The most basic freedom – life

There is something more basic even than freedom, – life itself.

I have in front of me a picture of the graves in Khan Seihkun, where more than seventy people including many children died a horrible death, probably from the nerve agent sarin. Assad’s regime is almost certainly responsible, protected by lies from Moscow.

The rough concrete stones in the sandy ground remind me of the cemetery I saw on Lesbos, where lay so many anonymous dead, among them babies, drowned during the crossing from Turkey.

The most basic freedom of all is the freedom to live.

Judaism is categorically on the side of life. From the first moment of human existence, from when God breathes the first divine breath into the first human being, life is sacred. The barest, simplest High Holyday prayer is Zochrenu le’chayyim, Remember us for life. Love of life underlies the Jewish determination to survive in times of persecution, bring healing in times of illness, and celebrate in times of joy. Where life becomes unbearably painful, when life comes to a natural end, it is a matter of sorrow, humility and, if we can manage it, acceptance.

Perhaps the most radical rabbinic re-interpretation of the Torah was to render inapplicable all references to the death penalty. Any death demands accountability. Any killing, except in a just war, demands specific, thorough and impartial investigation, whoever the victim. Any breech in this fundamental law is an offence against humanity and God. God’s image has been destroyed in a unique individual; there is less God in the world.

Life is not just under threat from direct physical violence but from the rhetoric of hatred and contempt. We live in a time of rising xenophobia and incitement, against women, foreigners, Jews, Muslims… One must never say ‘It’s only words’, especially when it comes from public figures. Religious, media and political leaders carry responsibility not only for what they say, but for how it leads others to act. One person’s words legitimise another person’s deeds. That is why the brazen speech of President Trump and the shameless distortions of truth by Ken Livingstone* are so dangerous.

The speech of ISIS and its like is terrifying. The greatest blasphemy is when God’s name is evoked to justify hatred and violence. Where regimes, whatever their professed ideology, instigate policies of calumny, contempt, degradation, and collective deportation the road for some will end in death.

The border between respect for life and the acceptance of killing is a boundary humanity cannot afford to cross. Any civilisation, regime, cult or individual which legitimates and glorifies killing, terror and murder thereby renders itself an enemy of humanity itself and of all living being.

As we celebrate freedom on Passover, we celebrate life: its variety, creativity and potential; its need for liberty, opportunity, compassion and nurture; its beauty; its capacity for wonder, generosity, tenderness, love and joy.

Where we honour life, we honour freedom; where we love life, we love liberty too.

*For a superb analysis of his appalling conduct see this piece in Ha’artz by Colin Schindler

Why we need sanctuary

‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them’ (Exodus 25:8). These words come near the opening of the long section of the Torah devoted to the building of the Tabernacle which travelled with the Children of Israel through the wilderness. Over the subsequent millennia they have come to mean far more, to express our need for safe spaces in our world, countries, cities and souls.

Since childhood I’ve always been excited when I see a road sign with the words ‘animal sanctuary’. I doubt if the animals fortunate to find respite there offer oblations to the divinity and spend their days in contemplative meditation. Rather, the few square miles are a place of refuge from hunting, predation by humans, and the slow, seemingly unstoppable retraction of their natural habitats of meadow, and woodland, valleys and rivers. Just as the animals need sanctuary from us, we, too, seek sanctuary from the noise, pressure and remorseless demand for ‘more, more’, which characterise so much of modern civilisation. Animal sanctuaries are also soul sanctuaries, where bird song brings healing and the sounds of the small streams are meditations.

Sanctuary cities are not dissimilar in concept. They offer refuge to humans seeking safety from violence and persecution. As the sanctuary city movement in the UK writes: “We believe the ‘sanctuary message’ of welcome and inclusion is needed in all spheres of society and as such we are committed to helping schools, universities, health and maternity services, theatres and arts centres, churches and other faith centres, sports, communities, businesses and homes become ‘places of sanctuary’”. Sanctuary cities are not there, as their opponents have claimed, especially recently in the USA, as safe havens for criminals. Judaism condemns the notion of any refuge from justice for murderers and the perpetrators of evil. They exist to allow communities to come together in harmony, and refugees to rebuild shattered lives.

