Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Yom Kippur – 9 October 2019
Hinneinu – Here we are on Yom Kippur morning. Although several hours of praying, reflecting and fasting lie ahead, in fact, the aseret y’mei t’shuvah, the ‘ten days of returning’ are drawing to a close. After sunset, the New Year begins in earnest, and we will turn from looking back to moving forwards. In the meantime, here we are, with one another, with ourselves – and with our personal thoughts, concerns, regrets and memories. Memory is a funny thing. Perhaps, everything is stored somewhere in our amazingly complex brains, but if my experience is anything to go by, we only remember a tiny fraction – and then recall the same memories again and again. Whatever the memory – painful, joyful, miserable, humorous – each one a trophy of our past kept alive within us because for reasons we don’t always understand, it continues to resonate in the present.
One of my most powerful memories goes back to 1984. As a first-year rabbinic student who had worked as an editor, I was asked to be one of the proof-readers of the English of the Days of Awe prayerbook of Reform Judaism, which was published the following year.1 My memory centres on the first passage in a section of responsive readings in the Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah service that quotes from the 19th century German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, the intellectual founder of modern Orthodoxy:2
- What calls us here tonight, out of the daily routine of our lives?
The sound of the shofar … calls us all to God. It calls poor and rich to true riches; it calls the most distant wanderer home.
I didn’t feel called to God and the phrase about calling ‘poor and rich to true riches’ didn’t speak to me. But that last phrase was like an arrow going straight into my heart: I was a ‘most distant wanderer’. And I hadn’t only been a ‘distant wanderer’, I had wandered all over the place: antiracist and, specifically, anti-apartheid activism alongside involvement in the International Marxist Group while a sociology student at LSE, and then radical feminist activism and lesbian separatism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When I arrived at Leo Baeck College in 1984, longing to belong, I hoped that at last I had found a home, where all of who I was could reside and thrive.
Over the course of my rabbinate, since my ordination in 1989, I’ve had one-to-one meetings with dozens of individuals longing to belong. Each individual, with their own story, their own journey, but ultimately, with a single goal: to find a home for themselves. It’s a simple need that we all share. I’m proud that Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue has become home to so many different people. We have succeeded in creating an oasis of inclusivity, equality and diversity, reflected in the different religious, cultural and social backgrounds, genders, sexualities and life situations of our members and friends.
What we have achieved here at BHPS is very special. It’s not easy to hold those values together in one home. For many people, the need for safety and refuge that home offers, makes it impossible for them to embrace others. The emphasis on the need for a home, of a place to belong to, of a people to belong to, stirs up feelings of wariness, suspicion, and even hatred of ‘outsiders’ – of those who look different or sound different, eat different foods, pray and worship in different ways, live and love differently. We have seen this in the Brexit debate since the Referendum campaign of 2016. The human need for belonging becomes dangerous when it becomes tribal, inducing a binary ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.
In his fortnightly ‘Light on anti-Muslim Prejudice’ Hope Not Hate3 email of 6th September, Safya Khan-Ruf examines ‘the Identarian Movement’ put under the spotlight in Hope Not Hate’s report, ‘From Banners to Bullets’. The term ‘identitarianism’ is based on the word ‘identity’. Identitarians want to enforce strict mono-identity codes. Safya Khan-Ruf writes: ‘Identitarianism is an ideology that seeks to breed hatred and spread division. This ideology had inspired its followers to pick up firearms and travel to a mosque in Christchurch, a synagogue in Poway and Walmart in El Paso to carry out acts of terrorism.’ The email goes on to reference the Christchurch killer’s ‘manifesto’, entitled, ‘The Great Replacement’, which expresses ‘the central idea perpetuated by Identitarians’. ‘The Great Replacement’ danger is that white Christians are being replaced by Blacks and ethnic minorities – the ‘replacement’ a massive conspiracy, orchestrated, of course, by ‘the Jews’. The blog put out by the right-wing extremist who rampaged into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Shabbat morning on 27th October 2018 killing eleven people and injuring seven, made it clear that he was targeting the synagogue because of its support for migrants and refugees.4 The Identitarians want ‘ethnic autonomy’ in the context of what they call ‘ethno-pluralism’ as an antidote to the multicultural society. What they really want is white supremacy – again.
