I have changed my mind. Until now I have stayed away from visiting the Jungle Refugee Camp in Calais. Many of my friends working in relief efforts have told me that visitors were not needed but food, trainers, tents and waterproofs would be useful.
So today I shall be travelling in a coach with a group of rabbis and imams (should that be a ‘bunch of rabbis and imams’???) to see the camp at first hand. They have been kind enough to extend an invite to a rabbinic student.
My reason for going is to hear from those in the camp their stories, hopes and aspirations: to show kindness to strangers and to understand more. I feel going with other religious leaders from our two faiths makes this a positive act of solidarity following the launch of World Interfaith Harmony Week. Furthermore, I have become increasingly shocked by the rhetoric from certain politicians and the media in an attempt to vilifying those in Calais.
135 years ago my great-grandparents walked out of Czarist Russia at the height of violence acted out against my people. They wanted to start their lives again and made sacrifices to ensure that their children and children’s children would not suffer from discrimination, oppression and persecution. They wanted a better life And faced similar criticism from politicians and the media of the day. They were no different in my opinion from those who have exited Syria or other war-torn parts of the world.
My friends in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have told me that the millions stuck in refugee camps there have no foreseeable future: no access to their homes, no access to jobs etc. And the mass migration into Europe has occurred as a result of young people wanting to get on with their lives and escape the inactivity and despair of the refugee camps on the border of Syria. For some of those with English it makes sense for them to try and come here: Germany is accepting migrants but the language barrier makes it difficult for them to get on the jobs ladder.
There are those who have attacked my position saying it is naive, that the migrants are somehow something else – that they are not who they say they are etc. The only way that I can verify this is by going there. 135 years ago we were accused of being economic migrants, of having Bolshevik Trojan horses in our midst, of being incompatible with the host society and worse. Plus ça change…
Still, I was reluctant to go until now because of accusations of voyeurism. Last month changed that as politicians ramped up the rhetoric back by an anti-immigration right wing press and the French authorities decided to bulldoze parts of the camp including a Church and a Mosque. This latter act seems to take away their dignity and their freedom of conscience. I simply do not understand why anyone would bulldoze even a makeshift place of worship.
As I sat in synagogue yesterday reading the weekly Torah portion there in black and white was the main reason to go: “And the stranger, you shall not oppress, for you know the heart of the stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt”…
And that is why I have changed my mind.
In Rabbi School we are exploring the sometime complex concept of pray and the views of leading 20th century rabbis on this topic. The course covers Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who is claimed by several traditions within Judaism. For me, Heschel is best remembered as the civil rights rabbi who went to Selma and marched alongside Dr Martin Luther King. He claimed at Selma he was ‘praying with his legs’.
In a number of his essays he expresses his concerns that 1950s American congregations had a disconnect from prayer. He paints a depressing portrait , perhaps for Heschel, of a generation who are forgetting how to pray: of synagogues turning into arenas rather than a community of full participants. He is critical of communities where the rabbi or cantor prefers to perform in front of his congregations rather than to lead pray amongst them For him you and leaning on his own Hassidic tradition have to put your whole self into prayer ‘in a complete turning of heart towards G-d” “in a yielding of the soul”.
Events always seem to takeover. Paris. Tragedy strikes again.I had accepted a few weeks back an invitation to attend the England v France match at Wembley with members of the FA’s Faith in Football group which I chair… what had been a run-of-the-mill friendly was now something far more.
Stepping out onto Olympic Way at Wembley with my son seemed like an act of defiance. It seemed that every fan walking down that road was sending a message and that every step was an act of faith.
The Wembley arch was lit up in red, white and blue. The words ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’ emblazoned across the stadium.
We met my friends at the entrance. One of them had worn a hijab to the match said that although she had been nervous coming to the match dressed in religious attire she was surprised at how warm the England fans had been to her. There was a feeling of togetherness as 75,000 fans sang the Marseilaises: true that some did not know the meaning of the words “but they seemed to be completely turning their hearts to it” perhaps even “yielding their soul”. At half-time,we took a group photo. We decided to tweet and Facebook the photo: “Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Sikh at the footie. Most importantly friends together…”
As the match ended we took the long walk to Wembley Park. People were singing, embracing: french fans, england fans, football fans, humanity fans. We seemed to be walking with a common spirit. We had been part of something bigger than sport.
We stopped to queue before the tube station. My pocket was buzzing. Who was calling… I looked at it… Several hundred retweets… Our photo seemed to have captured something… It seemed just for a moment that our photo had captured a shared moment of hope… And the twitter sphere was responding accordingly…
As I walked on I thought to myself this is what Heschel meant when he said “Praying with his legs”…
Original BBC Broadcast below:
Does the Ethiopian Jewish festival of Sigd help us build a new model of pluralism?
