Being Jewish and British: Embracing the Challenge

Hinneinu – Here we are – on Yom Kippur morning. But who are we? Today, each individual is challenged to ask: Who am I? It’s a complex question – with many possible answers. But today is also an opportunity to reflect about who we are – as a congregation, as Liberal Jews, as British Jews, who are part of British society, and also as members of the human race.

The Torah’s account of humanity begins with one human being, who then becomes two, and then one family, and so on. Likewise, the Torah’s account of the formation of the Jewish people begins with one individual, Abraham. But instead of situating Abraham in one particular place, his life is defined by the journey he takes. We read at Genesis chapter 12 (:1):

Va-yomer Adonai el-Avram: Leich-l’cha mei-artz’cha u-mimolad’cha u-mibeit avicha el-ha’aretz asher a’re’ka.

The Eternal One said to Avram: ‘Go for yourself from your land and from your kindred and from your father’s house, to the land and I will show you.’

Avram had to go – for himself. Rashi comments: ‘For his own benefit.’ He was called – but he didn’t have to answer that call. And to go, he had to leave – his land, his family, his home. Ramban draws attention to the curious reverse order: ‘It is hard to leave one’s land, where one has all one’s associations. It is harder to leave one’s kindred, and still more so one’s father’s house.’ Who was Avram? Like all of us, an individual, whose experience of himself was shaped by his home, by his family and by the land he lived in. And like all of us, his life was a journey in space as well as in time.

So, the question, who am I? – is entangled with the question, who are we? And today, on Yom Kippur, as we gather here to reflect on our lives, and on what we have and have not done, those questions entangle us, and won’t let us get on with our lives until we have interrogated them fully.

Over the next few minutes, I would like to invite you to reflect, in particular, on who we are as British Jews. Just over two weeks ago, the Paralympics finished – concluding an unparalleled summer of nation-defining events that began with Her Majesty the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Perhaps if all that had happened this summer had been the Jubilee, we might be left making appropriately British sardonic comments about the damp British summer that failed to dampen patriotic fervour as what was billed as the spectacular Thames Pageant became a bit of a damp squib, shrouded in misty shades of grey.

But the Jubilee celebrations were only the beginning. In typical British fashion it was difficult to feel excited about the Olympic and Paralympic Games coming to London, despite the attempts of the organisers to enthuse us, because it couldn’t possibly go well could it? Apart from being a waste of money, it would be a logistical nightmare and the transport system just wouldn’t be able to cope. Well that was the official, daily British chorus, anyway. Meanwhile, stadia and venues being prepared or built on time, thousands of athletes training hard, thousands and thousands of eager volunteers – over 70,000 as it turned out – signing up to do anything that was needed.

And then: the Games themselves. We might just have felt relieved that everything went without a hitch – but British athletes did spectacularly well. Let us remind ourselves: In the Olympics: Third in the medals table, after superpowers the USA and China.[1] In the Paralympics: Third again, after China and Russia.[2] A phenomenal achievement. So much for, the usual calendar of sports fixtures: football, rugby and cricket; the athletes reminded us of the sporting pursuits we excel in, in particular cycling and rowing – and that athletics and gymnastics may be set for huge revivals.

And in addition to thrilling races and contests and our pride in the achievement of Britain’s athletes, the individual athletes themselves told an amazing story about Britain and about who we are. Just think of some of the British heroes of the Paralympics:

Ellie Simmonds – still just 17 years old, who took to swimming at the age of four and was inspired to become an elite swimmer at the age of nine, by watching the 2004 games. The youngest athlete to compete in the 2008 Paralympics at Bejing, she has gone on to win two gold medals, one silver and one bronze, at the 2012 Games.

Jonnie Peacock – aged 19, who managed to beat the great Oscar Pistorius to gold in the T44 100 metres final, in 10.90 seconds, breaking the Paralympic record.

Sarah Storey – who has sustained her Paralympic success over 20 years in two different sports – swimming and cycling – and whose 11 Paralympic gold medals equal the modern day record of Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Dave Roberts.

David Weir – thrilling wheelchair athlete, who has won a total of six gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 Paralympics, and has won the London Marathon on six occasions.

When we turn to some of the British heroes of the Olympics, it is clear that it wasn’t just the Paralympians who inspired us to celebrate difference. Just think about these four outstanding gold medallists:

Nicola Adams – black British female boxer – not only winning gold, but the first female boxer ever to win gold at the first women’s boxing Olympics competition, reminding us, as Muhammad Ali had demonstrated all those years ago, that boxing can be a graceful dance.

Greg Rutherford – the relatively unknown redheaded long jumper from Milton Keynes, gaining an unexpected gold in the long jump, as he became the first British man to win the title since Lynn ‘The Leap’ Davies in 1964.

Jessica Ennis – mixed-race heptathlon champion, like Nicola Adams, prompting us to take pride in the prowess of female athletes – and also reminding us of the journey this country has taken since the first immigrants from the West Indies arrived on the Windrush in 1948, the last time the Olympic Games come to London.