Of course, there is a huge difference between most people’s desire to find a home and this kind of xenophobic extremism. Nevertheless, unless our need for belonging, for a home, a refuge, is also linked with a sense of solidarity with others and a desire to connect with others, our emphasis on ‘our home’ – whether understood as ‘sovereign England’ or ‘sovereign Britain’ or on a smaller scale, as ‘our’ city, ‘our’ town, ‘our’ village, ‘our’ synagogue, church or mosque, ‘our own’ ‘bricks and mortar’ with the drawbridge drawn up – becomes self-serving and by definition, exclusive.
As a distant wanderer, who eventually found a home in Jewish life, but only after struggling hard for LGBT equality and inclusion for twenty years after I first became a rabbinic student, for me, Judaism can only be my home – and the synagogue can only be my home – if the doors are open to others, who are welcomed to come in and make it their home, too. Most of us want to ‘belong’ and feel at home. A sense of belonging is integral to many people’s sense of well-being. But for belonging not to become exclusive, we need to cultivate a sense of solidarity with others that involves connecting with others outside our home and inviting them in.
In the past three years the power of this kind of solidarity has been very evident in the monthly Interfaith prayer hour organised under the auspices of the Brighton and Hove Interfaith Contact Group.5 Initially established as a way of enabling people to connect together and express a sense of solidarity in response to a spate of devastating terrorist atrocities, the monthly Interfaith Prayer Hour has continued, and after being hosted at Hove Methodist Church for two years, and then the Baha’i Centre last year, just this past month, it was inaugurated here at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue.
For the uninitiated, perhaps, the word ‘Interfaith’ is perplexing. Evidently, people attend of all religions and none, so what do we do? How do we connect, given the differences between us? The answer is very simple. People are free to remain silent, or to offer a prayer or a poem or a reading or a song – and whether reminding silent or speaking, to light a candle. There are no words adequate to describe the feeling of solidarity generated. Rather than differences being obliterated, everyone is free to express themselves in their own way – and together a home for mutual respect is created.
Of course, it is relatively easy to foster solidarity in the context of a sense of the external threat of extremism. Since 2016, apart from the ongoing Brexit debacle, there has also been a continuing problem with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party – experienced by Jewish members of the Labour Party, including Jewish MPs. The rise of the Momentum movement has brought in young people to the Labour Party inspired by the renewal of the Labour Party’s socialist vision. It has also re-activated far-left elements within the Labour Party that have not had a voice since Neil Kinnock defeated Militant tendency in the early 1980s6 – which in turn has led far-left activists from ultraleft groups to join the Labour Party. So: a perfect storm for the propagation of the particular left-wing version of anti-Semitism that is expressed in the characterisation of Israel as a ‘colonialist state’7 and a complete disregard for the way in which political Zionism emerged in Europe in the late 19th century in response to a new form of virulent racist anti-Semitism.8 From the perspective of the father of political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, since Jews were not safe in Europe, the Jewish people needed to have our own home.9
How should Jews respond to anti-Semitism in the Labour Party? One response is retreat – retreat into the refuge of a like-minded Jewish community. But the problem is, we’re not all like-minded. And Jews with progressive values that include reaching out to others, can’t find a home in a Jewish community that does not share those values. Solidarity rooted in reaction is negative and likely to foster negative feelings – fear, suspicion – that are not conducive to connecting with other communities.
So, how might we respond positively? What we need is solidarity rooted in positive affirmation of our lives and values as Jews that supports our efforts to reach out to others. Of course, anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and anti-Semitism on the right must be confronted. At the same time, we need to save some energy to connect with others and to focus on issues that demand the concerted action of all communities – not least the threat of climate change. As individuals and as families, there is much we can do to reduce our carbon footprint, cut out single use plastics, and so on. But we also need to work together as a community and across communities.
