Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Neilah Yom Kippur - Embarrassment & Refugees

The LBC DJ James O’Brian pulled a stunt in his show the other day.

He said he was going to cite an extract from a speech from in the recent conference season and read this out;

The State must drawn a sharp line of distinction between those who are members of the nation are the foundation of its existence and greatness and those who are domiciled in the State simply as earners of their livelihood there.

Then he revealed that the extract came, not from a contemporary British politician, but Hitler’s Mein Kampf - Chapter 2. And the worrying thing is that the extract did indeed sound as if it could have come from a contemporary British politician, because - too much of the time - it sounds as if we are about to embark on a national programme of erecting sharp lines of distinction between those who properly belong here and those painted as interlopers. It’s not that I think anyone in contemporary British politics is a Nazi, but this rhetoric and these calls for action make me squirm.

Here’s a conversation I get into fairly regularly, I suspect many of us are the same. “Where are you from,” someone asks, “London,” I say. “Where before that?” they don’t say it harshly, just interested, “Been here a while,” I say, “My great-grandfather had a pub in the East End,” I say. But no-one’s fooled. Not even me. My family arrived on these shores as economic migrants from points East. And even if there was the occasional pogrom or unsavoury violence back in the Veld, the notion that my ancestors would have crossed a contemporary threshold for a successful asylum application is ... well they wouldn’t.

I squirm reading reports from Calais or Greece or any of these places where human lives get piled up waiting. The largesse I experience as a British Jew whose ancestors arrived on these shores before the doors swung closed - certainly subject to antisemitism and the rest - but nonetheless able to get on, earn a living and give me such opportunities as Jews have but rarely known in our history - makes me feel embarrassed it’s easier to just turn the page and skip those particular articles. But my goodness, there are so many articles to skip.

And while there are so many problems facing us in the world, as Jews, as Londoners, as human beings it’s this refugee thing that haunts me more than any other. I get haunted because I keep getting pulled back by my faith to the central ethical and central narrative challenge of my people.

Some verses from our Torah, drawn from across the Five Books;

Love the Ger, don’t oppress the Ger, let the Ger rest on the Sabbath, the Ger who dwells with you shall be as one born amongst you.

Ger - it’s one of the most significant words in the Torah. In my Lexicon of Biblical Hebrew; Ger is defined as “a temporary dweller, new-comer (no inherited rights). Kindness to Ger,” it notes, “frequently enjoined.”

It turns out the word may be connected with the verb GaRaH ‘to stir up,’ ‘engage in strife with.’
Maybe that’s the heart of it. The Ger is the person who sticks out because they are new and don’t really know how to behave properly confound them, and what are they doing here anyway taking our jobs and clogging  up the waiting rooms and the waiting lists... Economically powerless and culturally awkward the “new-comer (no inherited rights)” stir us up and draw out the puss.
Hopefully, as I’m getting stirred up, the Torah kicks in; Don’t oppress the Ger, Love the Ger. As if the Bible somehow knew that the new-comer would serve as a lightning rod for whatever gripes and grievances might distract us taking responsibility for our own futures. Plus ca change.

Actually the way the Torah warns us off oppression of the Ger is even more tightly bound to my psyche than simply understanding the nature of my relationship with those who arrived on these shores more recently than my own ancestors.

Love the Ger for you were Gerim, ki gerim haitem b’eretz mitzrayim - you were Gerim in the Land of Egypt.

Ah the Torah sticking its fingers into my ribs jabbing away at my desire to shut the door and kick ‘em out, insisting I should behave well to the Ger because I was once a Ger. Actually not just once. Abraham was the first Ger. Then there was Joseph, and his brothers, and Joseph. Moses was not only a Ger, he even used the word in the name for his son Gershon. All of Israel temporarily dwelled in Egypt, and then in Babylon, and then again, and again, from century to century and from continent to continent.

We are commanded to love the Ger because it’s the very heart of who we are - the original Fiddler on the Roof, unstable, not knowing how confidently to tread in a society where we are “new-comers (no inherited rights).”It’s been only a blink of an eye since we began to feel more cosy in this society and we are already in danger of forgetting our historical, emotion and religious obligation to care for the unsettled newcomer we once were.

