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NPLS Civic Service 2011
Diversity, multiculturalism and
our place in society


A sermon in three parts
29 January 2011

 
 
Student Rabbi Sandra Kviat
Sandra  Kviat
 
Rabbi Hillel Athias-Robles

Hillel
 
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein


Aaron

Student Rabbi Sandra Kviat

The Danes do it once, the English twice and the French three times. And the Jews do it like everyone else.

I am of course talking about the custom of greeting each other and specifically about the amount of times one is required to kiss someone on the cheek. As a Dane I had to learn to kiss twice and as a Danish Jew I had to realise that British Jewry are very adamant about their customs. And to add to the confusion one of my class mates is French and they kiss either twice or three times depending on what part of the country they are from.

Now this might seem trivial but the differences between Danish and British Jewry are to a large extent cultural, and not specifically religious.

And so I found myself in a car years ago with the rabbi of a local community, a visiting female imam/sheikha, and a female lay member of the community. We were leaving a Holocaust Memorial Day service and we began to greet each other goodbye. When it was my turn to say goodbye to the female member we kissed each other on the one cheek, but then she kissed me a second time on my other cheek and so I responded, but then she moved to kiss me a third time on the first cheek which is when I said ‘oh you want a French kiss’! Imagine my embarrassment when I realised what I had said. When you look like everyone else, sound like everyone else, and behave mostly like everyone else the mistakes that do happen are usually rather profound.

The British are really rather like the Danes. We have the same form of dry/ironic humour, we also have a love/hate relationship to our neighbours (we still haven’t forgiven the Swedes for daring to invade in 1657) and we always point to them as much more socialist than ourselves.

Where Britain and Denmark differ is in diversity and heterogeneity. Denmark is extremely homogenous, there is a tendency to seek conformity, and despite our reputation for being liberal we do not particularly like changes if we can avoid it. And so too the religious communities. As a child I had no idea that there were different ways of being Jewish. Either you were ‘religious’ meaning that you kept kosher and observed the festivals in the way prescribed by the Orthodox community or you were ‘not serious’. Boys were expected to have private tuition leading up to their bar mitzvah to polish their Hebrew, girls were bunched together in groups and taught important lessons about cooking.

We had never heard of Progressive Judaism, that it is acceptable to believe that the Torah is not actual history, or that women can be rabbis. It is only 11 years ago that the Progressive Jewish community was established in Copenhagen, the first of its kind in Scandinavia.

Religion is to a large extent considered private in Denmark and not something that is advertised or brought up in everyday conversation. Most people’s knowledge of Judaism stems from TV shows such as ‘Simpsons’ and ‘Sex and the City’.

When I applied for rabbinical school, Leo Baeck College in Finchley was the only place in Europe where I could train to be an English speaking rabbi. Britain is still the only country in Europe where being a woman and a rabbi is not uncommon. Moving from the outskirts of Europe to London has been a real eye opener; you can get Chanukah cards in mainstream shops, most large supermarkets in North London have a kosher section, and people know that Jews do not celebrate Christmas.

Being part of the cultural quilt that makes up London has been one of the more exciting experiences I have had. I still marvel at the diversity of cultures and communities that makes up most neighbourhoods. And I feel part of it. The tube is my oyster, I have come to love curries, and I listen to radio 4 every morning.  I am a Jew and a Londoner and I am proud of being both.

Assistant Rabbi Hillel Athias-Robles

As a gay, Latino, disabled, Sephardic Liberal Jewish immigrant, I have always been a minority of a minority. Having lived in 4 different countries before coming to London, I was always branded an outsider and experienced discrimination on many different levels. When I arrived in this country it was the first time that I felt truly at home. Thanks to Britain’s multiculturalist project, that sees the uniqueness of each individual as enriching the fabric of British life, I no longer felt an outcast. In fact, it was the UK’s openness to diversity that finally allowed me to embrace my sexuality.

Multiculturalism, however is not the natural state of things and must be artificially created. British colonialism tried to anglicise and homogenise the different constituents of the Empire, and its missionaries sought to replace native religions with Christianity. UK Sodomy laws were exported to cultures that traditionally had more tolerant attitudes to sexual diversity. In 1864 the Anthropological Society of London concluded that Blacks were a separate species more akin to the ape, even though this was more than three decades after the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. In our own Parliament we heard Enoch Powell deliver his venomous and bigoted “Rivers of Blood” speech in the 60s, and our streets became the stage for the Brixton Race Riots in the 80s and 90s. Multiculturalism has thus been a grand effort to conquer the hearts and minds of our citizenry, and it has largely succeeded. However, as an artificially created force, multiculturalism is by nature fragile and must be carefully maintained so that we do not revert to our previous intolerance. In the media and political discourse we constantly hear the tenets of multiculturalism come into question. We feel multiculturalism crumble as Islamophobia becomes more socially acceptable. The All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into anti-Semitism reported a sharp increase in anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents.

It is therefore imperative that we remain vigilant and do not allow the tolerance we have strenuously crafted to wither. Giving up on multiculturalism is not the solution to our social wrongs. It is in fact multiculturalism that prevents our social wrongs from deteriorating even further. Together, as politicians and members of the public, we must defend the Britain that we are proud of. We cannot allow our achievements to descend into oblivion.

Senior Rabbi Aaron Goldstein

And so to the local boy. I have spent most of my life in and around Northwood: I grew-up here and was a constant visitor until I was fortunate enough to land my dream job, of being Assistant Rabbi to my father and then Senior Rabbi on his retirement. Our Synagogue is in a rather special location. We are located in Hillingdon and we have many members also living in Harrow, Three Rivers and Watford.

If we had as a Community only focused on our corner of Hillingdon, we would have not have been as enriched as we are, both in giving and receiving. In this past year we have been involved in supporting the Harrow Mosque, hosted or visited many schools in Three Rivers and built a special relationship with the Watford New Hope Trust. This past week has seen nearly 2000 local school children coming to our and Northwood United Synagogue a to meet a Holocaust survivor, hear their testimony and work in small groups with trained facilitators to explore the relationship between the past and key issues that they face today such as racism, bullying and discrimination. Over the past 10 years, over 16000 local school children have experienced this programme.

And I am delighted to announce that this year, together with our neighbouring Northwood Methodist Church and the Hayes Methodist Church, we will be launching a project to support and educate refugees and asylum seekers in Hayes. You will have heard both through our liturgy and our Torah reading, the motivational motif of our freedom as a People from Egypt. “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you understand the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” We are interpreting this as a positive, not a negative commandment, a driver for social action in the community.

Our neighbours and the authorities have provided us as a Jewish Community, to live in freedom and harmony with our neighbours. You have provided us with the foundation to play a full and active role in the Community, to fulfil the prophetic pledge to be a ‘light to the nations.’ We thank you for that and the opportunity with other faith groups and organisations to better the society we live in. You allow us to develop our conviction that all people, regardless of gender, sexuality, race or ethnicity can contribute to the rich fabric of Britain’s multiculturalist project. Let this service have renewed within our hearts and minds, the desire to be partners with God, in the creation of a society that we will be proud to gift to our children and the children of all those who wish to join us, in peace and harmony.

Amen

 

 
       
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