Shabbat Sermon: Dan Rosenfield, Chair of World Jewish Relief

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 19 October 2016

Shabbat shalom and Shana tova.

I know many of the friendly faces here today but for those who don’t know me, I’m Dan Rosenfield and it’s wonderful to be standing here today, here in my home community.

Let me begin with a mazal tov to Leo who read his portion so beautifully. Mazal tov to you and your family – enjoy the celebrations.

I wanted to share a short thought with you from this week’s sedra. Picture the scene: Moses has come to the end of his life. At 120 years old – he has rescued the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, wandered through the desert for 40 year and now, he is on the cusp of the Land of Israel. But God has told him he’s not going to enter the Land.

You might have expected a tantrum. Or sulking. But instead Moses and Joshua, his successor, teach the people a long song – our sedra – telling the Children of Israel that this is no flash-in-the-pan pop tune: “Pay close attention to this song,” says Moses. “It isn’t an empty teaching; it is our life, and with it we will long endure on our land.”

What’s really telling is that Moses passes the mantle of leadership immediately on to Joshua, with no bitterness. He accepts that despite all of his hard work as leader, it will be Joshua who will be in charge and get the credit for completing the assignment.

One of the rare moments in Judaism of a ‘broiges free zone’. No arguments. No ego. A smooth transition.

And that is the ethos I value at World Jewish Relief. Driven by Jewish value. Inspired by our cause. Yet focused on the job in hand and, quite simply, getting on with it.

So as I took over as Chair earlier this week, there was no drama, no drum roll, no broiges. Just a gentle handover from my predecessor James Libson. And then on with the business of my first council meeting in the chair where we approved the emergency allocation of monies from our Haiti appeal.

And let me take a moment to pay tribute to James Libson, our outgoing Chair and someone who grew up here at Alyth, for putting World Jewish Relief in such a strong position.

So what of World Jewish Relief. Let me tell you a bit about our history, what we do today and where we are headed.

Our history. We may not go back as far as Moses, but this year is our 83rd year supporting vulnerable Jews around the world.

We were founded in 1933 as a response to Adolf Hitler coming to power in Germany. Prominent members of the Jewish community – Simon Marks of M&S fame, Sir Robert Waley Cohen, , Dr Chaim Weizmann who would later become the first President of Israel and Lionel and Anthony de Rothschild, got together. They raised huge sums of money in case they had to get Jews out of what would become Nazi-occupied Germany and Austria, and they lobbied the British government to allow refugees into the country. Perhaps that second part sounds familiar?

We were known then as the Central British Fund for German Jewry, or CBF, and unbelievably, CBF raised £250,000 in 1933, their first year of operations, the equivalent of £16.8 million in today’s sterling.

But it wasn’t until November 1938 and the brutality of Kristallnacht, when the British government overcame – at least in part – their reluctance to accept refugees. They said that children under the age of 16 would be accepted in Britain – but none of their parents. And by December 1938 the first of the Kindertransports had arrived in Britain.

Between 1938-1940 we rescued thousands of children on the Kindertransport. We also saved the lives of tens of thousands of adults before, during and after the Holocaust.

I am pleased to say that World Jewish Relief has just finished digitising all of its archives from that period – I know many here will have family stories from this time. If you’d like to see if we have your family records, please do get in touch with me – it is special and it is our duty to remember and celebrate these remarkable stories of resilience and the Jewish ability – like Moses’ song – not just to survive but to thrive.

Turning now to the World Jewish Relief of today. We are in some ways a different organisation to that of 80 years ago, but we are still driven by those same values of addressing need, speaking up and stepping up in times of emergency and helping people help themselves.

What do we do and how do we make a difference?

We support vulnerable older people in the Former Soviet Union. People never believe me when I tell them, but there are hundreds of thousands of Jews still living in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Belarus. Many are alone and isolated. Our programmes bring dignity to older people living there.

You can imagine the Stalinist 12-story, soulless tower blocks many live in – dark and dank, with dodgy electricity, filthy bathrooms and dirty kitchens. It is an outrage that in Europe in 2016, so many people live in these conditions. They are our forgotten Jewish family.

World Jewish Relief’s Home Repairs programme aims to change this. Our current Rosh Hashanah appeal (it’s never too late!) aims to rebuild hundreds of homes in Ukraine. By repairing Jewish homes, we repair Jewish lives.

And we help get the next generation of Jews in Ukraine and the Former Soviet Union into work. Helping them break the cycle of poverty forever. Our innovative livelihoods work helps Jews who have been unemployed find a job through training, coaching and re-skilling.

