Thought of the Week: 18 August 2016 (Rabbi Maurice Michaels)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 18 August 2016

The Olympics are under way and I must admit to a small sense of regret at not being a part of this amazing event.  Four years ago, I spent the whole of the summer in Stratford as the lead Jewish chaplain in a multi-faith chaplaincy team for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games and in the process met a wide variety of people who under normal circumstances I would never come into contact with.  Of course, there was the friendly camaraderie of  the other chaplains, who represented all the major faiths, but there were many others from among the athletes and their entourage.  For example the coach to the fencing team of an African country who wanted to talk about the likelihood that the ancient Israelites came out of Africa and were black.  Or the Austrian swimmer, who did his training in America, and was in the process of converting through the Conservative Movement there.  Then coming out of the Chaplains area one day I almost bumped into the Imam travelling with the Iranian team as he got out of the lift.  We looked at each other cautiously, then he said shalom, I answered salaam, we nodded to each other and parted.  I’ve often wondered since what would have happened if I’d tried to make conversation.

Most poignant of the encounters was the man who told me that in 1972 he had been a child in Germany and participated with hundreds of other children in the Opening Event for the Olympics.  He had been so excited and then shattered by the murder of the Israeli athletes.  Some years later he had come to England and subsequently converted to Judaism.  He sought me out because he just wanted to tell his story 40 years after the event.

As part of my remit, I organised regular Services including for Kabbalat Shabbat, when we were joined by members of the Israeli teams and the Israeli Ambassador to the UK.  I also held a Service of Remembrance on the anniversary of the Munich massacre at which the whole Israeli Paralympic team was present and was covered by Israeli TV.  What was really pleasing was that the Jewish chaplains came from across the spectrum of the community and worked well together, sharing Services without any difficulty.

In fact, it was like living in a world within the world, a dream-world, a place separate from the harsh realities of normal life.  A little like the prophecy of Isaiah that we read as the Haftarah for this Shabbat Nachamu, in which he attempts to comfort the Israelites who have been taken into exile in Babylon.  The prophet assures them that despite the bleak outlook there will be a return to Zion.  He encourages them to disavow the gloom and despondency in which they have fallen to look towards the renewal of Jerusalem. He uplifts them by reminding them that nothing is beyond God’s powers.

There is a strongly-held view that , in fact, Isaiah was actually describing a post Messianic world, rather than the hoped-for return from exile.  If that was the case, a look around our world – outside the Olympics – could certainly do with it!