Sermon: Edie Friedman – Director of J-Core

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 8 October 2016

Shabbat shuva comes at the time of change – from summer to autumn, from one year to the next year and for you, Aden, from pre Bar Mitzvah to post Bar Mitzvah – transitions which give us time to pause, to reflect, to take stock; but today I want to talk about something that has not changed and remains stubbornly persistent and that is the world refugee crisis. This presents us with some real challenges….

We can all remember that iconic image just over one year ago of the toddler Alan Kurdi  washed up on a Turkish beach.

Now that this image has somewhat  faded we need in a sense, a new moral screen saver to remind us, without overwhelming us, about difficult and ongoing realities of this current refugee crisis – the biggest since the Second World War.

It is estimated that across the world, over 65 million people have had to flee their homes (half of them are children) -that’s about the same as the population of the UK.

This figure includes over 11 million Syrians..  But statistics can be dry, they can be abstract and they can be dehumanising.

So I want to talk about one individual, seven year old Ahmed from Afghanistan, whose extraordinary story I heard about when he spoke at the recent Refugees Welcome march. Ahmed, together with thirteen other people including his older brother, miraculously survived a journey from France last April stowed away in the back of a lorry.  Ahmed and the others were literally suffocating.

Fortunately he had a mobile phone which had been given to him by one of the aid workers he met when he was in a refugee camp in Northern France. He was able to text the charity Help Refugees from the lorry.

The text was received by a charity worker, Liz Clegg, who was at a conference in New York City at the time. Written in broken English, it read: “I need help. Driver isn’t stopping, no oxygen in the car. No signal. I am in the container. I am not joking. I swear by God.”

Liz called Ahmed and then alerted Tanya Freedman, a colleague in the UK, who contacted the police.

They managed to speak to Ahmed with the help of a Pashto interpreter. The lorry was tracked down near Leicester Forest East Service Station on the M1. Police officers opened the trailer and 14 people’s lives were saved.

Compassion fatigue, the pull of so many competing social problems such as child poverty, homelessness, crises in the NHS all vying for our attention, together with anxieties about terrorism, as well as the sheer passage of time, have dampened some of the fantastic enthusiasm shown by people up and down the UK this past year in response to the refugee crisis.

But in spite of these difficulties, the Jewish community has by and large not ignored its responsibilities towards asylum seekers and refugees. In fact its response has been exemplary not only with regard to newly arrived Syrians, but also towards refugees already living in the UK and asylum seekers, many of whom are destitute.

So for instance,

  • The Board of Deputies organised a big public meeting at JW3 in response to the crisis.
  • World Jewish Relief has developed a project to help 1000 Syrians in the UK to find work, as well as providing aid to refugee camps in Greece and Turkey.
  • Rene Cassin and the rabbinic group Tzelem campaign on ending the indefinite detention of asylum seekers.
  • Four synagogues (including of course Alyth’s)-run monthly drop-in centres for refugees and asylum seekers, Mitzvah Day and the League of Jewish Women organise collections of essential items.
  • My organisation, JCORE, runs a befriending scheme for unaccompanied minors (JUMP) and a mentoring project for refugee doctors to help them re-qualifying.
  • In addition, JCORE has created a Jewish Communal Taskforce to bring together the many organisations involved in this work, and puts out a monthly e-newsletter with news, events, volunteering opportunities and campaign activities.
  • We host and co-ordinate the Support Refugees website .
  • JCORE has also run a series of campaigns ranging from asking the government to allow in more Syrian refugees, to taking measures to prevent refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, and asking the government to do the right thing in Calais.
  • Our most recent campaign, ‘Let the children in’ is calling for more refugee children to be allowed into the UK and to make sure that local authorities are adequately funded to be able to support them.
  • As part of the campaign we asked people to write to their MP, send a postcard to the Home Secretary and wear a specially designed t-shirt designed by a 16 year old JCOSS pupil (Zoom) and soon we will be asking for volunteers to lobby their MP.
  • Just recently, JCORE helped organise an interfaith initiative supported by over 200 faith leaders across the UK asking that the government do something now about reunifying families.

And here at Alyth I am sure the synagogue is very proud that one of our members, Ros Ereira, organised for the second consecutive year, the Refugees Welcome march which attracted thousands of people. And of course proud of the work done by this synagogues monthly dropin centre for recent refugees.

But drop ins and marches need to be supplemented by political action. For refugees to be welcome here and for refugees to be able to come to a drop in they need to find safe and legal routes to get here and local authorities need to have the resources to assist them as they try to rebuild their lives.

Many unaccompanied children (around 90,000) now languish in desperate conditions in Calais and elsewhere in Europe. It is estimated that 10,000 have already disappeared.  We have a responsibility to help children find a place of safety. We must fight to ensure that all children have that basic human right to do what kids do – go to school, hang around with friends, do social media, play football.

And Britain must play its part in this process and along with other countries, needs to take its fair share- as it said it would.

I know that some of you joined with others in our community to support our Let the children in campaign.   But some might feel uncomfortable with this foray into political activity. But if we want real justice for asylum seekers and refugees then we don’t really have a choice.


Although we have much to be proud of in the way the community has responded to the refugee crisis, it is so important that we display that same generosity of spirit and involvement in tackling some of the many social problems such as homelessness and poverty which confront us today.


For these social problems can  damage community cohesion; this in turn results in minority communities, including refugees and asylum seekers becoming scapegoats.


And this lack of community cohesion is, in that time honoured expression, ‘not good for the Jews’.


This pursuit of justice rather than just charity alone is of course central to Jewish teaching, as evidenced, among other things, by the enduring voice of the prophets, who constantly remind us of the imperative to seek justice.


But pursuing justice is more than just contributing to sorting out our messy world; it is also about our very identity as Jewish people, an identity which should be inseparable from a positive engagement with the wider world.


So Aden I hope that you and your generation will embrace this positive engagement with both hands and you will always see it as an essential part of being a Jew.