Judaism has a history of diversity whilst promoting unity. Modern questions of religious pluralism echo those of previous generations: some differences are accepted, some are tolerated and some are seen as heresy. Even in the latter case, the heresy and the heretics can be sometimes be separated. In this respect the Jewish faith does not differ to others. (more…)
The Times of Israel article on the issuing of this postal stamp in Belgium does not do this picture justice. Let me tell you the real story… Or the one that I know anyway.
Chief Rabbi Guigui (the man on the left) told me his story last year and I shall repeat it here.
In 2001, he was walking through Anderlecht and was attacked by a gang: he was badly hit and the youths hurled insults at him in Arabic before being rescued by a friend. Instead of getting angry, never returning to Anderlecht or battening down the hatches he decided to engage.
He formed a very special relationship with Imam Abdullah Dahdouh who had a mosque in Anderlecht. The imam became the first Muslim cleric to be invited into a synagogue in Belgium and the Chief Rabbi and him became close friends forming a strong and public relationship until the Imam was murdered in his Mosque two years ago by Salafist extremists.
Both Guigui and Dahdouh wanted to create a better Brussels and better Jewish-Muslim relations is a city that has seen violence. Guigui told me this story on a panel last year… Remembering his friend he became ever so slightly tearful: “I was attacked, yes, but my friend the Imam was killed… that’s why I cant stop. That’s why this work is so important”…
Amen to that.
Last Thursday, I had the privilege of visiting Rabbi Lord Sacks at his home with other members of the Montefiore Rabbinic College. Lord Sacks is a member of Faculty.
In preparation for the festival of Sukkot he looked at the text of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes). His conclusion was simple: in a fragile world we have a short life, one sustained by ‘hevel’, a shallow breath. In that life it is not the possessions and power that we accumulate (something the author of Koheleth, either King Solomon or someone writing in his name, claims he has done) but throughout he mentions that it is moments of joy. Lord Sacks explained the difference between joy and happiness.
Happiness can be achieved on your own. Joy can only be achieved together. So for all of you sitting with friends and family in your Sukkah this week may I wish you a Hag Sukkah Semeach – a joyful Sukkot..
For more information on my studies at Montefiore College and my journey to become a rabbi listen to Rabbi School Diaries.
This Shabbat we read from Deuteronomy / Devarim the section called Shoftim. This week we say the words from that text “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” (צדק צדק תרדף). Today this photo was taken as refugees try to enter the EU. It has moved me as I am sure it moves you. Desperate refugees fleeing from wartorn areas. Children on their parents shoulders. These people were tear-gassed for wanting to come into the EU.
It can’t be left to only bankrupt Greece or troubled Spain and Italy to integrate these refugees. Surely, we can do more more… Surely we should do more. I know times are tough but nothing compared to these guys… I don’t mean to preach. I just want that these people have some hope, some escape from misery not caused by them, some future and some justice. We are all humans… Justice, justice, you shall pursue…
Current death toll at Calais since June: 12 Current residents at Calais camp: 3000
Among reports of deaths these have emerged:
24th July: A young Eritrean woman hit by a car about 5:30 on the A16. People at the scene reported that she was gassed in the face by the police before she was hit
23rd July: A teenager was found dead in the English part of the Eurotunnel at Folkestone
19th July: Houmed Moussa, an Eritrean teenager of 17, drowned on the site of Eurotunnel
4th July: Samir, an Eritrean baby died one hour after birth. Her mother, twenty years old, fell from the truck triggering a premature delivery at twenty-two weeks.
The much maligned Hungarian Government has taken in far more refugees and so has Germany than the UK. The Mediterranean bloc of EU countries are bankrupt and barely coping with new arrivals but still they give refuge.
The UK and French Governments’ policy is in tatters. You don’t just walk from Eritrea or Syria risking your life at sea and at the hands of traffickers to then turn back at Calais. There must be a more humane way to deal with this crisis.
The Governments response to this is not to deny that those waiting at the Port of Calais are not refugees but to shut our doors on them. Why can’t we process them there or here? Some will go on about cost but we have just converted an airport into a lorry stacking facility at the cost of £10,000s per day (of taxpayers money). Call me insane but frankly would love to give refugees refuge and get them working and contributing to taxes than ploughing money into a failed scheme.
Britain does have a great record of giving asylum and refuge. We value fair play, respect, tolerance and have promoted humanitarian causes throughout the world.
This is not a party political issue but a human one. I am not calling for open borders or no controls: I am calling for justice. Whatever way it is argued this seems cruel, unjust and unBritish… And yes, we bear responsibility too.
So this week we visited an abattoir that deals with Kosher chickens and other poultry as part of my Rabbinic studies programme.
My vegetarian wife has taken my visit well but what did I learn apart from the fact that I am not keen on the smell of chicken dung which remained on my clothes for hours after the visit.