On Wednesday evening, I participated in the National Holocaust Memorial Day event held at Chichester Cathedral. The event was a tribute to Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children in Czechoslovakia before the outbreak of the Second World War, and featured the testimony of Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines MBE, who, aged 9, was one of the children rescued by Sir Nicholas. The centre-piece was a beautiful oratorio, entitled, The Last Train to Tomorrow, composed and conducted by Carl Davis CBE, with text by Hiawyn Oram, which told the story of the kindertransport. The oratorio was performed by the University of Chichester Chamber Orchestra, with actors from the Chichester Youth theatre as well as children, aged 8 to 11 from the Central Church of England School, Chichester, and was produced and directed by Professor Pamela Howard OBE, a member of BHPS. Two other people from our congregation were also involved in the organisation of the event, Ralph and Clare Apel, and Clare, herself the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, read the testimony of Helenka Eisinger, another ‘Winton child’. The programme also included evocative orchestral pieces by Jewish composers, Erich Korngold, Felix Mendelssohn, Ernst Bloch and Gerald Finzi, as well as Carl Davis’s, ‘Anne Frank Remembered’. I was asked to close the evening by giving an address about the lessons of the Holocaust and singing the memorial prayer, El malei rachamim.
It was a remarkable and moving commemoration. Many of us are aware of the story of the Kindertransport, which involved the rescue of 10,000 unaccompanied children from across Europe, who would otherwise have perished. Indeed, we have been privileged as a congregation to listen to your own dear Hans Levy give his account of the traumatic two year journey he took with his brother to safety in England, during which time he reached Bar Mitzvah age. Sadly, within the span of a very few years, we will no longer be able to hear the personal testimony of the refugees and survivors. This is what made the performance of The Last Train to Tomorrow so poignant and important. Here were children recounting that terrible time; children were telling the story of a previous generation of children. The young people before us, who stood throughout the 45 minutes duration of the performance on the simple stage that was their ‘train’, sang their hearts out and there was no doubt my mind as I watched their faces that the Kindertransport tale had gone straight to their hearts.
The theme of this year’s National Holocaust Memorial Day was Don’t Stand By. In order to rise to that challenge we need to be moved, moved to action, not only by the tales of what happened during the Holocaust, not only by the tales of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur – not to mention the pre-Holocaust massacre of one million Armenians in 1915, which the Turkish authorities still refuse to acknowledge – but more crucially, by what is happening today. People of all faiths and none are being persecuted and murdered from Syria to Eritrea right now. Exploited by cynical people smugglers, in their desperation to escape, thousands are drowning in the sea. And while Western governments debate the merits of their cases and consider how many refugees to allow into their countries, thousands more live in squalor in makeshift camps, like ‘the jungle’ outside Calais.
Over the past year, I have spoken about the plight of refugees. At the end of June, I quoted some statistics, which I’m going to share with you again because they bear repeating: The UN Refugee Agency [UNRA] calculated that: “There were 19.5 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2014.” The figure for the end of 2015 – which is not yet available – will no doubt be higher. And of course, as we have become aware, so many of today’s refugees are children: UNRA also reported that in 2014, 51% of refugees were under 18 years old.”
In the past couple of weeks, the news has picked up on the phenomenon of unaccompanied minors amongst those taking flight. Where is today’s kindertransport? Where is today’s Nicholas Winton? On Thursday, under the heading, ‘UK to give the sanctuary to unaccompanied refugee children,’ the BBC News reported, and I quote: ‘The UK is to accept more unaccompanied child refugees from Syria and other conflict zones – but the government has not said how many. The Home Office will work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to identify “exceptional cases” from camps in Syria and neighbouring countries…. The government also said it was giving £10m to help vulnerable refugee minors already in Europe; some could be brought to the UK “where it is in their best interests”.’
