“Compulsory tea break”. The call goes around the huge warehouse five minutes’ drive from the refugee camp universally known as “The Jungle” outside Calais. During the pause, a woman in a beret eyes my kippah: “Are you here over Shabbat?”
People wheel in loads of donated clothing. Philli, who runs the warehouse, is precise about what’s needed: good sleeping bags; solid men’s shoes; medium sized men’s coats; two- and four-person tents.
In the camp, a refugee stops me. I think he’s Eritrean. He says: “Jewish? There are three, four Jews.” I’m not sure if he means people back home or in Calais. Our guide, from Auberge de Migrants, apologises: there are mosques here and a church, but no synagogue.
On the road through the camp, I recognise a congregant, also volunteering. The refugee crisis speaks powerfully to the Jewish consciousness. It’s not just the Torah’s commandment to “love the stranger”; it’s the immediacy of recent experience. My father once mislaid his passport. “Why does it matter?” I asked – I was small at the time. “You’ll know if you ever don’t have one,” he replied. Aged 16, he was a refugee from Nazism.
I’ve never sat at a Seder without guests who had fled for their lives.
Dani Lawrence of Help the Refugees explains: “My father left Morocco and found a home in Israel. My mother fled Algiers for Paris, where my parents met. Being French, I felt ashamed when I learnt about Calais.” Several of the women who help run the organisation out of Ms Lawrence’s home are Jewish.
For the Jewish youth movements and young adults who were among the first to volunteer here, the appeal is the opportunity to help both as Jews and as part of an interfaith and international effort.
It’s a way of living according to Eli Wiesel’s dictum, “A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings.”
I find further resonances with Jewish experience. There’s a thirst for life, culture and enterprise. There’s a library and a classroom, while a dome of timber and plastic sheeting shelters a space for painting and music.
All around are low tents, feeble barriers and running mud. Within sight is razor wire blocking access to the trains.
A decent way – a fair, safe and shared way – must be found to offer humanity a future.
This article first appeared in The Jewish Chronicle