Places of sanctuary, synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, perhaps we should add libraries, offer calm and quiet in a turbulent world. They allow us to find the self and soul we so easily lose in the ceaseless chase to catch up with our daily commitments. They enable us to listen to our own heart and, within it, to hear the voice, or silence, of God’s presence. How I wish there were no such thing as security concerns and our synagogue could be open day and night to offer hot soup for the body, and music and silence for the spirit!

A heart of sanctuary is a place which exists within us all. The challenge for each of us is not to create it; it’s already present inside us. The challenge is to find our way back to it. When people come to talk to me in times of trouble, when I try to listen to myself in my own hours of trouble, I often find myself asking the question: ‘What brings you solace?’ Maybe it is music, or walking among trees, or meditating on the name of God, or a quiet conversation with a friend, or yoga, or the study of Torah, or rereading a favourite poem. ‘Do it’, I say to people. ‘However much pressure you are under, don’t starve yourself of whatever it is which nourishes your own soul’. (I hope others listen to me better than I listen to myself).

That, to me, is what prayer is for: to bring my consciousness back from a hundred frets and engagements, to let it settle in my heart, to listen. For in the heart is a stairwell down to a well of water. That water is inexhaustible and unfathomable, because it flows from the fountain of being which has its source in God. It never fails; it never dries up. As the Torah says ‘I shall dwell within them’, which mean that God dwells within each and every human being, and within all life.

We need sanctuaries to know the world and its wonder, to know and care for each other as different peoples and faiths, to know ourselves, and to know God.

From such sanctuaries, blessing always flows. It may not change the course of events in the way we would most wish; it cannot prevent us from being vulnerable and mortal. But it always has the power to transform us through loving-kindness, and guide us with wisdom.

We can’t abandon refugee children

Tomorrow brings two of my favourite things: Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, and Shabbat Shirah the Shabbat of Song. I had thought to write about both. I’ve been reading Peter Wohlleben’s wonderful book The Hidden Life of Trees. A forester initially employed to maximise the yield from the woods over which he was appointed, he comes to understand the mystery of the secret life of his trees, how they communicate with one another, support each other, develop resilience and form a rich and wondrous community.

I wanted to write about how God’s presence sings in the trees, how that song can embrace and chasten us and make us more deeply aware of the wonder and privilege of life.

But I won’t. Having hosted Lord Dubs in our synagogue and heard him speak of what motivated him, a child of the Kindertransport, to petition Parliament to allow 3,000 lone children into this country, I cannot be silent when that agreement seems now to have been overturned by the government.

I was in The House of Commons last week for the rededication of the plaque in honour of the Kindertransport. After the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who both spoke with moving eloquence, a boy of 15 from Syria told us, through an interpreter, about his long journey to these shores. When asked what was most in his thoughts, he said: ‘The unknown fate of his parents and family’ as he tried to restrain his tears.

In the wake of the Holocaust we asked in grief and anger how it was possible for so many people to remain indifferent, unmoved by the fate of others. I fear the answer is that it’s easy: ‘If it doesn’t affect me, I can just get on with my life as usual. It’s simpler not to know.’

Every verse of Jewish teaching and every chapter of Jewish experience tells us that that is not good enough. ‘Don’t hide yourself from your own flesh’, proclaims Isaiah: don’t be deaf and blind to those who suffer just as you are suffering. ‘Lo titallam - Don’t hide away; don’t pretend you didn’t know’.

Barbara Winton, who spoke in our synagogue and with whom I’m closely in touch, wrote to the Prime Minister today (Theresa May was her father Nicholas Winton’s MP): ‘Every single child’s life is worth every single thing we can give.’

None of us has done enough to help save those lives. I repeat at this link the initiatives I’m encouraging us to support. I admire the remarkable work of our Drop-In. I respect greatly the huge efforts of Help Refugees and Safe Passage. I am pleased we are beginning to find ways to support and befriend the refugee families in our midst, in Barnet. But we need more initiatives, more engagement and more moral courage.

