We're great at giving, but now it's time to fight injustice

November 24, 2016 23:11

At this time of year, we are encouraged to take a cheshbon hanefesh, an account of our soul. What would it look like for us as a Jewish community to take such an account?

We suggest such an account would say, with a note of both pride and caution, that as a community we are better at tzedakah (charitable giving) than we are at tzedek (pursuing justice).

It has become more in our experience to give money to good causes than to fight against the injustice that makes the giving necessary.

Over the past month, together with a group of members of Masorti synagogues under the leadership of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, we have led a major fundraising drive through the Jewish community. Raising funds for Safe Passage, a project of Citizens UK that supports legal routes for sanctuary for refugees.

It's crucial work. Safe Passage is the only project taking children, who have a right to be with their families in the UK, out of the Calais "Jungle" camp to be resettled here.

The Jewish community responded generously raising over £200,000 in a matter of weeks. Those funds will reunite 100 refugee children with family in the UK under the Dublin III law. They will be safe in their new home.

We were humbled by the scale our community's response, though it is not a surprise. Our community is generous; a JPR report recently showed that 93 per cent of our community give tzedakah annually.

Our community's concern for others' welfare does not stop there. In the last decade synagogues across the country have become adept at providing drop-in centres, night shelters, homeless support groups, befriending of young people, destitute asylum seekers voucher schemes and more.

We say this with deep gratitude for the money raised and projects implemented: it is not enough.

To truly fulfil our Jewish obligation, we have to move beyond just tzedakah to tzedek as well. We have to move beyond dealing with the effects of injustice, to confronting their causes as well.

This Yom Kippur we will read the Haftorah from Isaiah, where God tells us it is not enough just to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but that we must break the chains. This is the fast required of us. This idea is highlighted to us in the keystone story of our tradition, the Exodus from Egypt, where slaves are not provided with soup kitchens, but rather a challenge to an institutional system of power. As Lord Rabbi Sacks has written, "Judaism was the world's first religion of protest".

We know this is true from our own lived experience. When Jewish children were desperate to get to Britain in the 1930s it was not goodwill service projects we needed, rather an institutional challenge to the British government to let them in.

Acts of charity and loving kindness matter, those acts made the journey and its destination bearable, but to first make it possible, we needed political systems to change.

Political change is not actually new to us. We use our networks and campaigning skills currently to fight antisemitism and promote the case for Israel, to protect shechita and brit milah. Maybe now is a good time to use some of that political power to exercise greater vision, extending beyond our own direct needs?

Some of our communities are leading the way. Rabbi Rebecca Birk, of Finchley Progressive Synagogue, was recently honoured by the Evening Standard as the most influential faith leader in London. This was in recognition for her work with Citizens UK, campaigning for refugees' settlement in London. But the tide has not yet turned as a communal trend.

For the Safe Passage project, Citizens UK does both legal casework and political action. They have over the months put pressure on the Home Office to process unaccompanied children's cases, and has sued the government when they are not acted upon.

There is still much work to do. For instance despite the government accepting 3,000 children under the Dubs amendment in March 2016, none has yet arrived. It turns out the government has not created a 'needs assessment process' that can determine which children should be given asylum. Without creating this system, and then exercising political pressure to ensure its implementation, it will not happen.

We have the backing of a community who have come out in their thousands to donate their time, their money, and their voices to this issue. We have the moral authority; we have walked in the shoes of these children. We have the access to the corridors of power to affect change. Lives are being lost every day. We must speak.

Nic Schlagman - a trustee for Noam and Masorti Judaism - and Jude Williams, the chief executive of Tzedek, launched the Jewish side of the Safe Passage UK campaign, raising around £200,000 to bring 100 refugee children to Britain.

November 24, 2016 23:11

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