Where does it leave us, when facing the news, the reports from Aleppo or Greece or Calais?

There are a number of you here who are and have long been proudly involved in this work. In particular I want to salute members who are supporters of JCoRE, the Jewish Council on Racial Equality, and those involved in a new plan to host a group therapy programme for refugees here at New London, and members who are involved in the work of CARA - the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics and there are others, I know there are others. To all of you, I salute you. You’ve plenty to be getting on with.

But for the rest of us.
I want to suggest a couple of things.
Do one, do both. Do something.

I’m hugely proud of our community’s connection with the Separated Child Foundation, founded in memory of New London member, Ester, who passed away almost exactly ten years ago. The Foundation offers emotional, social, financial and physical support to separated children and young people, refugees, in Britain. It also engages in educational activities that raise awareness of their needs. It’s particular experitse is providing packs - good bags that provide physical assistance, but also offer an emotional recognition and validation of the humanity of those who are, perhaps, most on the edges of our society. The Foundation has an appeal for goods. There are fliers outside listing the sorts of goods they are looking for and what to do about them. On your way home tonight, take a flier. Make a donation.

Some members at our sister Synagogue, New North London, started a drop-in for asylum seekers in 2006. It meets monthly, on a Sunday afternoon. Just one asylum seeker arrived for a meal, some clothes, a travel voucher and a shopping voucher. The Centre has grown these past ten years. Those of you who were at the Q&A in the Hall just now will already have heard about it. Actually the stuff handed out is only part of the story. What the Drop-In offers is human to human contact. It’s a place where seeking asylum isn’t a ugly word. It’s a place where there is welcome and the acknowledgement that behind the headlines and the poisonous rhetoric are real human lives and real human suffering.

This last month over 500 came. The New North London Drop-In has become the largest centre of its kind in the country. And it’s far too large. Several months ago the leadership of the New North Drop-In asked for our help. Could we take some of the strain? Our member Sam Leifer - a long-time volunteer at the NNLS programme is helping us bring together a team. And we have a plan. On Sunday 6th November we are looking to host 70 asylum carefully vetted asylum seekers at a school in Finchley. We are piggy backing on the skills and experiences of the team at New North London, and we have plans and a crack team of volunteers in place. But we need more person-power and we need funds.

And that’s where we all come in. Do you have a few hours on the first Sunday in the month to volunteer? It’s not a particularly skilled job. The most important thing is to smile, and there is some sorting and cooking and the like. We also need some money. The venue is a small cost and the idea is that the asylum seekers get a travel voucher and a food voucher worth a total of £20. We are looking for people to sign up to give £20 a month to cover those expenses. We’ll even take £10 a month, or £5.

Will supporting the Seperated Child Foundation or the Drop-In Centre bring an end to the suffering of those who have arrived in this country in search of something more than “a temporary dweller, new-comer (no inherited rights)?” No.
Will it put an end to the violence and persecution that has driven so many to this country? Also no.

But it will do this.
It will demonstrate that we care. That we remember. That we still love the Ger ki gerim hayitem.
For we were once Gerim too.
And it will help the few individuals we touch. And there is very little more than helping a human who is suffering.
Lo Alecha HaMlachah Ligmor teaches our tradition - you don’t have to complete the work, v’lo atah ben horin lehivatel mimena. - But neither are you free to desist from it.
I also belief that this kind of support will help up be less stricken by embarrassment in the face of the onslaught of tales told about refugees in this and other countries.

In a few moments we will be back to our regular Yom Kippur business of prayer and self examination.
But in an hour’s time, when we blow the shofar and just before you pile off home, please take one of the fliers in the lobby.
Consider a gift of goods or money or your time. They are all most valuable commodities.

I could make a point about the size of the experience of hunger of asylum seekers for whom days without food are not a voluntary once a year interruption in an otherwise replete diet.
I could share some gut wrenching story from some broken life.
But I believe no-one in this community, at this time, needs that.
I believe that this community only needs to be given an opportunity to rise to do the decent thing.
And we will.
Because we do remember, and we do care.
And we know that this can make a difference.

Chatimah Tovah,

A good last chance saloon daven.

And a good year to us all,

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