I want to stress that this is not an alternative to strengthening our own community. My heart sinks and I feel personal upset when I learn that someone has failed to come forward to support our minyan, our quorum, on their due date on the rota, preventing others from reciting the Kaddish. We must not let each other, our Judaism, or our common humanity down.

Peter Wohlleben describes in his beautiful book how, through the hidden connections between their roots, trees nourish the weak amongst them and uphold the strong. The roots of our shared humanity also mingle in the common earth of our mortal existence. We too can, and must, uphold one another.

The Dubs Amendment

‘The Dubs Amendment’ was agreed by Parliament last year as a gesture of humanity and hospitality in the face of an immense crisis in which child refugees are the most vulnerable of all. It was supported by public opinion, the widespread feeling that, with its tradition of compassion and hospitality, this country should and could do more.

To close the doors now, when only a fraction of the three thousand children due to come here have been enabled to do so, is cruel. Barbara Winton, daughter of Nicholas Winton whose actions saved the lives of over 600 children in 1938/9 told me: ‘It’s tragedy if the hopes of these young people are dashed. Even 3,000 is just a drop in the ocean, but each drop is a life…’

We need to work together to hold the government to its commitments. We must also play our part as communities and individuals in receiving and welcoming the children who do arrive here, and in helping them to establish new lives.

Why we are here on earth

It has been for me a week of heartfelt conversations. In such reflection, in such endeavour to find words which are gentle, honest, encouraging, and which do not infringe upon the shared attentiveness of listening, it becomes clear how much of life is about recognition. Sometimes this recognition concerns acknowledgement of sorrow, sometimes the wondrousness of beauty, but always it deepens our awareness both of each other’s humanity and of our own.

Biblical Hebrew has a profound vocabulary for such realisation. The verb yada is generally translated simply as ‘know’. Though it is used casually in modern conversation – ‘I don’t know’; ‘Who knows?’ – it often expresses in its biblical context the deepest possible dimension of knowing: ‘And you shall know this day and lay it to your heart that God is God’.

This knowledge may be experienced in little things, in the small winter flowers which perfume even the coldest day, in the red fruit of the crab-apple tree, offering January nourishment to the hungry birds. It may be felt in life’s great moments, of birth, love or death, when we perceive even in the mundane, a candle, a tree, a sense of mystery and wonder. It is discovered in moments of awe, in that reverence for life which motivated Isaiah to proclaim his great ideal as if it were the simplest, most obvious truth: ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain’. Isn’t it our failure to feel it as holy which leads us to wound and damage so much of life? That is why it’s so important to pray, since the essence of prayer is to listen, to be cleansed, quietened, simplified, re-centred from all our distractions, so that we know.

The verb Hikir means ‘to recognise’. It means perceiving and understanding what is in front of our eyes. This is not always as easy as it may sound. Jacob, for example, did recognise the multi-coloured coat of his son Joseph when the brothers brought it to him dipped in goat’s blood. But he failed to perceive those betrayals of which the manner of its appearance might have made him aware. In its deepest sense, hikir involves sensing the unseen; the needs, sensitivities and vulnerabilities, the unspoken stories held in the heart.

Most beautifully, Ruth, the foreign girl from Moab, turns in deep appreciation to Boaz who has just welcomed her as a gleaner in his fields and says: ‘How come I’ve found favour in your eyes that you should recognise me, a stranger’. Such recognition is what so many refugees await from us: an appreciation of their humanity, losses, hopes. It expresses the understanding we need in order to breech the barriers of prejudice, between faiths, nationalities, ethnic groups. It’s what we need from each other in ordinary, everyday life, and even more so in times of stress and pain: to feel heard, included, valued, encouraged. What needs hearing is never only that which we succeed in putting into words but what eludes them in the silence of the heart.

