Vignettes from Israel

Four days in Israel, where it’s wonderful to be: here are some of the matters which have engaged, excited, troubled, and inspired me;
–          Met colleagues who created Kasuvot or ‘Listening’, a pastoral service for Israel’s hospitals. How can they develop it, gain recognition for chaplaincy as a true profession? Later I learn about multi-faith chaplaincy at Haifa’s Ramban Hospital, Jewish, Muslim, Druze.
–          At the Israel Trauma Centre with Prof. Danny Brom, thinking about the programme ‘Peace of Mind’ (when soldiers come, like the unit we hosted, for hours of discussion and debrief, while cared for by Jewish communities abroad). 25 units are waiting for invitations: how can regular funding be found? When will we host our next group? I watch the film about the unit who was with us: snow, Claire welcoming,  Mitzpah trotting by, one of the soldiers explaining how much it meant for them. ‘One hadn’t talked about what it felt like…’ Our community all learnt too, and loved it.
–          At Yad Vashem, searching for anything on the Jewish Hospital in Poznan. My great-aunt’s husband was a doctor there until December 1939. Then Ostrow-Lubelski, then perhaps Treblinka. In the huge data-base, an entry by a relative who grew up with my mother’s mother. I walk out through the gateway designed by Roman Halter. Later, conversation with relatives puzzling for hours over letters. A postcard sent to Kanitz in 1893 with congratulations on the birth of a second daughter, – that was my grandmother Ella. 
–          At the Conservative Yeshivah, with rabbis Joel and Shaya, and the Kelim group from London (which includes Mossy): three impassioned evening debates ‘Why Believe?’ ‘Why Observe? ‘Why Learn?’ High energy: we want a Judaism with the spiritual discipline which develops the quality of our consciousness, guides our actions, and yet argues the real moral issues of the universal world. Yirat Shamayim withTikkun Olam – Awe of Heaven and social justice. Everything I care about debated with a passion! There’s a great future for Masorti Judaism. (How do we work with the Yeshivah more; bring its excitement to London, take more of us to its heart in Jerusalem? We shall!)
–          In the Knesset, listening with Rabbinical Assembly colleagues to MK Avraham Mitznah. He comes across well: Iran, Syria, Jordan, (Israel helps with the refugees, quietly, below the radar). Then a difficult meeting MK Meir Shitreet to petition him in the name of UK, Israeli and US Rabbis for Human Rights (of all denominations) to work on the deeply troubling bill about the Negev  Bedouin. Let ancestral lands be kept, villages be recognised…Painful, worrying.
–          In the Jerusalem Botanical gardens: ‘The porcupines come out at night. They display their quills like a peacock. Both humans and animals generally retreat’. European, Australian, Mediterranean, herb and bonsai gardens. The motto is ‘Plants grow people’. I know it’s true. Ecology goes deeper than religious divides: there’ll be a walkway of the faiths; ‘The plants in the sacred texts are basically the same – we all depend on wheat, olives, dates…’ We want everyone to come here, religious, not religious, jews, Muslims, Christians, children, elderly…‘Will you bring people here from London?’ Definitely! ‘A three-day botanical trek in Israel’s hills?’ Tomorrow if I could! 
–          I meet a friend who’d just done her Masters in not-for-profit management. ‘There’s a revolution in  caring for the elderly; how to make homes becomes communities. In the US whole towns are studying to be elderly friendly.’ Send me literature please!
–          Long conversations with a family. Next month it’ll be the fifth wedding in Israel I’ll be privileged to help conduct. Ketubah. Music. Feelings. (One time the photographer said ‘Do that again for the camera.’ He’d miss the groom giving the ring. ‘No way!’ and, rarely for me, I gave the man a lecture.)
–          ‘Yonatan!’ – I turn round, ‘Shmuel!’ (I taught him English, he taught me Judaism, thirty years ago). ‘What are you working at?’ ‘Where food and Jewish culture meet’: he writes, cooks, researches: Did you know that Rabbi Moses Isserles (Krakow, C16) says that what’s called Lokchen here was known as Varmicelli by our ancestors? He does a night time tour through Jerusalem’s challah bakeries, testing the flour, tasting the dough). Yes, he can lecture in English; eating is international – very Jewish too. Heard of Gefiltefest? No! Come to London? Sure!