Our programmes have had fantastic success – over two thirds of our graduates gain employment. We have the opportunity to change a generation. We have set ourselves the ambitious target of helping 100,000 people escape poverty by 2020 and I want us to exceed that target – currently it looks like we will.

Nowhere is our livelihoods work more important than in East Ukraine, where more than 2.5 million people have fled their homes. Thousands of Jews have lost everything. Many of them came to Kharkov – a city in Eastern Ukraine that I visited last year – without a house or a job and so have joined World Jewish Relief’s Livelihood Development Programme. Many need trauma counselling too. Thanks to us, they’re turning their lives around.

And while our mission may start with the Jewish community, it does not end there. That is why we are the UK Jewish community’s response to international disasters. Driven by the Jewish value to help the stranger –  for we were once strangers in Egypt – we call the community to action whenever there is an international disaster. The earthquake in Nepal. The refugee crisis in Syria. And now, sadly, we have been called into action again following the devastation in Haiti.

More than 1,000 people have died. More than 2 million people have been affected. 1.4 million of them are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. World Jewish Relief responded immediately with the full backing of the whole Jewish community and two of our team are currently in Haiti identifying suitable partners and focusing on key areas such as shelter and clean sanitation.

[And let me quite our movement Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, who put it so well: “With a heightened awareness of life and death at this time of year we have to do everything we can to enable other people to be inscribed in the book of life – this is an obligation, not a choice.”]

Haiti is now. Right now. But let me also remind you that World Jewish Relief launched an emergency appeal last year to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s a crisis that doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon. Thanks to the community, we’ve supported over 17,500 refugees in camps in Greece and in Turkey.  Yet we need to do more. We all have a refugee story in our families – one of the sad truths about the Jewish community is that you don’t have to go too far back in our family trees to find that we were once refugees too.

So if that’s our history and our mission today, what of our future?

Well my first responsibility as World Jewish Relief’s new Chair is quite simply to make sure we deliver and do what we say we will do. We have a great professional team led by our CEO Paul Anticoni. Paul and the team are motivated and focused – motivated by the heart, our history and our values, but focused with the head – on what works, on where we can make a difference.

But my second responsibility is to challenge this wonderful professional team to do more and be even more effective.

In our work with older people, we will not only provide core support such as housing, welfare and social connections. But we will also bring expertise in tackling dementia to the Ukraine – partnering with Jewish Care. So that our approach can inform others and help those beyond only the individuals and communities we get to ourselves.

And I also want to use the expertise we have developed in employment and livelihoods support to reach many more. That means rolling out our programmes to as many Jewish communities in the Former Soviet Union as we possibly can. And we can deploy those skills in crisis too. Here in the UK we have a pilot scheme working with Syrian refugees in the North of England – helping them train and find work. And let me tell you, the Home Office come to us to ask how it is done. They and the local authorities may do enough to help people survive – providing shelter and welfare – but the Jewish way is not only to survive but to thrive. Finding work, taking care of yourself and your own family. Dignity. A future.

And that brings me to my third responsibility – to tell the story, to ask you to do that little bit more than you already do.

For me, my Jewish story began in a small shul in Manchester, but it was really thanks to our wonderful youth group, RSY Netzer, that I am standing here today. RSY was my route in to Jewish community – through camp, being a madrich and shnat and I’d like to say kol hakavod to all of you involved with RSY today. You are creating the leaders of tomorrow.

So Alyth was a natural choice when my wife Jessica and I were expecting our first child. For me Alyth defines community – we pray together, we learn together but we also act together. A Judaism that is, to quote our values, “utterly engaged with the world around us, both within the Jewish people and our wider community”.

Warm words are welcome, but utter engagement means action, something Alyth knows well and demonstrates through its social action and its refugee drop in centre.

And with that spirit, join us. Support us. Make the case for us to your friends and family. Come with me to Ukraine and see our work first-hand. Join one of our young professionals trips. Volunteer for us. Or run the London Marathon – if you missed out on the ballot, we’ve got places available.

However you choose to engage and whatever your focus, let us all embrace the spirit to look beyond. To look beyond what is right in front us and to ask why? To ask what can I do? How can I make a difference? Perhaps that is the spirit of Moses as he gazed upon Israel. And perhaps his song – the song we heard in today’s Torah portion – is the rallying call for us, quite simply, to take an interest.

Shabbat shalom.