Such knowledge and recognition leads us, simply and clearly, towards life’s purpose, a purpose we may express through our family, friendships, work, community, volunteering, activism, religion, faith, or simply through the way we interact with one another: We are here in this world to bring our humanity together in loving kindness, so that we can act to mitigate the cruelty of things, and we are here to appreciate and celebrate life’s blessings.

That’s what our lives, families, friendships, communities and faith are for.

These causes helping child refugees need our support urgently

World Jewish Relief

Mobile School Programme
For more information and to donate, click here

Child refugee support co-ordinator
For more information and to donate, click here

JUMP (matches young asylum seekers and refugees who arrive alone in the UK with trained, adult befrienders)
To donate, click here

Interviewing Lord Dubs

As the horrors perpetrated in Aleppo intensify even further, as winter deepens across millions of refugees, tens of thousands of them in inadequate camps in northern Greece and elsewhere in Europe, it is a relief to listen to a voice of committed compassion.

Alf Dubs was born in Czechoslovakia in 1932. His departure as a small boy on the Kindertransport had a profound effect on him. To this day, he said, he still finds partings searingly painful. That’s no doubt an essential part of why he feels so strongly about the plight of refugees, especially unaccompanied children.

He entered politics to turn values into actions, to make a difference. ‘The vast majority of politicians are public servants with a genuine desire to do good’, he reminded us. He recalled the impact Joe Cox had on him, listening to her speaking in The Commons.

Concern for refugees has been central to his career, both in and outside of Parliament. Between 1988 and 1995 he was director of the Refugee Council. This work and his own life story made him determined to persuade the government to allow more children into this country in the shocking current crisis. At the second attempt ‘The Dubs Amendment’ was passed.

‘What did it’, Lord Dubs said, ‘Was public opinion. This country has a long history of welcoming refugees’. But at the same time he was well aware of the opposite trend, especially after Brexit, toward increased racism and xenophobia. ‘I spent hour after hour knocking on doors, campaigning for Remain,’ he told us.

He was impressed by the quotations from the Torah on either side of the ark in the New North London Synagogue: ‘Love your neighbour’ and ‘Love the stranger’.

Lord Dubs was given a prolonged standing ovation, a tribute to his determination to fight for values which we all share.

Masorti Judaism was key in raising £200,000 across the community to bring children to this country who had legal rights under Dublin 3 to enter the UK.

I have recently launched a further appeal, through the New North London Synagogue and beyond, to support key NGOs in their essential work of supporting refugee children in Europe and once they have reached this country. Please see click here. Please be generous.


The power of music; the power of evil

Yesterday we accompanied Leslie Lyndon to his final resting place. He was a founding member of our community, leader, cantor, teacher, for over a decade at the heart of our ministerial team, and a close friend. I shall miss him.

He had three especially great gifts: an unfailing smile which expressed a warm, calm and unfailingly kind presence; a beautiful and gracious voice in leading and facilitating prayer; and an unshakeably positive spirit. He was a man who welcomed, enabled, encouraged, included, and wanted no one to be hurt.

When I came home from the funeral and returned, reluctantly, to my computer, I found the following message* from the team who run our Drop-In for asylum seekers. It has no connection with Leslie, and is yet most deeply connected:

We’d like to share this inspiring version of “We Shall Overcome” sung by asylum seekers and refugees. You can watch at

Do listen. ‘We shall overcome…We shall all be friends…’: are these convictions not what lies at the heart of the very power of music itself? For music expresses the strength, tenacity and joy of spirit which tyranny, with all its ever more brutal weapons, its cruelty and its contempt for humanity and God, cannot extinguish, so long as life itself remains, so long as there is a heart to feel and a tongue to sing?

And there is so much to overcome, in the Congo, from where so many of those who attend our asylum seekers drop-in have fled; in Syria, about where the UN humanitarian advisor for, Jan Egeland, just tweeted:

For 3000 years #Aleppo gave so much to world civilisations. How come, when Aleppo’s people needed us the most, we gave so little back?’

