Sermon: Shabbat Bereshit – My Brother’s Keeper
Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 16 October 2017
Mitzvah Day was founded by Alyth member Laura Marks in 2005. The idea was that every Jew in Britain could be encouraged to give their time for a day or part of a day to a cause in line with Jewish values. Laura’s reasoning was that by making a start people would be inspired to get involved throughout the year. The date was set for the third Sunday in November, a good place in between the High Holidays and Chanukkah.
The idea has really worked and throughout Britain and now in many other countries through Mitzvah Day International, tens of thousands of people of all ages, of all Jewish denominations and none give their time to help. As Laura’s synagogue, Alyth was involved from the very beginning and Mitzvah Day is a fixture in our calendar – this year on Sunday November 19th – there will be a whole series of opportunities to volunteer for an hour up to a whole day for local causes, for everyone in the community. Details will be out in the coming week of all the projects.
Within the first couple of years Laura Marks and her team expanded the vision of Mitzvah day. They recognised that being of service to others, becoming aware of issues in our society, is a shared value for all faiths. So Mitzvah day, as well as being for Jews became shared with Christians, Hindus, Muslims and anyone else who wants to participate. Now in 2017 as well as participating in Mitzvah Day projects many Hindu communities run Sewa Day and Muslim communities run Saddaqa Day based on Laura’s concept.
Alyth Synagogue was involved in the interfaith aspect from the beginning, first because working together with our local churches, temples and mosques has been part of Alyth’s values since our foundation in the 1930’s, even the photo of the laying of this building’s foundation stone in 1936 shows local Christian ministers joining the celebration, and secondly because Laura is a rather persuasive person.
Our first interfaith Mitzvah Day Project in 2008 was run together with the Golders Green Parish Church and the Shree Swaminarayan Gadi Mandir, or Hindu Temple, which was also situated in Golders Green. Representatives of the three communities set up a stall outside Golders Green Sainsburys on that November Sunday and asked shoppers to buy an extra item or two in their shopping to donate to people in need at Homeless Action in Barnet. It was a lovely and successful day, collecting van loads of donations, repeated for several years on Mitzvah Day with the three communities working together.
Each time there was a huge surge in donations at around 1:00pm when the many hundreds of worshippers of the El Shaddai International Christian Centre, a mostly Ghanaian and Nigerian evangelical church, came out from the Sunday service. They were always very committed to what we were doing and donated cans, packets of food and toiletries with delight and generosity.
The El Shaddai Centre had bought the Golders Green Hippodrome theatre in 2007, under their Pastor Ramsom Mumba, making it the London Centre of their church, due to the great transport links and the possibilities of the Hippodrome itself. The Hippodrome opened in 1913 as a music hall seating 3000 people and was a very busy hub for entertainment for many decades. The capacity was reduced to 1500 when it needed a large stage to become the venue for West End transfers and, every year, the Scout Movement Gang Show. In 1969, it became the BBC’s Hippodrome, the home for BBC Orchestras and a venue for the recording of live TV shows.
It worked very well as an evangelical church. Rabbi Josh and I paid a visit there a few years ago with a few members of Alyth. They had cleared out the stalls to create a large open space. Clearly things got inspirational there and in the Royal Circle there were signs asking worshippers to be careful not to trip over the seats when dancing!
Two months ago, the Hippodrome gained new owners, bringing another faith group to Golders Green. The Hindu temple had moved to its beautiful site in Kingsbury some years ago. The Hippodrome is now the Centre for Islamic Enlightenment, the London centre for the Hussainiyat Al Rasool Al Adham Shia Muslims. It will continue to be a busy and popular venue as it has been for over a hundred years, attracting hundreds to Golders Green.
Who are the new owners? They are a section of the Shia Muslim community, mostly from Iraq originally, who follow the teachings of Mohammed’s grandson Hussain. Hussain was the son of Fatima, Mohammed’s daughter and Ali – hence they are seen as part of Shia Islam, the Shiat Ali, the party or faction of Ali. However they are a separate group and hence theirs is not a centre likely to be attended by all Muslims but only adherents to the Hussainiyat tradition. Their tradition includes disavowing violence – feeling that violence is only ever for the acquisition of worldly power and never for pure motives.
