Reach out in care, compassion & friendship

This is a Yom Kippur sermon, written and delivered by Rabbi Margaret Jacobi, rabbi of Birmingham Progressive Synagogue. 23 September 2015/10 Tishri 5776.

The first Yom Kippur morning sermon I gave in this Synagogue was about the duty to protest.  I quoted the words of our Haftarah: ‘Cry aloud, do not hold back; let your voice resound like a shofar…’   God commands Isaiah to tell the people of their wrong-doing; to protest against injustice and call for righteousness.

The prophets denounced injustice and so must we.  We must protest when we see the weak exploited and when we see wrong being done to our world.  But that is only half the story. Protest is only the beginning.  Nowadays, it is easy to protest.  We do not even have to go onto the streets or write a letter.  All we have to do is click a button to sign an e-petition that has already been written for us.  Twenty years ago, e-mail and the world-wide web were just emerging.  The possibilities for protest groups had hardly been imagined. They are now a powerful force. Groups such as 38 degrees and Avaaz can be a way of channelling public feeling to make it heard by Governments and corporations.  But it is too easy to feel that by clicking a mouse we have done something.  To be really effective, we have to be part of the change we wish to see.

Isaiah makes it clear what is needed:

‘Is not this the fast I look for: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break ever cruel chain?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?’

There have been few years when Isaiah’s call has seemed so relevant or the need so immediate. There is a desperate tide of refugees in Europe.  They have fled from horrors and dangers we cannot imagine.  Like some of our parents and grandparents, they are seeking a place where they can feel safe.  It is likely that in the next few days, fifty Syrian refugees will arrive in Birmingham. We have campaigned as part of Citizens UK Birmingham for the City Council to allow them to come to Birmingham and we must now play our part in helping them to settle here.   People may have security concerns, and we will ensure that these are taken seriously.  However, those who are coming under the vulnerable persons scheme are the most vulnerable, selected because amongst all the needy, their needs have been judged particularly desperate. We will be asking for your help, but at the same time, other needs continue.  We must continue to collect for our Food Bank, because we cannot neglect the needs of individuals and families who already go hungry in our city.  Our young people will also again sleep out at Succot in aid of St. Basil’s, which supports young homeless people.

There are so many needs.  We may not be able to meet them on our own, but we have partners:  we are working with partner organisations in Citizens to help the arriving refugees and we will be working on an initiative across the Birmingham Jewish community.  Each of us must play some part.  I have already been touched to receive offers to house a refugee.  This is not something everyone can do.  Apart from a spare room, it needs special skills to live with someone who is likely to be traumatised and it is not something everyone will be able to do.  But there are things we can all do, however small.  We will need donations of food, clothing and toiletries.  We will also need people to help and befriend the refugees, helping them to settle in a strange country.  And we should not underestimate the importance of donating to charities who are helping in the crisis, including World Jewish Relief.  Donations make a real difference so do think of contributing in this way too. Whatever you feel able to do will be welcome.  As Rabbi Tarfon famously said, ‘It is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.

The task Isaiah demands of us is not just to protest about a problem but to contribute to a solution. At the City Council meeting last Tuesday, Councillor James McKay recalled the debate about making Birmingham a City of Sanctuary.  Some had challenged: ‘Fine words and fine intentions all very well but what are you going to do to make this real?’  Accepting the Syrian refugees, Councillor McKay said, was making the decision to be a City of Sanctuary real, putting our idealism into practice.

Rabbi John Rayner, in a sermon given on Yom Kippur in 1968, pointed out how bleak the world seemed. Nearly fifty years later, it seems as bleak as ever.  Yet we can play our part in making it a better world. We are partners with God in working for redemption. But it is not something that will happen quickly or miraculously.  As Rabbi Rayner says, ‘A little progress here and there is all we can hope for, either in our personal lives or in the world at large.  There is no short-cut to redemption….  There is only the long haul.  To re-engage in that long haul, to pull a little harder, is what the Day of Atonement asks of us – neither more nor less.’

Let us engage in the long haul, playing our part however we can, not only protesting on behalf of those in need but reaching out to them in care, compassion and friendship.

Rabbi Margaret Jacobi is coordinating the Jewish community’s response to the anticipated arrival of Syrian refugees in Birmingham. If you can get involved and help, or would like to know more, please be in contact directly with Margaret – [email protected]

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