Holocaust Memorial Day – and our duty to care

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.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2022

On this Holocaust Memorial Day, a time for remembering and mourning, I feel deeply conscious of how important it is to focus on life.

As Jews we think first and foremost of the Nazi Holocaust; it touches very many of us personally. I only have to think of what my family might have been, had both my parents not had to flee Germany in their teens, had their relatives not been uprooted, and had so many of them not been murdered.

We are mindful also of the genocidal attacks by the powerful against minorities across the world and through the decades since, including the brutal persecution of the Uyghur People today. We must always stand up and speak out against such bigotry and savagery.

Humanity has proved itself capable of the most merciless cunning and heartless cruelty so often and on such a scale that it shames us as a species.

Therefore, now as much as ever, we must turn to life and do our utmost to support one another, across all faiths and nationalities, to live at peace with each other and in harmony with nature.

Those who perished would have longed to live out their days and enjoy the gift of life, of which they were so brutally robbed.

In their memory, may we dedicate ourselves to life.



‘The heart knows’

My colleagues and I have been talking a lot about Rabbi Charles Cytron-Walker, familiar to everyone around him simply as Charlie. Today he’s known around the world for his courage, composure and astutely judged conduct when he and members of his congregation were taken hostage last Shabbat in the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville. He’d received special training in how to respond, emotionally and practically, in just such a situation, but in the end it’s a person’s character which shines through. Thank God, and thanks to the skill of the security services, he and all the hostages were freed.

The rabbi’s friends said it was ironic, as well as tragic and shocking, that such an attack should have taken place in his community. He and his wife are known for their openness and their work with people of different faiths. As one of his teachers at rabbinic school said, he ‘could establish bonds with everybody. He is blessed with the ability to connect with people and become beloved.’ (The Forward)

Sadly, the necessity for security means that we have to patrol perimeters, carefully watch, and sometimes close and lock, entrances. It’s the last thing one truly wants to do in the house of God.

But there is one kind of door which, as a matter of ultimate security, we must not seal, – the door of the heart. We’ve read enough about Pharaoh’s hardened heart during the last weeks, the misery this caused The Children of Israel and the destruction it brought down on his own people.

One of my favourite verses in the Torah focusses on the very opposite:

God will open your hearts and the hearts of your children, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, so that you shall live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

An ancient rabbinic teaching consists of just two words: lev yode’a – ‘the heart knows.’ The verb carries no object, so what is it that the heart can know? The meaning is that the heart has the capacity to know God, not in the abstract as a mere idea or dogma, but feelingly, in life, in nature and, most importantly, in other people.

I admire those whose hearts are open in this way. I don’t think of them as ‘pious’ in any formal sense. I see them rather as deeply perceptive and kind in a sensitive, unobtrusive manner. The deputy head teacher at a school where I taught before becoming a rabbi was like that. She somehow communicated the sense that she felt the potential for life and joy, the dignity and uniqueness, the presence of God, in every child, and they responded to her with instinctive, smiling respect.

Last Monday, the same date news of the arrests in Manchester in connection with the Colleyville siege became the top headline, was Martin Luther King Day. Reverend King understood that freedom would come to America only on the ‘day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.’ He kept his heart open in the face of constant threats, vilification and imprisonment and, in the end, paid with his life for his deep faith in the oneness of all peoples.

It was because of this shared vision of God and humanity that he and Abraham Joshua Heschel became close friends and spiritual allies, so that they walked together arm in arm in the front line of the march in Selma, Alabama.

Tomorrow we read in the third of the Ten Commandments, ‘Don’t take the name of the Lord your God in vain.’ The exact translation is ‘Don’t carry God’s name in vain.’ The negative implies a positive, that we do carry God’s name, each of us in a unique way.

The ultimate security of humanity lies in recognising that name and presence and honouring it, in ourselves, each other and all life.

Tu Bishevat, responsibilities and trees

‘This is why we’re working here,’ said Nic, looking round at the thousands of young trees, or whips, already planted. The January sun was slowly melting the frost off the grass in the valley. ‘It’s partly for park land, partly for flood protection, so that heavy rains don’t drain too swiftly into the Lee River, causing havoc downstream.’

We were in Enfield, just past Trent Park, a few hundred yards below a road I know well. But I’d never seen the landscape from this perspective before. Normally I drive this way to our community cemetery, heavy-hearted, thinking of people I care about. But today I was here to plant trees for the future, for new life.

It will be Tu Bishevat, The New Year For Trees this Sunday night and Monday. A fresh consciousness, a re-awoken awareness of our dependence on soil and insect, trees and rainfall, clean air and water, is traversing the world, including all faiths and all sectors of the Jewish community. We can’t teach our children Torah if we don’t bequeath them, and all the world’s children, a liveable, sustainable, bio-rich planet.

As so often, Tu Bishevat comes in the same week as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. ‘They sang this song of triumph o’er,’ runs the line from the much-loved spiritual Go Down Moses. Overcoming contemporary Pharaohs and tyrants is always a struggle and always important.

But it’s a different singing humanity most needs now, the kind heralded by the Psalmist when they ‘heard melodies from the corners of the land,’ when ‘the hills and valleys burst into song and the trees of the fields clapped their hands.’ We must attend to the music, including the laments and elegies, as well as the arias and ballads of the earth.