I thought of Leslie and his music when I joined the tribute at Westminster Abbey’s Martyr’s Memorial to the men, women and children murdered and wounded in the vile attack on the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. They went there to celebrate the miracle of life, said Bishop Angaelos, who only two weeks ago was a guest in our community. But, he continued, evil cannot and shall not put out the light of compassion which has come into the world. He may have meant the words in a different theological context from mine, but it’s the same light and the same compassion.

It’s precisely the meaning of the miracle we celebrate at Chanukkah through the story of the one flask of incorruptible oil which the Maccabees found and lit when they re-entered the devastated precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the inextinguishable light of the human spirit, which always burns longer and deeper than we might have thought possible. By the time one of its flames eventually goes out, another and then yet another has been inspired and ignited.

In the dimension of sight, the spirit is expressed through light; in that of sound, through music. Leslie and I once discussed the Torah’s puzzling words

God is my strength and my song

Is song, a mere sequence of notes, really strength? After all, it can’t prevent bombs from killing innocent people. It can’t often stay the ruthless power of disease. But it keeps the heart of humanity alive, the heart of goodness, kindness and compassion, and it is with that heart that we shall overcome.

 *From the team at the Drop-In for Asylum Seekers:

We hope the video will raise money for the Drop-in to purchase supermarket vouchers and travel money for our clients. If you would like to make a donation, you can do so here. The project provides support to hundreds of asylum seekers. It offers food, clothing, consultations with doctors, lawyers and therapists, supermarket vouchers and travel money. It is run entirely by volunteers.

Please also give generously to these urgent causes

Please click here for links to charities helping refugees in the UK and in Greece.

An impassioned plea for refugees

Refugee Children – How We Can Help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How We Can Help

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

An Arabic-speaking therapist

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

Mobile School Programme

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

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

Thoughts on the Anniversary of Kristallnacht 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rights, Responsibilities and Refugees

As I write there are two images before my eyes.

One is of the desperation of children and young people amidst the burning remains of the camp in Calais. That children should suffer mistreatment, especially after the horrors so many of them have passed through, is an indictment of our humanity.

The other picture is of the beautiful letters of the opening words of the Torah, the shining black ink of In the beginning God created, emerging from the blank spaces of the parchment.

Judaism does not have an overt charter of Human Rights. Instead, it speaks of our responsibilities, of doing right, rather than asserting rights.

What Judaism does have, indeed what to many people Judaism primarily is, is a charter of ethics, grounded in the sanctity and dignity with which life is endowed.

This is evident from the very beginning of the Torah. The world is God’s creation. The relevant issue here is not if and how God made the world. The point is rather that the earth itself and all life on it, land, sea, trees, birds, fishes and animals, are integral parts of a sacred whole. They are not ours to destroy but to respect; they are not for us to own, but to nurture and protect.

Most significantly, every human being is imbued with God’s image. It is partly irrelevant how this is interpreted; whether, as different scholars have explained it, the reference is to the capacity for reason, imagination, creativity or speech. In whatever way we understand the words ‘the image of God’, the essential point is that this image resides in every person; it is the sacred trust with which each human being is endowed. Hence, no life is worthless; no one may be treated with cruelty or contempt.

Therefore, a corresponding obligation to care extends across the entire network of humanity and creation. It is our responsibility to safeguard God’s image both in ourselves, through how we conduct our lives; and in each other, through how we treat our fellow human beings and nature itself.

It is an impossibly high demand. History could be summarised as the record of our failures. Yet it is also testament to constant and outstanding examples of justice, compassion, courage, generosity, selflessness, tenderness and devoted love.

The meaning of our moment in time lies partly within our own power. Is it a time of tenderness, or cruelty? Are we, or are we not, faithful to the endowment with which we have been created?

There is no such thing as neutrality.

People call me every day to ask how they can help refugees, especially children. I’ve been listening to discussion among the leaders of several key organisations and hope to put forward more detailed suggestions as to how, individually and collectively, we can try to assist.


In the meantime, here are a number of organisations we should support:

The NNLS Asylum Seekers Drop in

World Jewish Relief

Help Refugees

 JCORE (The Jewish Council for Racial Equality)

Get in touch...