Why we should all celebrate

By Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, May 6, 2011
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His name is Professor Id," the nurse said. "His office is at the end of the corridor." My wife and I found ourselves in Hadassa Hospital, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, where our daughter had just undergone surgery. We had some questions to put to the head of the department and asked for his details. "Professor Id" just didn't sound right. Maybe the name was "Yid" but that, too, would have been most unusual. We arrived at the office of the head of the department of surgery. The name on the door was Professor Ahmed Eid (pronounced Id). This is how we met a most remarkable Arab doctor.

This phenomenon is commonplace in Israel. I grew up in apartheid South Africa, where the repugnant segregation, discrimination and domination based on race that I witnessed helped to shape my conviction to recognise and show compassion towards every human being created in God's image.

In the South Africa of my youth, black doctors could not practise in hospitals reserved for whites, let alone be heads of department. Israel, on the other hand, is a racially diverse, vibrant liberal democracy, with at least 80 languages spoken by its population. Citizens, including more than a million Arabs, can follow their chosen career and reach, if merited, the highest possible level.

Israel, too, is a country of incredible, altruistic kindness (chesed). Visitors are invariably touched by the offers of help, the small and large meaningful gestures and the facilities for assistance initiated by individuals and organisations alike. The most moving of our experiences in Hadassa came over Shabbat, when many visitors could not have planned to be there. The outpatients department is transformed into a facility for visitors to stay overnight and three wonderfully catered meals are provided free of charge. The cost of the meals is covered by an anonymous benefactor, whose only condition is that his identity be kept secret.

Visitors to Israel are invariably touched by offers of help

Upon our return to London, in a sermon in shul I described my experiences. That night, I received an email from a congregant who suggested that we replicate the Shabbat meal facility at Kinloss. He generously offered to cover the entire cost on condition of anonymity. That is how our Kinloss Shabbat luncheon club was born and we now have over 100 people attending our community-enhancing regular Shabbat meals.

In the hospital, the seamless, healthy interaction between Jewish and Arab patients and staff is matched by the impressive cohesion among Jews of diverse backgrounds.

In the small hospital synagogue there were Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Chasidic and secular Jews. The Torah was read by a Yemenite Jew and proceedings were led by a Gerer Chasid. I noticed a surgeon in his scrubs alongside the man whom I had seen just an hour before sweeping the corridor.

I felt a close bond with others, all of whom, presumably, were praying with a sick person in mind. Indeed, this is the only shul in which, at the end of the Shabbat morning service, I heard the announcements being concluded with the sentiment, "I wish all present a refuah shelemah."

An unexpected moment of celebration awaited. Upon arriving for the Shabbat afternoon service, I was greeted by the organiser, who asked: "Has your wife just given birth?" "Certainly not," I replied. During the service that followed, all three aliyot were allocated to fathers whose daughters had been born that morning. The girls were named amid "mazaltovs", singing and rejoicing. In the midst of a medical facility where there is so much pain and concern, one was able to experience the palpable joy of birth, promise and hope.

Contrary to contemporary demonisation of Israel, I experienced aspects of the state of which we can be proud. Israel provides opportunity to all races and faiths. It is a beacon of inspiration for best Jewish practice in the diaspora. This is the real Israel that we shall celebrate at the Yom Ha'atzmaut service at Finchley Synagogue this Monday night.

Ephraim Mirvis is rabbi of Finchley Synagogue

    Last updated: 11:08am, May 6 2011