From time to time, I get a call on my mobile; the line’s often bad and it’s hard to hear, but the message is always the same: ‘I didn’t get a voucher this month.’ I note down the phone number and pass it on to the asylum seekers drop-in. They’d been supporting about four hundred people; during Covid it’s gone up to a thousand each month. That monthly voucher may be all these struggling people get on which to survive.
Once I was called by a woman who was already at the check-out: ‘The money didn’t come through to my card and I can’t pay for these few bits of food.’ I asked her to pass me to the cashier; for all I knew she or her child might be hungry right now. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘we’re not allowed to accept card payments over the phone.’ I’d hoped I could save the woman the humiliation.
Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day. A surprising series of connections left me thinking about it in an unexpected way. There’s a baby blessing in our community tomorrow:
‘The English name is Sidney,’ the parents explained, ‘So he’ll be Sidney Bloch, after our father’s lovely relative of that name.’
‘Sidney Bloch!’ I exclaimed, ‘After the Sidney Bloch who wrote No Time For Tears? I taught from that book just an hour ago!’
That beautiful book, full of charm, wit, and wisdom, describes growing up in a rabbinic household in the impoverished East End in the 1930s. In a chapter titled ‘One Man Alone’ Sidney recounts how his Uncle Julius toured the poor suburbs of London in the wind and rain addressing whatever audience could be mustered, begging people “to accept a refugee before Hitler did”:
“Any couple who leaves this synagogue hall tonight,” he would say, slowly and precisely, “without a commitment, is sentencing a child to an unknown fate…like death” he would add softly.
His words reminded me of a letter from my father’s aunt Trude, after she, her husband and their only son had been deported from their hometown of Poznan to a village near Lublin after the swift Nazi conquest of western Poland. On 31st October 1941 she wrote to her brother Ernst in the then still neutral United States:
Have you had any news in the meantime from [our relatives in] San Francisco? Maybe you can write to them again, so that they remember that we still exist…
By then it was anyway too late; Trude was taken east a year later, probably to Treblinka.
In Jewish law no form of tzedakah, giving for social justice, takes precedence over pidyon shevu’im, the redemption of captives. Distributors of charity funds are, in an absolute emergency, theoretically permitted to divert to this purpose moneys collected for any other cause without consulting those who gave it.
‘Captive’ today can mean unable to escape the grasp of a murderous power. One thinks of families desperate to get out of Afghanistan, or Uygur people with relatives in Xinjiang they haven’t from for years.
Inscribed on the eastern wall of our synagogue are the three love commandments in the Torah. On either side are ‘Love your neighbour’ and ‘Love the stranger’. These are not alternatives; we have an unceasing obligation to care for our near and dear, as well as Jewish people in trouble and any persecuted or suffering people wherever they are.
In the middle, above the holy ark, is ‘You shall love the Lord your God.’ We cannot love God if we don’t care about that part or spark of the divine which lives in us and within each of our fellow human beings.