And last, but by no means least: Mohammed Farah – Muslim one-time Somali refugee, born in Mogadishu, who had had to run for his life at the age of eight, running his legs off for his adopted country in both the 5000 and 10,000 metre races, achieving two gold medals and becoming the first Briton to win the 10,000 metres .

As Jonathan Friedlander put it in his comment piece in The Guardian on August 11th: ‘On that golden Saturday night, when Greg Rutherford, Jessica Ennis and Mo Farrah won and won and won, Twitter was cracking a joke that turned on how much we had changed: “a ginger, a mixed race woman and a one-time Somali refugee walk into a pub – and everyone buys them a drink.”’

Yes, everyone buys them a drink – for Mo Farah, something non-alcoholic – and, inspired by the Paralympics, talks about what needs to be done to ensure that the pub and all public places – including, the public transport system – are fully accessible. That’s not to say that Britain has become a society that rejoices in diversity and is ready to campaign for the rights of people with disabilities – but it’s on the way. How synchronistic that Alf Morris, Lord Morris of Manchester, the veteran campaigner, who was the first Minister for the disabled in Harold Wilson’s government and responsible for the 1970 Disabilities Act, should die on August 14th – between the Olympic and Paralympic Games; a message there about our responsibility to carry the torch that he lit for disability rights back in 1964.

Thinking about the powerful message about diversity conveyed by both the Olympic and Paralympic games, let us also reflect on the more subtle signals of a more complex British culture:

Cycling superhero, Sir Chris Hoy; crying on the podium, when he received his sixth and last Olympic gold medal – and also, a proud Scot, obviously proud to be British, too.

Bradley Wiggins CBE, side-burned, scooter-riding Mod, not only the first British man to win the Tour de France, not only succeeding in following up that achievement with Olympic gold, but also managing to triumph, with the help of years of psychiatric intervention, over the scars of having been abandoned as a child by his alcoholic Australian father, Gary.

Both these sportsmen: male icons; demonstrating, a more multi-dimensioned form of masculinity.

So: women, who can be powerful, and men, who can be vulnerable – and a Britain of many colours and human forms.

I’ve never felt ‘English’ – just Jewish – but the Olympic and Paralympic Games made me feel proud to be British. Even before the Games got started: the Olympics opening ceremony: wacky, funny and brilliant. Danny Boyle’s creation invited us to revel with pride in the achievements of British society – not least, the National Health Service, founded the same year that the Games were last held here– and also showed us a Britain that is multicultural, pluralistic and inclusive.

And, at that opening ceremony, in addition to the spectacle, the message of the Olympic Games as an international movement dedicated to peaceful coexistence conveyed by the bearers of the Olympic flag. How significant that the eight bearers included: Doreen Lawrence OBE, mother of murdered black teenager, Stephen Lawrence; Shami Chakrabarti CBE, human rights activist and director of Liberty; Sally Becker, once known as the ‘Angel of Mostar’, for her perilous life-saving missions during the Bosnian conflict; and Daniel Barenboim – having made a quick exit from conducting at the Proms in order to get there on time – who has done so much to promote the message of the possibility of Middle Eastern peace with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of young musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Arab countries in the region.

Of course, we knew about these two famous Jewish individuals, but who before the pre-publicity for the Paralympics got underway, had heard of Ludwig Guttmann, the German Jewish refugee doctor, who came to Britain in 1939, and then, in 1944 went to Stoke Mandeville Hospital to treat British servicemen who had suffered spinal injuries. It was there, in 1948 that, inspired by the London Olympics, he organised his British version alongside the main event, hence the name, Paralympics. By 1952, the Stoke Mandeville Games had 150 international competitors. By the Rome Olympics in 1960, the Paralympics had gone truly international – and have accompanied the Olympic Games ever since.

German Jewish refugee, Ludwig Guttmann, who drew on his own personal experience as an outsider, having to make the effort required to make a new life in England, to enable men, almost abandoned as maimed casualties of war, to feel pride in themselves and their bodies once again and make a new beginning.

German Jewish refugee, Ludwig Guttmann: like so many other Jewish refugees in the 1930s, and decades earlier in the late 19th and early 20th century, finding a new home in Britain.

Which brings me to us: How do we feel about being Jewish and British? Does a vision of a multicultural, ethnically diverse, pluralistic Britain include us? Do we want to be included? Of course, the Jewish community in Britain is not monolithic. On the contrary. There are so many Jewish communities. But do they engage with one another? Yes and no: there are many cross communal interconnections, but also huge divisions on so many issues: Jewish observance, Israel, gender and sexuality, integration versus separation. And there’s still an atmosphere created by the more populous Orthodox community that nonorthodox forms of Jewish life are illegitimate.