Their first month was extremely busy because they opened the Centre just in time for their Hussaini High Holy Days, the month of mourning for their founder Hussain, when all the community wears black and comes very frequently to worship. Incidentally, they don’t call the Centre a Mosque as they believe that this term can only be used for a place for a special Imam.
Things undoubtedly went a bit wrong. The number of worshippers, without adequate traffic and journey planning snarled up Golders Green. People parked selfishly and left the centre noisily. A number of local residents, who were affected directly, put up a petition on the Barnet Council citizens access page asking the council to look into the transport and parking issues around the Hussainyat Centre and solve them rapidly.
Then events last week went took a sinister turn. People started forwarding the petition, as it was of course their right to do. But some forwarded it with additions such as these: The mosque, as these forwarders always called it, was a “threat to the community”, by which they meant the Jewish community, it was planned to be “the biggest mosque in Europe.” “We don’t know what they are preaching as it’s all in Arabic”, “This will result in violence and terrorism” and “There is a chance of infiltration of bombers.”
The only words for this is Islamophobia, against which Jews should be vigilant for we know the ugly effects of Anti- Semitism. The Islamophobic strategy, if strategy it was, was certainly effective as more than 5000 people from all around the country have signed the petition, meaning that a great number of people who have no connection to Golders Green are weighing in.
Very sadly the Islamophobic campaign has been spread mostly by Jews, as if there is some kind of turf war over Golders Green. This area has, since its original urbanisation, always been a place welcoming newcomers, but also stirring up prejudice. In Pam Fox’s book “The Jewish Community of Golders Green” she documents the many advertisements in the Jewish Chronicle in the 1920’s for local teachers of elocution. “It appears that there was considerable pressure on the new [Jewish] arrivals [then] to tone down the conspicuous foreignness of their backgrounds.”
When we read the story of Cain and Abel from our Torah this morning it was unclear what the real cause of their argument was. Whatever it was, it escalated until Cain committed the ultimate violent act of murder. Afterwards he disavowed responsibility asking God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Jewish tradition always says yes you are – and it further asks the question, who then is your brother? Sifra To Kedoshim comments on the verse in Leviticus 19: “You shall not bear a grudge against the children of your people.” Does this mean that you may bear a grudge against others who are not Jews? No – Rabbi Akiva says “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” This is the key principle of the Torah. He was challenged by Ben Azzai who said that an even greater principle is the one that comes in our portion right after the Cain and Abel Story – “This is the list of the generations of Adam” Genesis 5:1, meaning that all humans are brothers as we are all descended from Adam. Therefore we read Bereshit every year and do not begin the Torah with the Exodus!
This means that if the activities of your community have a damaging impact on your neighbours it is your duty to do something about it – whether you are Alyth Synagogue or a new Centre for Islamic Enlightenment. We are trying but it’s hard – we will soon be replacing the many taxis coming forwards and backwards up Alyth Gardens with our members with a single minibus, we advise members not to drive up Alyth Gardens to drop people off. The Islamic Centre will need to do the same and more.
But no Jews should be suggesting that a religious group does not have the right to be here in Golders Green. The Jewish Chronicle this week quotes our Synagogue and included an article by Mitzvah Day Founder Laura Marks where we, together with Golders Green United Synagogue and Golders Green Parish Church condemned the threatening and misleading language that was being used against the Hussaini community.
We said that Golders Green is a special place to live in not only because of the many Jewish amenities here but because we live in a harmony with our neighbours whatever faith they follow. We have made and will continue to make efforts to build contact with the new community so that they will join us in helping this to be good area for all to live in.
Following the article we received a heart-warming message from Haidar Nasralia from the Centre:
On behalf of the youth of the Islamic Enlightenment Centre, we would like to extend a heartfelt thank you. Our gratitude toward you stems from many reasons, but is based on your stance of open-mindedness, inclusion, and understanding. We at the Islamic Centre believe in a set of morals and code of justice where man is either your brother in faith or equal in humanity. As such, we have employed our youth congregation to attend to the needs of our Jewish neighbours in remedying whatever issues the Jewish community believes they are facing. We will proudly continue to serve in the mission of coexistence and peaceful resolutions.
By being our brother’s keeper, we together create a world worth living in.