The BBC report mentioned that the charity, Save the Children, ‘said child refugees in Europe were “incredibly vulnerable”’ and that ‘campaigners want 3,000 children to be taken from Europe.’ The National Holocaust Memorial Day event at Chichester Cathedral was in aid of Save the Children, and an envelope for donations was placed on every one of the 400+ seats. Don’t Stand By! Young people are getting the message. Hundreds of young people are refusing to stand by and are volunteering their services in Lesbos and ‘the jungle’ in Calais, and other places where refugees are arriving. But it’s not just a question of going ‘over there’ to help. Brighton Migrant Solidarity, a grass roots community and campaign group, is actively engaged in supporting migrants and refugees arriving in the locality. Another local initiative, Brighton Voices in Exile, the charity we supported with our Mitzvah Day sponsored walk on November 22, and which is based just up the road from the synagogue, is doing what it can to meet the immediate needs of refugees in the city each week. We can do something here and now. At the very least, I would like us to start organising a weekly collection of non-perishable food items and toiletries. All we need to do is put a couple of extra items in our food trolleys every time you shop, and bring them to the synagogue – and I’m hoping that someone – or a group of people on a rota basis – will volunteer to take what we collect each week to BViE.
The synagogue: Here we are. Isn’t it wonderful! After 50 months of homelessness, we have our new congregational home, and today we are delighted to be able to thank all those involved in the construction of our fantastic new building. In particular, our deep thanks go to Theo Rubin, the architect who conceived a design with the ‘wow factor’, Mohna Jolly and the team at ZSTA architects, who transformed Theo’s vision into a plan of action, and Geoff Wright and his team who built the synagogue – including all those, who contributed their skills and expertise, from the electricians and plumbers to those who installed the sound and security systems. Last but by no means not least, our heart-felt thanks are due to Leo, who crafted our stunning new Ark, lecterns, table and acoustic panels.
This amazing building created by the efforts of all involved in its design and execution is ‘ours’ – and because it is ours, and we are privileged to occupy such a beautiful space, it is incumbent upon us, as it is upon all those fortunate to enjoy the comfort and security of a home, to reach out to others less fortunate than we are and invite them in. Hospitality and welcome are among our core values; that’s why the Hebrew name of the synagogue is Adat Shalom v’Rei’ut – ‘Congregation of Peace and Friendship’, and the name of our magazine is Open Door. As many of you are aware, the word ‘synagogue’, from the Greek, is a translation of the Hebrew word, k’hillah, meaning ‘assembly’. A synagogue is the people, who congregate together. And when the congregation is fortunate enough, as we are to have a home, then, according to Jewish tradition, in addition to being a ‘house of prayer’ and a ‘house of study’, that home is a beit k’neset, a ‘house of meeting’, which brings people in to celebrate together, support one another, and to volunteer our services, both for our own benefit and in order to enhance the life of others.
At the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, we find Aseret Ha-Dibrot, ‘The Ten Utterances’. According to the Torah narrative, just over seven weeks after they took flight from slavery in Egypt, our forebears – who included, both, the Israelites, that is the descendants of Jacob, and erev rav, a ‘mixed multitude’ of other peoples – stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and encountered the Eternal. As Moses discovered at the burning bush that was not consumed by the flames, the Eternal cannot be captured in images and words. Nevertheless, our ancestors attempted to put their astounding experience of the Eternal into words, and understood that through that mysterious encounter, the Eternal conveyed teachings to be transmitted from generation to generation. For Christians, who include the Hebrew Bible as part of their Scriptures, these Ten Utterances, are better known as The Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments include rules regulating human relationships: ‘You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house…. Or anything that is your neighbours.’  I’m sure that most of us would assent to these Commandments – and also to others, elsewhere in the Torah, that centre on how we treat the marginal and vulnerable amongst us. In next week’s portion, Mishpatim, which presents a much more extensive code of law, we read at Exodus chapter 23:9: “Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the nefesh – literally, the ‘being’ – of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” – a teaching which is repeated in different formulations several times in the Torah.