In January 2018, a new cross-communal Jewish initiative was launched to enable this to happen: Eco Synagogue. Eco Synagogue aims to change the relationship of our synagogues with the environment. To quote from the website:10‘It operates through an online survey aimed at synagogues which assesses broad domains of activity – how we use our buildings and any land we own or care for; how we eat and consume; how we use the opportunities of the liturgical year; how we teach and preach; and how we change the behaviours of our congregations … [through] community action, supported and encouraged by rabbis and lay leaders and put into practice by green teams of motivated members.’
I’m delighted to say that at the festival of Shavuot on June 8th/9th, with our all-night programme on ‘climate change and our responsibility to repair the world’, BHPS began the process of becoming an Eco Synagogue. Since then, a ‘green team’ of synagogue members has got to work. Just as exciting, at their first session, the new Kabbalat Torah class of 13 to 15-year-olds, discussing what they would like to focus on this year, said that they wanted to make ‘being an Eco Synagogue’ a regular weekly item in their sessions. At their second session, they decided that they wanted to create a newsletter and take on the task of monitoring the steps taken by the synagogue towards becoming a fully-fledged Eco Synagogue.
Clearly, we have an important task ahead as a congregation. Another initiative, championed by of one of our members, Benita Matofska, invites us to look beyond our community and work towards transforming how we live on this planet and how we connect with one another by generating a ‘sharing economy’. For the past couple of years, Benita has travelled all over the world meeting with people engaged in sharing projects. What she discovered is recorded in her wonderful book of testimonies and photographs, entirely made from recyclable materials, ‘Generation Share’, the proceeds of which are going to fund an amazing sharing project in a slum in Mumbai, India, where a young teenager has started a school for girls in her one-room home.11 A sharing economy is exactly that. Clothes can be shared – we hosted our first clothes-sharing event at the synagogue in the past year. Cars can be shared – a way of dramatically reducing the number of cars on the road and their toxic emissions. Just think of all those electrical items that you only use once or twice a week – hoovers, lawnmowers – they can all be shared between neighbours. And then, imagine what a difference sharing rather than, consuming and discarding could make to the planet.
We know that unless governments – including the British government – commit to acting now, climate change will become irreversible. We also know that we can’t wait for governments to act. We must act. What we do as individuals and communities can make a huge difference. Building a sharing economy is about sharing the world together in a sustainable way and creating connections across continents, regions, nations, cultures and communities, for the sake of the planet which is home to all of us. As we share this sacred day together, let us reflect on how we can draw positively on our personal needs for belonging and commit ourselves to connecting with one another and sharing and repairing our world.
1 Days of Awe. Forms of prayer for Jewish Worship, Volume 3. Prayers for the High Holy Days. RSGB, London, 1985, p. 156.
2 Samson Raphael Hirsch (June 20, 1808 – December 31, 1888 formulated a philosophy he called Torah im derech eretz – ‘Torah with the way of the land’. In other words, a way of integrating Jewish observance with participating in the wider society. See: ‘Religion Allied to Progress’ in the Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, edited by Philip Feldheim (1996).
3 Email: lamp@hopenothate Postal address: HOPE Not Hate Ltd, PO Box 61382, London, N19 9EQ. United Kingdom
7 See for example: Israel. A Colonial-Settler State? by Maxime Rodinson (Pathfinder Press, 2002. First published in 1973).
9 Theodore Herzl (2nd May 1860 – 3rd July 1904). Herzl’s Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews) was published in 1896. The first Zionist Congress took place in Basel in 1897.
Generation Share. The changemakers building the Sharing Economy by Benita Matofska, with photographs by Sophie Sheinwald. Policy Press, University of Bristol and University of Chicago Press, 2019.