The new drop-in centre, a very carefully managed pilot project of the United Synagogue’s Jewish Living’ Department to be hosted by our community in Hendon, will provide many services to asylum seekers who have fled their homelands – most of whom have had no alternative but to do so - in search of a better and safer life in the UK.
Some won’t speak English, and many will have no idea of what they need to do to become British citizens. They may well have survived treacherous journeys, crossing stormy seas, only to be confronted by a wall of papers and bureaucracy. Many other communal organisations are already doing significant things to assist in this regard and we are proud to be adding to and complementing such efforts.
Central to Jewish life is the concept of helping vulnerable people because we were once in their position. We are told in Exodus (23:9) that "You [the Jewish People] shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is a universally applicable and ever relevant Torah imperative.
There is an apparent contradiction between the teaching of the rabbis (Shabbat 127a) that "Torah study is the equal of all other mitzvot" and that which is taught in Kiddushin (40b), that "great is Torah study in that it leads to (worthy) deeds". A suggested reconciliation is that evidence of the overriding importance of Torah study is to be found in the great deeds which such study elicits. How appropriate that our community, which in recent years has initiated a whole range of innovative Torah learning opportunities and programmes, has renewed so much of its religious vitality and has contributed generously towards numerous good causes, locally and in Israel, should now also be reaching out to non-Jewish migrants, extending a welcoming hand of warm and practical support to them.
My maternal grandparents, Ernst and Lotte Frohwein came to this country as refugees from Nazi Germany in 1938 and had they not been granted sanctuary here, I and many of their several dozen other descendants would probably not be here to tell the tale. There are many within our Anglo-Jewish community whose progenitors were refugees who themselves rose - or whose children have risen- to the highest echelons of society. Therefore, perhaps more than any other community, ours should be one which is sensitive and responsive to the plight of asylum seekers.
This initiative can’t succeed without volunteers, however. Our community is blessed with many talented people who can give a small amount of their time to make a significant difference. It could be in a professional role, through mentoring, or just something as basic as having a conversation and showing friendship. We should all do at least something to help today’s immigrants secure as bright a future as possible, enabling them to follow the worthy precedent set by immigrants of our faith, in becoming productive, caring and tolerant members of 21st-century UK society.
Rabbi Ginsbury is rabbi of Hendon United Synagogue