Let me start with a simple and humbling story. In London, where homelessness is an increasing issue, many of you will have walked through the streets of the city and seen sleeping bags, cardboard boxes and newspapers piled up next to heating vents and alley ways. I am privileged to run a homeless shelter in my local borough and along with some wonderful volunteers we provide, through a network of synagogues and churches, the food, warmth, bon homie and shelter for the less fortunate. Generally, it is a happy and pleasant time spent with decent people. I usually think “there but for the grace of G-d, go I” as we are all just a few steps away from disaster or success. Then, just occasionally I meet someone, they tell me their story, and I am humbled.
A middle aged South African lady turned up at our shul shelter last night. She was on the list of guests, but she was late. In fact, had she been half an hour later, we’d have been closed for the night with all the guests snuggled up in their sleeping bags on the floor. However, she was just in time. She was cold as it was a miserable winter’s night in London, rainy, cold and windy. It was late. Dinner had been served and guests were already bedding down for the night. So I made Hilda a cup of tea. She’d missed dinner, so I rustled up cheese, toast and cold veggie sausages. As we sat and chatted she told me that she’d have to be up at 4am to go to work the next morning. And then she’d be back at lunchtime; then she’d be off again until 10pm for work. From 4am until 10pm travelling and working. She had to catch 4 buses to work, 4 buses back to a lunch shelter to collect her night shelter voucher, 4 more buses back to work and 4 buses back. We worked out how to help her not have to travel back so she could do another job over lunch. Then she could afford a hostel, and then she could get a little more independence. I felt proud to help and humbled in her company.
Our synagogue is a proud provider of a community shelter. It works with different synagogues (United, Reform, and Progressive) and churches (Catholic, Church of England and others). We hope to add a mosque to our roster next season. We show how a multicultural society all has the same community spirit and values. It shows that we can work together and put aside our differences for the greater good.
A volunteer’s story
Volunteering at synagogue and community spirit is synonymous with our community and Jewish communities across the diaspora. Yet it was one volunteer that caught our attention in the most heinous of acts in Denmark. When a volunteer was shot outside the Central Synagogue in Copenhagen we were all horrified and devastated. His bravery may well have stopped further slaughter within the synagogue where a simcha was in full swing. It touched us all, but brought a sense of realism much closer to home. I wrote in the Times and the Independent later that week:
Last week I stood outside the gates of my synagogue in London.
I watched our children at the Sunday school practicing their terrorist evacuation procedures within the grounds of the building with its enhanced security systems, high wire fences and toughened glass. I watched as the police car patrol did its rounds, the CST officers in their bullet proof jackets did their checks and the synagogue’s own hired security did perimeter inspections.
And me, just an ordinary Jewish Londoner, at those gates doing my voluntary duty, just like the man on Saturday night in Copenhagen outside his synagogue.
Fear, life and death as a Jew in Europe today.
Humility not the case….. flag raising raises its ugly head again
As the Council’s of Britain finally started to drop their enthusiasm for political flag posturing they suddenly found a second wind. So, some of us started round 2 of the “have you really thought this through?” dialogue. However, we are a bit smarter now too. So here’s how I got to grips with our friends in local government:
In essence, the PSED requires councils to have regard to the impact on community relations before exercising any function (flag-raising included). This action would clearly significantly damage community relations.
149 Public sector equality duty
(1)A public authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to—
(a) eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under this Act;
(b) advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it;
(c) foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.
We were in dialogue with both Manchester and Preston who had differing attitudes. Manchester was happy to drop the provocative action in exchange for respecting community sensibilities. Preston council has tried to justify its flag raising. But curiously, the Head of Preston Council boasted of his wife and children’s Jewish heritage (whilst not being Jewish himself) whilst intimating that Israel was to blame for the rise in antisemitism. So I felt compelled to point out to him when, in the summer, he approved the raising of the Palestinian flag:
In a recent article I read that your wife and children are Jewish. Did you consider that the ruling organisation in the country whose flag you raised last summer have an article in their manifesto upon which they were voted into power and is supported to this day without waiver. Article 7 reads:
“The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!”
It is, I’m sure you’d agree a truly grotesque policy.
You raised a flag of a nation who support this. This murderous tirade and policy applies to all Jews, both your family and mine.
There are powerful legal positions and reasoned thinking that ensures that actions such as these are not appropriate for councils and their employees. But also, it shows what we are learning. A year ago I didn’t think I could take on a Council in another part of the country with a legal argument or persuade with depth of knowledge and reason. I, like many others, have found a voice and an inner strength and energy which I never knew I had.