But we can get hung up on the divisions. As it happens, the local Jewish community here in Brighton and Hove is an excellent example of cross communal endeavour: the Sussex Jewish Representative Council, the Ralli Hall Jewish Community Centre, Sussex Jewish News, Sussex Tikvah, Hyman Fine House, AJEX, JACS, Helping Hands, the Jewish Welfare Board, Sussex Day Limmud – and more recently, Lishmah Sussex, the weekly adult study programme held at Ralli Hall during May and June, which is due to resume next February.

There is much to celebrate. But there are also big issues to face. First: the Jewish community in Brighton and Hove has been declining steadily since the 1970s. BHPS has been doing more than most to reverse this trend and I’m sure that our active efforts to be open, welcoming and inclusive will help to create the conditions necessary for our congregation not only to survive, but to thrive. But the second issue is even more challenging: are we British Jews in name only? What are we doing to contribute to the wider community and society around us, as Jews? It is significant that the two Jews who were visibly present at the Olympics opening ceremony, Sally Becker and Daniel Barenboim, are both actively involved in forging connections with others.

Today on Yom Kippur, exactly one year since we last occupied our synagogue building, we are all too aware that we are in transition. While the arrangements for our temporary homeless existence are going well, our thoughts and our energies are focused on the preparations needed to get on with the redevelopment of the building. But make no mistake, whenever it is that we actually return, we will not be going back to where we were. Not only will the building be barely recognisable, if it is going to be the right home for the BHPS of tomorrow, it will need to do more than accommodate the congregation and its usual programme of activities.

The Olympic and Paralympic Games did not just give us a new picture of Britain, they presented a challenge to us, to the Jewish community, to this congregation, as part of British society: the challenge to participate. Our renewed building will need to be a place of welcome, not only for unaffiliated and disaffiliated Jews, not only for people living life-styles that don’t conform to the norm expected and perpetuated in other congregations, not only to non-Jews curious to learn about Judaism, but to anyone and everyone interested in working together, across religious, cultural and ethnic differences. Let us, again, be an Open House during the Brighton Festival. Let us be a venue for a diverse range of cultural and musical activities. Let us create an educational environment in which Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs come together to learn from one another and to discuss our sacred Scriptures. Let us offer hospitality to refugees and hot meals to the hungry. The past year has shown us that we can do very well as a congregation without our own building. If we are going to have a building, let us put ourselves on the map of Brighton and Hove and make a contribution to the life of the city.

Perhaps you think I’m being a little unrealistic? I’m just inviting you to imagine new possibilities and share a new vision of the future. I wonder what that eight-year-old Somali refugee imagined was going to become of him when he came to this country? After winning both his races, you may have noticed that Mo Farah went down on his knees, and bent over, before swiftly getting up and passing his hands over his face. It happened so quickly, it was easy to think that he might have been kissing the ground that he’d run on. I don’t think so. I think he was making a Muslim prayer. Mohammed Farah, during those races and afterwards, being all he is: a child of Somalia, a devout Muslim, a proud Brit, a husband, a stepfather and now a father of two mixed-race twin daughters – born on August 24th. Mo Farah: a new kind of Briton for a new kind of British nation. He shouldn’t just be a national hero; he should be a model for us – in particular, for British Jews, for most of whom, two or three generations ago, Britain was also our adopted country. Let us be proud of our Jewish inheritance and proud to participate in British society.

What, after all, is the alternative? Another event on August 24th: the announcement of the verdict in the trial of racist mass murderer, Anders Breivic, whose killing spree in Norway on July 22nd last year, shocked the world.[3] Speaking on Radio Four’s ‘Today’ programme, the former Prime Minister of Norway, Kjell Magne Bondevik,[4] suggested that Norwegians have become, both, more proud of themselves as Norwegians, and more open to others, in response to Breivic’s attacks and the debate on immigration that ensued. And he made a profound comment: ‘When you’re proud of your own roots’, he said, ‘you can, with confidence, meet others.’ Contrary to what the racist bigots believe, pride in one’s own identity does not entail hatred of those who are ‘different’. Indeed, embracing who we are enables us to reach out to others.

There has been so much talk about the legacy of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Today, on Yom Kippur, as we reflect on our lives, let us also take some time to think about what the wonderful summer of sport taught us about the plurality of Britons of all colours and forms, shapes and sizes, and commit ourselves to playing our part as individuals and as Jews in the vibrant kaleidoscope that is British society. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

 Yom Kippur Shacharit 5773 – 26th September 2012


[1] At the Olympics, he USA won a total of 104 medals, China, 88, and Britain 65.

[2] At the Paralympics, China won a total of 231 medals, Russia, 102 and Britain, 120 (Russia scooped 36 gold medals and Britain 34)

[3] Anders Breivic bombed government buildings in Oslo, resulting in eight deaths, then carried out a mass shooting at a camp of the Workers’ Youth League (AUF) of the Labour Party on the island of Utøya, where he killed 69 people, mostly teenagers.

[4] Christian Democrat, Kjell Magne Bondevik, was Prime Minister of Norway from 19th October 2001 to 17th October 2005 – his second term of office as PM.