a more powerful affirmation that we are here in this world to respect, nurture and reverence life, and that all life belongs to God.
The terrible murders in the brutal attack on worshippers saying shacharit, the daily morning prayers, at a synagogue in Har Nof in Jerusalem this Tuesday remind us of this fact: those men were only doing what every Jew, and every person of faith should do each day, – remind him- or her-self that we are servants of the God of life.
As Jonathan Freedland wrote, there is something particularly vile about killing in a synagogue, or in any place of prayer: ‘People of all faiths – and even of none – will find something especially appalling about this act of violence. Any place of worship is meant to be a sanctuary; that much is understood universally.’ Maybe the ‘is’ in the last sentence needs to be replaced by ‘should be’, a responsibility incumbent on all humanity.
Judaism regards any murder as the ultimate desecration, the destruction of God’s image as expressed in the irreplaceable sensitivity and potential of a unique human being, and the flooding of the hearts of those who love that person with pain, fear and grief. This is true whether the victim is Jew, Christian, Muslim, famous or known previously to none but family and friends. 
But close connections bring these murders nearer home. Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg had lived in Golders Green. Rabbi Moshe Twersky was the son of the great scholar Isidore Twersky whose course on Moderation and Extremism in the works of the great rationalists Aristotle, Maimonides and Aquinas, was attended in the final year he offered it by over 200 people. He was known for his capacity for intuitive silence.
These murders also remind me of the murder of my father’s uncle, Professor Alfred Freimann, a scholar in Jewish jurisprudence who was working on key constitutional committees for the State of Israel which was about to be born when he was killed in the infamous attack on the convoy of scholars on their way to the Hebrew University on Har Hatzofim in April 1948.
What makes the murders this week especially frightening is that we know that they come at a time of increasing tension and frustration, growing since the terrible summer, and experienced by both Palestinians and Israelis. In this atmosphere of fear, violence and intimidation, we must pray for wisdom and restraint, especially from all our leaders. As Simon Lichman wrote to me from Jerusalem this morning: ‘we are all in this struggle together, no matter where we have placed ourselves geographically, – a struggle to keep that voice of reason heard, that glimmer of doubt in the minds of those who find it difficult not to be turned to an out and out hatred that blinds them to the humanity in their opponents and/or enemies by the barbarous actions of these times.’ Our prayers are for the welfare of Israel, of all its people, and for peace.
But is there anything we can actually do? ‘I feel helpless’, one young woman wrote to me. ‘I wish there was something I could do’.
I wished I had better answers. Just as we must not be filled with hate towards anyone because of their faith or nationality, so we cannot afford to be foolish and naïve about the power of the angers at loose in our world. We must pray for wisdom, restraint and understanding, especially from all our leaders.
But what can we actually do? The only direction I can think of is to respond to every deed of violence and desecration with an act which enhances life. Whenever someone seeks to destroy another life, we should contribute to the preservation of life. Whenever someone tried to cause injury, we should give towards healing. Whenever a person is wilfully denigrated, we should act to uphold the universal dignity of the human spirit. Ample channels exist throughout the Jewish and the wider world to enable us to express such fundamental values.
This is the deepest teaching of our Judaism and of all faith, for God is present in all life.    

Har Nof

On behalf of all our congregation I want to express our horror and anguish over the appalling attack on and murder of worshippers at the synagogue in Har Nof in Jerusalem this morning.

Our thoughts are with the families of those killed, and with the wounded and their nearest and dearest.
In these frightening times we should have in our hearts the daily prayer: ‘Our brothers and sisters in all the House of Israel who are in peril and distress, whether on land or sea  - may the All Present God have mercy on them and lead them from danger to safety, from darkness to light and from subjugation to redemption,  now and speedily, Amen.’
We pray that God should guide the world away from violence and towards understanding and restraint: ‘May God, who makes peace in the high places, make peace for us and for all Israel’.
We will include special prayers in our services this Shabbat.
I will send our thoughts to His Excellency the Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub on behalf of our congregation.

Then his eyes. They expressed an utter, helpless suffering.

‘Would you like to see the boy?’ ‘Yes’, I said.

There were just two of the children left on the wards at Makassed Hospital who had been brought there from Gaza during the war. The others had all gone home. ‘What was home?’ In many case the authorities at the hospital weren’t sure. ‘They’ve brought in porta-cabins. There are still lots of families living in schools’. As for ongoing care, some of the children come back to Makassed in East Jerusalem for appointments with the agreement of the Israeli authorities. But who was helping the many amputees with rehab? And the families where every second member had lost a limb? Local services, if such things existed. There were no good words about Hamas.

