Scenes from a week in Israel: I go into the barber’s near the centre of Jerusalem; I’ve had no time until now since Shavuot to get a haircut and even I’m ashamed to appear at a wedding looking such a mess. The young hairdresser has just finished cutting the hair of a teenage girl. ‘For Zichron Menachem’, he asks, and, as the girl nods, picks up a pony tail some eighteen inches long and putting it in a special bag. ‘How often does that happen?’ I ask him; ‘Sometimes almost every day’, he answers. Libbi gave her long childhood locks there too.
Later, as it happens, I visit Zichron Menachem, a centre for children with cancer and their families. Rabbi Baruch Levy, who has devoted his life to the cause since the death of his son, (and who has several times visited our shul) shows me round. He points to a carpeted hall full of cars, tractors and amazing toys, ‘Sometimes brothers and sisters feel that all the love in the family goes to the child who is ill. So we bring them here too. We help them with their homework and when they’ve done it they get tokens to play with those toys; it’s very popular’. There’s a music room, a computer room, a room for teenagers who, surprise surprise, don’t find it cool to be in the same space as three-year-olds. Outside is a pond, a greenhouse (‘the children can say “that’s the one I planted!”’) and a shady area set aside as a future pet’s corner (I see the guinea pigs there already and offer to send over half a dozen). Rabbi Levy takes me upstairs, ‘And here we have group therapy sessions for parents. People who would never otherwise meet become close friends, Charedi parents, parents who have only a fuzzy idea of what Judaism is, non-Jews. The sessions end at 10.00pm; sometimes at 11.30 we have to say “I’m sorry, we need to lock up the building now”.’
I get a phone-call from my friend Rabbi Arik Aschermann of Rabbis for Human Rights, ‘Join us tomorrow at the High Court; it’s a critical case between Arab farmers and settlers at Sussya, about demolitions and land ownership’. I go along. The building is justly described as beautiful; the courtroom is hushed, by synagogue standards. In the event the case is adjourned; the judges are considering what other actions to take alongside it. I’ll know more about the issues themselves by tonight, as I’m spending much of the day in the South Hebron hills. On the way back into town I fall into step with a young woman who asks me, ‘Were you just at the court?’ She is a journalist from Poland; ‘I love being in Israel’, she says. ‘I understand Israeli fears, but is anything going to change here? I feel such a sense of hopelessness. I took a week out in Cairo; there was so much more of an atmosphere of hope there.’ I turned off into the city, thinking about Hatikvah.
At Machon Schechter, prior to seeing the Principal to talk about rabbinic training, I spend an hour with David Broda from Leket Yisrael, the National Food Bank. ‘It began with one man picking up food wasted after Simchas in the back of his car and taking it to where people are hungry’, he explains. Now they save 700, 000 meals a year, which would simply have been leftovers thrown into the rubbish bin. ‘The volunteer calls the catering manager at about 10.00pm and she says “come along, I’ve a lot left over”. The volunteer has the keys to our refrigerated store-rooms, or takes the food straight to one of the organisations which will distribute it to the hungry the next morning’. Sixty thousand people below the hunger line are fed in this way. Leket Yisrael gleans the unpicked crops from farms too, – the true meaning of the word ‘leket’). We’ll be supporting them these High Holydays, but that’s not enough: couldn’t we learn to do likewise in London too?
David continues, ‘The single biggest amount of food left to waste is when the Friday markets close in Tel Aviv. It’s right before Shabbat, so we work with the local churches. They take it to Lewinsky park in the south of the city where there are thousands of African refugees. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, eat healthy, nutritious food, at least this once in the week’.
‘What about you, do you feel hope here?’ that Polish journalist had asked me. ‘Yes’, I’d replied, ‘because of the extraordinary numbers of people here who’re truly committed to their ideals, social justice, building bridges…’. ‘Does it turn into political change?’ she asked. I couldn’t answer, – but I do know that it does turn into daily hands-on commitment.