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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
I do not agree with every Orthodox Rabbi on a regular basis but Rabbi Naftali Brawer, whom we know so well from his time at Northwood United Synagogue, is an exception. With great admiration, I read his letter in the Jewish Chronicle that challenged Rabbis to forsake a congregation-pleasing sermon during the High Holy Days - on the “Israel-Palestine conflict,” one that emphasized the “particular and tribal God of Israel who is ‘on our side,’” for one that invokes the universal God, “before whom all lives are precious and worthy of dignity and before whom the tears of a Palestinian child are as distressing as those of a Jewish child.” Such a sermon might not play, “to the gallery by reinforcing our sense of victimhood, righteous indignation, and moral superiority,” but Rabbi Brawer suggests that it “is only through thinking of God in this way that we can begin to appreciate the divine in the other. That is the crucial first step towards peace.”
Yet, occasionally or for some of us, more often, we find ourselves emoting rather than thinking on religious issues. Our intuition is persuasive and our reasoning stifled. We support the familiar, the favoured. Even when we have a sneaky suspicion that simple responses are inadequate in a complex scenario, we take the easy option and assume the worse of the other.
To think intuitively in a Jewish way is to seek the welfare of the Jewish People. NPLS has, and will continue to be, a thinking religious Community. Our Israel Committed Group is utterly committed to supporting the right of Israel to exist, the coexistence of all Israeli citizens, and to promote Progressive Judaism which seeks to implement the liberty and justice envisioned by our ancient Prophets and modern-day Israel’s founders. This past year, we as a Community have engaged with the intuitive: purchasing equipment to support the life-saving work of Save A Child’s Heart and providing funds for Leket Yisrael, to supply food products to the far too numerous whose lives are blighted by poverty in Israel. We have enabled Idan Reuven, an Israeli Ethiopian to enter education at the Leo Baeck Centre in Haifa and outside of Israel we have funded food parcels for our twin Community in Yvpatoria, Ukraine, provided religious books and artifacts to the Abuyadaya Congregation in Uganda and supported projects through Jewish Women’s Aid and more.
Yet, as Jews inspired by our faith in a universal God, we have also engaged where others may not have done, seeking to play our part in bringing about peace and equality for all peoples. I acknowledge that there are those who say - focusing on an historical or political narrative validated by the jealous God that is also present in our Sacred Texts - that Arabs will always play a long-game, that of pushing Israel into the sea. I happen to disagree with that narrative as I believe it leads to inaction and makes peace more difficult to attain.
Rather, I support our policy of positive engagement. A key piece of our work recently has been welcoming 7 Israeli Muslim teenagers and their teacher to our Community, to spend Shabbat with us, to enjoy London and most importantly to meet their peers: Israeli Jews and our own young people at Machane Kadimah, our wonderful Summer Camp. The friendships that these young people built and will strengthen next year when our young people visit the village of Nahaf as part of their month-long Israel Tour, are small elements of the foundation of peace inside the borders of what will be the State of Israel alongside a State of Palestine. I hope to further this project for many years, our own, counter-intuitive long game.
We have also thought reasonably about relationships with our Methodist neighbours relating to Israel/Palestine, choosing to engage in dialogue to further our understanding of the situation there and of each other. In this way we have expressed our displeasure at some of the views held in the Methodist Church but have done so in a way that creates long-term engagement. My thanks to our members involved in this process that has inspired a Clergy Dialogue group as well.
We have also worked with the Watford New Hope Trust who support those with no or precarious shelter, with the Hillingdon Inter Faith Network to provide items needed by refugees and asylum seekers detained at Harmondsworth Detention Centre next to Heathrow Airport.
These are all wonderful programmes that help define our religious Community. If you have not already contributed actively and wish to this year then please respond positively to volunteer opportunities.
Yet and now we get really interesting, are we daring enough with our religious approach of Liberal Judaism? Are these projects already as edgy as we feel comfortable with? Let us use these moments to seriously think. I ask these questions for honest feedback but also to challenge us in our interactions with ‘the other,’ the person, the human being who we do not directly relate to.
Let us consider Travellers, Dale Farm for instance.
The Traveller Community might seem homogenous to many in the settled community, a group of people who are at a time romanticised and at another ostracised. However, just as there are many denominations within Judaism, so there are within the Traveller Community. In the UK, there are denominations based on Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers, those who are in permanent housing and those on a variety of private, public and unauthorized sites. Both Irish Travelers and Romany Gypsies are recognised as distinct ethnic minority groups in English law.
I am interested by our reactions to the Travellers of Dale Farm and those who live all over the UK. They are so obviously not of our Jewish People and their life-style is so discordant with our own that our circles of familiarity are so far apart. If we are to feel affinity to them it would in most respects be counter-intuitive.
Yet I ask myself why we, Jews, need legislation to protect our rights in this country. I wonder why I have an uneasy feeling when rejection of the Human Rights Act is mentioned.
Everyday I drive past a Traveller site on Tolpits Lane. It is not on my backdoor, I know that it is a legal site but I know nothing about the people who call it home. To my knowledge I have never met someone who lives there. When I have seen people coming in and out of the site, my reactions have been neutral.
So why the revulsion in Dagenham? Is it just planning law or is it something more insidious that echoes in my mind? The legalities of planning law have generally been reported over the reality that because the men folk of the Traveller Community are more often than not on the road working, eviction orders will disproportionally affect women, children and the elderly. Whilst planning permission is granted for 90% of regular housing bids, only 20% are granted for Gypsy or Traveller sites. Councils must provide ‘options,’ but any right in Law that the Traveller Community had to be provided appropriate sites ended in 1990. Currently it is up to Gypsies and Travellers to find their own sites and hence presents us all with a vicious cycle.
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