They took me to see Ihab. His brother had been killed in the same explosion which had so badly injured him. It was explained to me that he’d been accepted at the outstanding Re’uth Rehabilitation Hospital in Tel Aviv, where his cousin was already receiving treatment. Her family had somehow managed to get insurance payments for her care. But no one was willing to foot the (large) bill for the boy. In the midst of it all, his uncle arrived (the parents were apparently not allowed into Israel to accompany their son). He’d just launched an appeal on Palestinian radio, but meanwhile the Authority had lost all the boy’s papers.

‘We also sent out an appeal’, said Rami Elchanan of the Bereaved Families Forum, but so far no one had contributed. ‘What about asking people to pay for just one day’, I wondered. The idea was well received: ‘Yes “Pay a day”.’

I went into the room where Ihab lay. I’m always hesitant about visiting people in hospital in case I should be disturbing them or their family. ‘Don’t worry’, I was reassured. ‘He isn’t conscious.’

Ihab lay flat on his bed, a tube connected to his trachea, through which he breathed. The first thing which struck me was his golden hair. Then his eyes. They moved; he was most certainly aware. They expressed an utter, helpless suffering. A small cry came from him. These were all the means at his disposal to communicate an unreachable, unspeakable pain. It seemed he had at present no movement in the rest of his injured body. I looked at him and thought, ‘What would I want if that was my child?’

What does one do? I left the room and whispered to Rami, ‘I’ll take the first day’. Tomorrow I want to go to Reuth Hospital to see his cousin and speak with the doctors. Apparently there’s a lot they can do for Ihab. Maybe there can be some arrangement about the costs.

It’s just possible that this could be a moment of shared healing, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs together. Could it help heal more than Ihab’s lonely sufferings? I wondered. ‘Maybe someday’ I was told.

What would it mean if we really did see each other’s wounds?

Many of the doctors who work at St Josephs, a small hospital next to the Ambassador Hotel and the first to be created on the Jordanian side in 1948, also work at Shaarei Tzedek. Indeed many trained there, or at Hadassah. I asked the consultant who showed me round about the relationships: ‘Yes,’ he assured me, they were professional and warm, with shared concerns for the wellbeing of all the patients. And did any of the Jewish staff also work in the Palestinian Hospitals? No, he thought; but there were many Arab doctors, nurses and above all auxiliary staff and workers, as well as very many Palestinian and Arab patients at the big hospitals in West Jerusalem.

Yet during the war, I was told, tens of people from Gaza, mostly children but certainly all of them young, were sent from the Erez crossing where Israel had built a field hospital, to St Josephs and to El Mokassed. They had terrible injuries, burns, limbs that needed amputation. The consultant described what the hospital had looked like during those weeks, full of patients, their families in every corner, the huge laundry machine working non-stop. ‘How did you feed them all?’ someone enquired. ‘Local people were amazing: “I’ll bring twenty meals, it’s on me”; “I’ll bring thirty meals tonight”. I had witnessed the same generosity and deep concern in hospitals in Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv where wounded soldiers were brought.

Even in those days, it was explained to me, the doctors would go across the city to do their work at Shaarei Tzedek where, of course, they encountered great support for Israel’s response to Hamas. And did the doctors on each ‘side’ see each other’s wounded then? No, he didn’t think so. It’s not surprising: both groups had their deep concerns, for their own safety and that of those they loved, for relatives in the areas where rockets and bombs were falling, for the wounded and bereaved, for the future, for the sick people on their own wards requiring their compassionate attention.

Yet, with a part of myself I thought ‘What a pity’. What would it mean if we really did see each other’s wounds? Would it multiply compassion in the world? Make us more reluctant to inflict hurts on groups of people among whom there were now faces and names we knew? Or would it simply tax our hearts unbearably and leave us feeling even more powerless?

How little we know about one another. Waiting outside the synagogue one morning at half past six, about the only time I’ve ever got there that early, I watched the cleaning teams arrive. We smiled at one another. ‘Where did you travel from?’ I asked a couple of them. ‘The other side of London’. ‘How did you get here?’ ‘By bus’. ‘So when did you have to get up?’ ‘About four’.

What do we know about the lives of other people, with whom we cross paths but virtually never relate? I wonder if God really wants it that way.

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