Zachor! Remember! Jewish teaching exhorts us to remember  – in particular, to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, not just once a year, at Pesach, Passover, the festival that recalls the Exodus from Egypt, but each Shabbat, Sabbath, which is a day of freedom as well as a day of rest. As we ponder the Commandments that we try to live by, remembrance of the experience of persecution and degradation provides the framework for our values. Significantly, although Jews and Christians share the Ten Commandments, the way in which the Commandments are read is slightly different. For Christians, the first commandment is, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ However, for Jews, the preceding verse constitutes the first Commandment: ‘I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’ According to Jewish teaching, God is a liberator, and created in the image of God, human beings are called to be liberators, too. And so, in the midst of our fasting on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we read from Isaiah chapter 58: ‘Is not this the fast I choose: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every chain? / Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your home? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?’ In other words, wherever there is oppression and poverty: Don’t Stand By! One of the main reasons I decided to become a rabbi was because I was inspired by the Jewish philosopher, Emile Fackenheim’s, call to observe an additional Commandment after the Holocaust: ‘Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory.’ Responding to this imperative, I decided to take responsibility for my Jewish life – and to do what I could to enable others to take responsibility for their Jewish lives. But today, I want us to consider those words in a wider context: Hitler did not just want to eradicate the Jewish people, he intended his ideology of Aryan perfection and supremacy to be the basis of his ‘Thousand year Reich’ – which is why Nazi policy also targeted Gypsies, gay men, lesbians, trans people and disabled people. ‘Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory:’ we are commanded to challenge the ideology and practice of anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and all the multi-various hatreds of ‘others’ in every place. Don’t Stand By: as long as persecution and bigotry continue to reign anywhere, we must act. May this be our will. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue,
Shabbat Yitro– 30th January 2016 – 20th Sh’vat 5776
- NHMD was first held in the UK on 27 January 2001. For more about NHMD see: http://hmd.org.uk/page/about-hmd-and-hmdt See also: http://hmd.org.uk/page/stockholm-declaration ↑
- See: http://nicholaswinton.com/ ↑
- See: http://hmd.org.uk/resources/stories/lady-milena-grenfell-baines ↑
- For the ‘facts’ of the Kindertransport, see: http://www.kindertransport.org/history.htm ↑
- The imperative, Don’t Stand By! Is derived from a verse in K’doshim, Leviticus 19:16: ‘You shall not go around as a tale bearer among your people; neither should you stand by the blood of your neighbour – lo ta’amod al- dam rei’echa: I am the Eternal.’ ↑
- See: http://www.armenian-genocide.org/genocide.html ↑
- On January 20, the Guardian reported that the French authorities have begun to bulldoze the jungle. See: http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2016/jan/20/clearing-of-the-calais-jungle-in-pictures ↑
- At the end of October I examined the history of Jewish migration and flight, and urged us not to fall into the trap of dismissing the needs of so-called economic migrants, who, together with refugees, are also among those drowning in the Mediterranean. See my sermon, entitled, Of Refugees and Migrants (24 October 2015). ↑
- See my sermon, entitled, Responding to the Plight of Refugees: If not now, when? (27 June 2015). http://www.unhcr.org.uk/about-us/key-facts-and-figures.html The Office of the UNHCR – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide – http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646cbf.html See ↑
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-35422777 ↑
- For an example of volunteering possibilities see: http://howtohelprefugees.org.uk/2015/10/24/support-refugees-in-moria-camp-lesvos/ ↑
- See: https://brightonmigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/ ↑
- BViE is based at 55 Upper North Street, Brighton, BN1 3FH. For more information, see http://www.brightonvoicesinexile.co.uk/ee: ↑
- Bo, Exodus 12:38. ↑
- Exodus 19:1 ff. ↑
- Sh’mot, Exodus chapter 3 – see, especially Ex. 3:13-14. ↑
- Exodus 20:13-14. ↑
- For example, in the Book of Leviticus chapter 19 (33-35): “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. / The stranger that dwells with you shall be as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God.” And in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 24 (:17-18a): “You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the orphan; or take the widow’s garment as a pledge; / rather, you shall remember that you were slave in Egypt…” ↑
- For example, the Exodus version of the Sabbath commandment begins: Zachor et-yom ha-Shabbat l’kad’sho, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it’ (Ex. 20:8) ↑
- Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 24:18. ↑
- For example: Birkat Ha-yom, ‘the blessing for the day’, recited during Kiddush on Erev Shabbat, echoing the Deuteronomy version of the Sabbath commandment (‘For you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…’ 5:15) states that Shabbat is zeicher yitzi’at Mitzrayim, ‘a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt.’ ↑
- Exodus 20:3. ↑
- Ex. 20:2. ↑
- B’reishit, Genesis 1:27 states that the human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, ‘in the image of God.’ ↑
- Isaiah 58:6-7. ↑
- See: The Jewish Return into History. Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem by Emil L. Fackenheim, chapter 2 (Schocken Books, New York, 1978) ↑