Old prayers can be like old friends; one takes them for granted without thinking how much they mean to us. Every day I’ve said the Amidah blessing thanking God who ‘makes the shoots of salvation grow – matzmiach keren yeshua.’ It’s always seemed to me an odd combination of words: what’s salvation got to do with shoots and sprouts?

But that morning planting trees has helped me understand better. According to the Talmud, we will all be asked in the world to come if we have ‘looked forward to salvation.’ Judaism understands salvation not as some state which will suddenly descend miraculously from heaven, but as a task, at which – with God’s help – we have to work. It’s our commitment to the future, our contribution to making it better. What nicer way of doing so can there be than planting shrubs and trees, and flowers for the birds and the bees? It’s our part in ‘making salvation flourish.’

So I’ll be back in Enfield planting again in the weeks ahead, hopefully with a bevvy of young people from our community. We’ll be part of those cohorts across the globe planting, and helping others to plant, sustainably, locally, for the good of humans, animals and the world.

‘Those tall protectors,’ said Nic, pointing to the four-foot-high shields, are against deer, ‘so that they can’t bite off the tops of the young trees. The smaller ones,’ – he indicated a pile just half the height, – ‘Are for the shrubs, to keep the rabbits off them.’ It’s one of the great challenges of re-foresting, stopping eager herbivores from feasting on the freshly planted saplings.

But who’s protecting the worlds trees and forests against the depredations of humans? We live at a critical moment; we’re at the start of a complex rebalancing of the relationship between human need and nature, as urgent as it is profound. It’s all-encompassing. It’s theological: this is God’s world, not ours to possess but to preserve. It’s economic: we must sustain nature, so that it can sustain us. It’s moral: the earth’s resources need to be distributed justly. It’s spiritual and emotional: without the restoration of our minds and souls in woodlands and wild places, we’re weary and bewildered.

Most important: it’s on our doorstep, it’s here and now, and it’s our responsibility to do our best to get it right.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Tu Bishevat

Mental Health Shabbat

This Shabbat, when we read of the plague of darkness, has been designated Mental Health Shabbat by Jami, the mental health service for the Jewish community.

I often think of Dr Maurice Gaba, who was good to us at a difficult time for my family when my brother and I were small boys in Glasgow. Much later, when I was in my twenties, I would visit him and his wife in Jerusalem, after they made Aliyah. We even planted a rose garden together. ‘Suffering is unequally distributed in the world,’ he used to say then; ‘I saw too much of it during the war.’

It’s as true of mental as it is of physical suffering. Each of us feels life differently; what’s easy for some is painful for others. There’s a moving midrash on the words of Psalm 29 ‘The voice of God is ba’koach, ‘with the strength.’ Why ‘the’, the midrash asks; why not just ‘with strength’? Because, it answers, God addresses all of us personally, and is experienced by each of us individually, according to our varying sensitivities and mental state.

We ourselves are not the same from day to day or even hour to hour. Sometimes life sings in the head. Sometimes it gets you in the heart. Sometimes some of us want to hide in a place where the light can’t find us, because just walking down the street feels raw and exposing and we don’t feel safe even in our own footsteps.

When something hurts in our body, we can sometimes use our consciousness to contain the pain, put it aside, focus on other matters. We’re lucky to live in a country where medication for physical injuries is often, though not always, accessible and effective.

But when it’s our consciousness itself which hurts, where do we go then? Sometimes even the voices of those we know we love, and whom we know love us, bounce off some invisible membrane which seems to enclose our mind and trap us in our thoughts.

What can we do, for ourselves and each other? Sometimes we need the help of people with professional training, counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrist, psychotherapists, to guide and help us heal from inside our own minds. During lockdown, when many of us have faced profound challenges of resilience and spiritual wellbeing they, like other health professionals, have been hugely challenged. I’m grateful to them for being there and keeping going.

But often what we need is a more understanding community, society, indeed world. When Pharaoh, in a moment of reprieve, asks Moses, ‘Who’re you planning to take with you out of Egypt?’ the answer is instant: ‘Everyone; we’re leaving nobody behind.’

In today’s harshly competitive, often brash world, focussed on success, which usually means work and financial success, we do sometimes leave people behind. It’s especially hard for young people to see how they’re going to pass all the exams, jump all the hurdles and make it through.

So, on this Shabbat dedicated to mental health, I want to appeal for kindness, patience, listening and imagination. This starts with how we treat ourselves and extends to our community, in fact to everyone we meet.

Imagination may sound like ‘the odd one out’ among these qualities. But I believe we need to re-imagine what qualities, and whom, we value. Perhaps it’s a phantasy, but some traditional societies were more generous and patient than our rushed world today. If this wasn’t true in the past, maybe we can make it so now.

Can we validate different sensitivities and needs, – the gift of really meaning a warm greeting, of simply listening, of being in touch with our child-soul, of relating to animals and nature, of doing a daily chore with care and pride, of seeing time as opportunity for kindness?

Maybe such attentiveness and openness would, at least in small ways, help to re-centre us and bring healing to our minds and souls.

Get in touch...