Sermon: 6 June 2015 (Simon Morris)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 9 June 2015

This is a first for me as I have never given a sermon before and I am reminded of my grandfather’s story which I hope won’t apply this morning.

He tells the story, and this was an orthodox shul I would point out, of the rabbi starting his sermon and noting a congregant in the front row looking at his watch which I assume we all do when someone starts speaking a sermon. The rabbi was rather put out and looked down some ten minutes later to see the very same congregant shaking his watch and putting it to his ear thinking, really? Is it only that amount of time that I have sat listening to this chap speak? I really do hope that that does not happen here this morning although I will be keeping my eye on those people sitting in the front row!

When I was asked to give the sermon, my first response was, well I am not a rabbinical scholar in any sense of the word. I am a social care professional who has worked in social care for over 30 years both in the public sector and for almost the last 20 years within the community, so what qualifies me to talk to a group of synagogue goers.

But anyway, here goes.

This being a talk in a religious service I think it is best to start with a bit of Jewishness and I think for me one of the most relevant texts is from Pirke Avot which talks about a chair needing three legs in order for it to stand and in order for us to carry out our lives from both the religious perspective as well as the way that we relate to each other as human beings. The three legs that Shimon Ha Tzedek identified were the first being Torah, the second being the service and the third being acts of human kindness. Ironically, or maybe not, this resonates with me quite well as I at Jewish Care introduce my regular talk to new staff as the success of Jewish Care is built on three foundations, the first being the staff, the second, the Jewishness of the organisation which has two elements, its people giving of time and money.

I think the other connection for me from Jewish Care is the fact that Jewish Care itself was created by volunteers;  back in 1859 a group of the great and the good came together in the central synagogue in London and had the foresight to see that there was the potential of a mass immigration from eastern Europe and that as most Jews would arrive in Britain with no access to public service, the community itself would need to create an infrastructure in which to support the new immigrants. Its irony and resonance to asylum seekers and immigrants today is obvious.

If I reflect on what I want to say this morning, I think these three headings can encompass what I would like to say.

The first on Torah. Just some two weeks ago we celebrated Shavuot which talks about leaving edges of the field for those less fortunate than ourselves. It also talks about looking out for the stranger in the land, for the person not of one’s own. These messages are ones that I know the Reform Movement in particular takes account of with Alyth leading the way.

The work with asylum seekers at Alyth, very much in partnership with other synagogues is run by volunteers, shows the community of Alyth living up to the words of the Torah and in particular the sentiments of the recent festival of Shavuot.

The other connection to Shavuot I think is the Ten Commandments. Whilst the link is not obvious, the commandments that exist in terms of the ten key rules in which we should run our lives are the backbone of how we Jews operate and give us the framework in which to organise and run our lives.

The second point in terms of service is simply about being in synagogue today.

Finally the one that I want to spend most time talking about – acts of human kindness Gemilut Hasadim  is the one that I feel most able to talk about but also the one that is relevant to the Shabbat that marks volunteer.

A definition of Gemilut Hasadim is literally the bestowal of loving kindness. It is in many ways the most comprehensive and fundamental of all Jewish social virtues which includes a whole range of duties of sympathetic consideration towards one’s fellow human beings. Gemilut Hasadim encompasses a wide range of human kindness and in many ways is much wider than charity. Charity can not only be given with one’s money but also with one’s personal service in terms of volunteers. When I talk about the importance and the success of Jewish communal organisations which is in many ways built on the foundation of Gemilut Hasadim, I stress and stress again today, that this is not a wholly owned Jewish concept. All three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have the concept of giving and giving to charity as a very important tenet of the literatures and scriptures that the religions come from.

The point I would make and argue is that the history of us as Jews has meant that that tenet has remained particularly central to our being, our history of persecution and of being almost on the move constantly has, as a community, made us realise that we need to look after our own because others won’t.  (the story of the recent wedding)

The concept that those who are in a more fortunate position than others are responsible for looking and giving something back.