Yehoshua Hass

Over the last days I’ve found myself thinking again and again of my friend Yehoshua Hass. He’s not been alive these last few years; he was my father’s age and died at roughly the same time, about five years ago.
It must be because I’ve spent the last two days in Brussels, at an intensive meeting of European Masorti rabbis, joined later by lay leaders. It’s been wonderful to learn Torah together and my thoughts haven’t strayed during our sessions (especially as I’ve been chairing most of them). But I’ve made a point of walking everywhere we’ve gone, and as I’ve wandered the streets (‘Take off your kippah’, I was told in no uncertain terms, ‘This part of the city isn’t safe if you show you’re Jewish’) my thoughts have wandered too.
I met Yehoshua on Mount Zion; he was a painter and had set up his easel in the courtyard of a monastery. For some reason I can’t recall we fell to talking of French romantic poetry; it must have been some line from Baudelaire. We became friends, and I spent many Shabbat afternoons at his home with his family, with whom I’m still friends.
I learnt his life story partly from him, partly from his wife after he was gone. Most of it, of course, I’ll never know, as one never does, even about our closest companions. That’s what I think about now, in Brussels: ‘Did he live here, perhaps, in this street, or in that house over there?’
‘I was out when the Gestapo came for the family’, he told me one day. ‘Someone said to me: “Don’t go home; the Germans are waiting for you there.”’ He must first have found a hiding place somewhere in the alleyways of this city, then over the border in France. He crossed the Pyrenees with a group of young escapees, over what become known as theChemin de la Liberte, climbing at night the steep and freezing peaks. His group became lost and some of his companions died of the cold. But he made it to Spain, to his beautiful Mediterranean, and his beloved Land of Israel. After the war he returned to Europe briefly, on some mission for the Hagannah. He was a romantic and I learnt after he’d gone that there’d been at least a couple of broken-hearted, and no doubt stunningly beautiful, girls between Brussels and the South of France.
When I met him he’d just moved to Jerusalem from the north, where he’d lived by the sea. The sun, the wind, the waves, the bright Mediterranean colours: Naomi Shemer’s song ‘Od lo ahavti di’ gives perfect voice to the world he loved so much: ‘The wind and the hot sun against my face; Oh I haven’t loved enough’.
Yehoshua was a painter and a teacher of art. What he painted most often was Jerusalem; dark green, grey green, deep Italian red, and there were the olive trees and the steep tiled roofs against the sky. He loved it here.
Back in Brussels I find myself thinking about him in every gap between our study sessions, and how he fled, and where he hid, and how he built Jerusalem, and what about him, and my own father, I will never know.


‘We sat and wept’, said the leader of the Somali Bravanese community to me when we met. It wasn’t just a building which the fire at their community centre in Muswell Hill destroyed in the early hours of last Wednesday, but their second home, where their children went to study after school, where they felt safe, supported and cared for. The place was everything one would call a true community: a centre of solidarity, celebration, learning, culture, care and prayer. There was a sense of shock as we spoke, as of the loss of part of the very heart of a family.
But the following shall not be lost: strong and effective civic solidarity; deep trust that when hate or misfortune strikes no community will be left to stand alone; kindness between neighbours whether of the same or of a different religion; hope and aspiration for a better future for all children; closeness and co-operation rooted in the faith which unites all Faiths, – our shared belief in goodness, kindness, justice and peace.
It’s heartening that, like other local rabbis, I have received numerous messages of support to pass on to the community. As Rabbi David Mason of Muswell Hill Synagogue, a close neighbour of the centre, said: “We will work to ensure that the Bravanese community have all the support they need and that this disgraceful incident does not disrupt the harmony that exists between all our local communities.”
Together with other neighbours and fellow congregations we must try to help the community rebuild not just the fabric of what can be seen, bricks and roofing, but of what cannot be seen, trust, hope and human fellowship. In this we must be guided at all times by the needs and sensitivities of the Bravanese community.
Although I’ve been a guest on more than one occasion at the Bravanese centre, I’ve never troubled until now to find out where Brava actually is. It’s a city in Somalia on the Indian Ocean, whose people have been persecuted for reasons all too familiar to Jews: high aspiration, high achievement, and simply for being different. Coming here, Bravanese people faced many struggles, first to remain in this country and then to build community through activities like those which take place in the centre in Muswell Hill. The Somali Bravanese Welfare Association in Barnet (the centre is exactly on the Haringey border) lists the following services:

  • Advice, information and support for the Somali Bravanese community.
  • Befriending and outreach service for older, socially isolated community members.
  • Accompanying community members to appointments where there may be language difficulties.
  • English classes. 
  • IT training centre.
  • After schools programme for local children aged 11+. 
  • Social, recreational and cultural events and activities.

Together with many others, I’m in touch with the leaders of the community and will pass on details of what is needed as they become clear.
There is always the danger that tragedies and hate crimes are exploited by groups wanting to manipulate them for causes of their own. What matters here is something far deeper and far more basic. It demands of us all a threefold affirmation: of our common and equal humanity, of our mutual interdependence, and of the unique value of each one of us and of every community.

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