Friday, 15 October 2010

Wandering Wondering about Refugees, London Citizens and Others

I’m a wandering Jew.

I’m still wandering some four thousand years after God told Abraham to ‘go,’ to leave the comfort of his land, the place of his birth, the home of his father.

I’m an outsider here, in England,

I’m an outsider.


And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions and they went forth to go to the land of Canaan. And Abram passed through that land


We Jews have been economic migrants and asylum seekers for far far longer than these terms, so contemporary in their valence, have existed.

No wonder we care, so much, about the treatment of other refugees, strangers, with the Bible repeating again and again our obligation to care for the stranger in our midst.

We care about others because we are other.

And we want to live in a society that knows how to care about others.


Our otherness, our own strangeness, our sense of difference, goes right back to the very first moment that God spoke out to our patriarch Abraham and said ‘go.’ We have been refugees ever since.


I have been thinking about an event I chaired several years ago, hosted by the Jewish Community Centre and the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, in London.

On the panel was a woman who had fled political persecution in Uganda and Trude Levi – the Auschwitz survivor.

They were both refugees, wanderers, outsiders. And, boy, did they have a lesson for us.

The Ugandan woman shared a story, a brutal distressing story of her life in Uganda, the disappearance of her father and daughter, the rape and torture she was afflicted by in Uganda, and then she turned to discuss England. She couldn’t understand why she was being threatened with detention in this country. She couldn’t understand why she, a qualified nurse, was compelled NOT to work for a living while her asylum application was being processed – an application that has been under various forms of review for four years.

She couldn’t understand why she gets spat at in the street, why gets called dirty, when, why she gets accused of being a leech on society when the government refuse to allow her to work for a living.


It’s hard to be a wanderer – an outsider

Trude Levi, the Auschwitz survivor on the panel shared an appalling story of her abuse, in France AFTER liberation.

After Auschwitz and the Death March, she was taken in by a French man who she thought loved her, until he tried to pimp her.

Sickening, this inability to let a stranger pass through our lands in peace.


In this week’s parasha Abram and Sarai, our first wanderers, encounter physical and sexual threat when Abraham flees to Egypt in search of some food because, as the Bible puts it ‘ki chaved haraav ba-aretz’ - the famine was very severe. I suspect the Daily Mail would have called Avraham Avinu a benefits’ scrounger.


The Rabbis create a story around Abraham’s experience on the border.

He knows that his wife is likely to be taken away from him as a sexual slave to the Egyptians, so he hides her in a box as he crossed the border.

The border guards insists he pays border taxes on his goods and suggest he has garments in the box.

Abraham offers to pay tax on a box full of garments.

The guards suggest he has silk in the box.

Abraham offers to pay tax on a box full of silk.

They suggest he has jewels in the box.

Abraham offers to pay tax on a box full of jewels.[1]

It reads like a contemporary story of refugees being blackmailed, ripped off, scammed and stung .


Why is it that, through history, societies have struggled so mightily with immigrants, refugees, wanderers, asylum seekers, call them – call us – what you will?


Refugees, wanderers have a different perspective on everything the natives take for granted.

In the minds of the Rabbis, Abraham, in his wanderings challenges the idolatry of the society he was born into. He gets arrested, dragged before the local king


‘Let us worship the fire!’ Nimrod demands.

Why not worship water which puts out fire,’ says Abraham.

So let us worship water

Why not worship the clouds which bear the water. '

Let us worship clouds!

Why not worship the wind which disperses the clouds.

Let us worship wind

Why not worship human beings, who withstand the wind.’

At this point, the Midrash tells us, Nimrod loses his temper and throws Abraham into the fire. [2]


This is exactly what we should expect from a refugee.

Challenging, seeing our faults from the outside.

Holding up a mirror to force us to see our own ridiculousness.

Helping us become better because of our engagement with those who pass through our lands.


I think this is the meaning of the blessing God shares with Abraham.


V’heye Bracha

And I will bless you

You shall be a bracha


Be prepared to stand outside the commuities in which you find yourself, confronting them with your difference and I, God, will bless you. – vevarech’cha

And through you I will bless the communities around you

V’heye Bracha – and you shall be a blessing – to them.


But it’s not easy finding the blessing from the other.

Because they query whether the things we thought were important are really important.

They topple our applecart of values by virtue of their difference.

They require toleration.

We require toleration.


The wanderer, the refugee sees the values of a society differently.

The refugee sets no store by the i-pod, or the fancy ring tone.

Rather what moves the refugee are simple acts of kindness, gentle moments of hospitality, a stamp in a passport, a work permit, a chance to build a life anew.

Simple, really, simple acts of hospitality.

And it threatens our sense of privilege, and it threatens the values we are comfortable measuring our successes and failures by.


The wanderer is a walking provocation to the status quo. Our very existence presents a novel experience for the societies around is, something new needs to be countenanced. We, us wanderers, push our face; pink, or black, or shrouded in a veil, or wreathed in a turban, up against the window and ask questions about toleration, pluralism and possibility.

These are deeply valuable questions; they offer a measure of societal decency. And they are questions that can only be asked in the presence of one who is different.


Without welcoming wanderers in our midst we cannot know how we, as a community, treat strangers.

Without welcoming immigrants we cannot know, as a nation, how we respond to the disaster and even gross poverty in far away lands.

Immigrants allow a society to test itself.


As many of you will know I have been advocating that we, as a community, join London Citizens


There are many things that occupy us, as a community.

Many important things.


In the last week we, as a Synagogue, have been involved in

one bar mitzvah,

four stone settings,

a baby blessing,

a launch for our Noam Youth Group

I’ve had two meetings with couples shortly getting married.

Two families thinking about joining the shul.

Another who want to plan a baby blessing

I’ve taught a Talmud class,

Written an article for the London Jewish News, and weekly words and a sermon

Hosted fifteen families with little kids at my home for a Tots for Tea.

And been involved with a range of pastoral struggles.

The list goes on.

It’s all important.

But that list, and I think it’s an impressive list, is all about looking after ourselves.

And we are pretty good at looking after ourselves.

I only wish we were as good as looking outwards as we are at looking inwards.


A story is told[3] of a young student who desperately wanted to meet the angel Elijah. The boy’s father told him that if he stayed up all night and studied with his whole heart, Elijah would come and greet him. The student did as he was instructed but nothing happened. Then one evening, while he was getting on with his studies, there was a knock on the door. It was an old man who wanted something to eat. The student was too busy for such a distraction so he sent the old man away.


We are, as a community, in danger of forgetting to look outside.

We have become, dare it be said, a little too insular.

We are in danger of losing our soul as Hebrews,

as descendants of Abraham who passed through the land, engaging with the society around him.

as descendants of Abraham who left the land of his parents and his birth to learn more about what it truly important in society.


We need to recapture that sense of being a wanderer.

I believe joining London Citizens will help us do that.


Those of you who are interested, please let Julian, our chairman know.

There is a Council meeting on Monday to make a decision on the issue.

At issue is how we remain the true ancestors of Avraham AVinu and Sarah Imeinu,

Still holding up a banner,

Still worthy of the great blessing of our ancestors.


V’esacha lgoy gadol

I will make you a great nation


And I will bless you

V’heye Bracha

You shall be a bracha


Shabbat Shalom

[1] BR 40:5

[2] Gen R 68:13

[3] Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, in Hineini in Our Livesp.153

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