The other characteristic that I think does come into play here is the fact that voluntary activity is also a particular characteristic of British society. If one looks abroad, I don’t think other societies quite have that attitude of volunteering. Indeed, for example, the Hospice Movement was started and created by volunteers and many other, what we would consider essential services in the social care sector, were begun by volunteers.

National research shows that the most common area of UK voluntary activity was in the area of the provisions of social services followed by cultural and recreational services and in third place, religious activities. All of which I think are played out within our community and whilst the rabbis of many communities but I certainly would not say Alyth, are complaining and worrying about declining attendance at synagogue services.  The converse is actually true of our communal life. One only has to look around the area that we are living in here to see how in the last fifteen years or so the range and numbers of activities has increased. The development of JW3, the rise of LJCC albeit now being part of JW3, the growth of Limmud, the success of Jewish Book Week and Jewish Film Week demonstrate to me the vibrancy of the Jewish community in Britain in 2015.  All of these activities would not be able to take place without the support and work of volunteers.

Indeed, referring back to the same source as I mentioned just a few minutes ago, research shows that in 2013/14 approximately 48% of adults in England volunteered at least once a month in either a formal or informal basis.

Whilst I don’t know the range of activities in Alyth in detail, if it is anything like my community, FRS up the road, or the organisation that I am chief executive of, Jewish Care, I know that the activities and work of these organisations could not take place without the “work” of the volunteer.

I would also point out that when I joined Jewish Care almost twenty years ago, there was a concern within Jewish Care, and I think wider society, that volunteers and volunteering was on the decline. My experience certainly in Jewish Care has been the opposite.  Over the last few years the number of volunteers has increased by over 20% from two and a half volunteers to over three thousand today and what is so exciting is that much of that growth has come from younger people.

The other interesting demographic is that with the improved life expectancy and health of older people, many of our volunteers have been able to stay volunteering far longer, well into their 80’s and 90’s thus providing activity for them but ensuring organisations like ours can carry on doing what they do.

For us in Jewish Care, we have calculated that if all our volunteers left tomorrow, we would have to replace that with paid labour at a cost of almost £10 million. A vast number of the services we provide would not be able to take place because we are reliant on volunteers for them to happen.

I know the vast majority of Synagogue activities are also heavily reliant on our volunteers. The fact that we are celebrating and saying thank you to volunteers during this service is incredibly important because without the volunteer whether it is someone who simply wants to turn up and sit with someone and have a cup of tea, to someone who is prepared to take on the responsibilities of chairing an organisation, whether it be Alyth or Jewish Care, they are all volunteers, they all give of their time and they all deserve a massive thank you.

When researching for this talk, there were a number of quotes in relation to the Jewish elderly that I could have used but the one that I think is most pertinent and resonates with me is the one from Hillel which says “if I am not for myself who will be for me and if I am not for others, what am I and if not now, when”. That statement which is one of the most frequently repeated ones within our community typifies why we, as a Jewish community in this country, has such a vibrant and active range of community activity.

As someone who is paid to lead an organisation dependent on volunteers but who also volunteers in another way, I know that the saying “I get as much out as what I put in” is true but that does not decry from the fact that we, as a community, both in the narrowest sense here at Alyth and the widest sense of British Jewry in Britain, should celebrate the volunteer and say thank you.

I suppose my concluding comment to you would be that we as a Jewish community in Britain in 2015 spend a lot of time being critical of what is happening.  One of the privileges that I have had as Chief Executive of Jewish Care is the ability to travel both to the States and Israel and be part of many international conferences where Jewish communal professionals congregate from across the world at which I talk about the breadth, width and depth of Jewish communal activity in Britain, many people are blown away. We are only a community of 250,000 people, yet what we have achieved in terms of our infrastructure for a community whether it be education, defence, Israel focussed activities or culture and of course welfare, it is truly breathtaking.  None of that activity could have taken place without the role of the volunteer whether it is someone making a cup of tea, opening a door or being chairman of the board, none of that could happen without that voluntary activity.

I am sure there are people in this congregation who volunteer here at Alyth but probably also volunteer at Jewish Care and to them I would like to say thank you. Kol hacvod and thank you and long may you continue to do so.

Shabbat Shalom