Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Hesbed for Michael Sherbourne z''l

Motzei Shabbat Natan Sharansky wrote “Michael Sherbourne demonstrated that one passionate individual, with no institutional position or backing, can have an impact on the course of history. We will miss him dearly”. This beautiful summation was printed in articles about him that have appeared over the last few days in Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel. He probably wouldn’t have read the Ha’aretz one, but he would have glowed at the other two. But while Sharansky summarised what he meant to many, and while he was always one of my hero’s, we will remember so many other parts of him;
The rave dancer at Gidon’s wedding 10 years ago (aged only 87).
The man who continued to learn into his 90’s, taking up computing and Skype when he was an octogenarian, and attempting to learn Polish from one of the carers at Sydney Corob House. 
The woodworker, furniture builder, repairer.
A pioneer and farmer as well as a political activist and intellectual pedant.
The man who in over 50 years of marriage, never noticed he was eating his meals in a 7 day repeating cycle.
The man who glowed with pride at the achievements we, his children (Jon and Peter included), 6 grandchildren and great grandchildren made, and had no qualms at boasting of his great grandchildren and their incredible travels and growth. We were one of his proudest legacies.
It is daunting to attempt to tell his story. First of all because he would want to correct me constantly, and secondly it is simply the most incredible story. Somehow he managed to not just live through the most defining moments of 20th Century Jewish history, but he was a part of them, driving them, doing his little, and not so little, bit. 
His death marks the end of an era. He was the second oldest of 4 brothers, Lou, Sid, and Cyril, all of whom sadly died before him. The research done by Janice, one of Michaels nieces, has shown that the brothers maternal family have been in the UK since the seventeenth century, only shortly after the readmission of the Jews to England, and were of Spanish descent. 
The brothers grew up in the poverty of the East End, and when invited to talk about life in Whitechapel to my Cheder students, they were utterly astonished that he could have lived with one water pump for the street, an outside lav, and public baths. And of course living in theEast End between the two World Wars, a teenage Grandpa was there on Cable Street in 1936, when the blackshirts marched. He proudly recalled that when the mounted police ranks approached, protecting Mosley’s fascists, he and his friends threw marbles down the street, making the horses fall; a shocking revelation to a vegetarian teenage me, but an act he was very proud of: The Battle of Cable Street is now considered the point at which British Fascism was nipped in the bud, unlike in Europe. 
Michael and Muriel, who was his rock and love for over 50 years, met on the David Eder Farm in Kent, preparing them to be pioneers in Palestine, and they were married, initially just civilly until Muriel’s mother insisted they return to Leeds for a proper Chuppah - and looking at the photos you would never know it was organised in a week! This allowed them to travel together to the British Mandate of Palestine as chalutzim. Michael worked as a civilian Admiralty Officer with the Royal Navy in Haifa and it was also during this period that Norma was born, in the land Muriel and Michael adored, and that Norma would return to to build her own family. Before Lana’s birth the family returned to London. She was still a toddler when they returned to the British Mandate, and in 1948, when the State of Israel was declared, and then immediately attacked, Michael was a member of an infantry brigade in the Machal. He was part of the failed attempt to take Latrun- an experience that was clearly traumatic and moulded his politics and his passion to defendIsrael.
But despite placing his life at risk for the sake of Israel, it was not a place that the family were destined to stay. Back in the UK, Michael didn’t rest on his laurels! He trained and worked as a teacher, becoming head of languages having spent time while teaching taking a degree in Russian - qualifying in 3 years in what was a 4 year course. On the side he also taught wood and metal work. He also spoke Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, (which he was able to adapt into Portuguese and Italian) and had a smattering of German and Arabic. I was sadly not blessed with these language genes, but his great granddaughters Mia, Arielle and Dafnie are tri-lingual, and together with Danya, Olivier, Noa, Daniel and Yonatan are heart broken not to be here today. 
After learning about the plight of Jewry in what was then the Soviet Union, Grandpa was utterly outraged and insisted something be done. He was a founding member of the 35’s who campaigned throughout the 1970’s and 80’s for justice and the release of soviet Jews. The term, ‘Refuseniks’ was, in fact, coined by Michael, and he became instrumental in keeping in touch through regular phone calls to Sharansky, Ida Nudel, and many others. Last December, Sharansky presented him with a certificate of gratitude and acknowledgment before a packed Limmud lecture hall, and described him as the ‘Internet of the Refuseniks'. So prolific were his activities on behalf of the trapped Russian Jews that when a photo of him was uncovered in a refuseniks home, showing him on the phone to someone in the USSR, it was pasted across Russian news bulletins, claiming to show a dangerous British Zionist ‘Lord Sherbourne’ who was working to undermine Soviet glory. I firmly believe he should have been a Lord, but this has sadly never been acknowledged here, only in the USSR!
In 2009 Laura Bialis made a documentary about the world wide phenomenon that was the Jewish support for the Refuseniks. Michael was honoured to be included and she wrote to me last night saying: 
“I am overwhelmed with emotion ... Every time I met Michael, I felt that I was in the company of a legendary hero. He was so courageous, such a fighter. He did so much for the Jewish people and Israel. I truly felt it was a honor to get to interview him”.
It is so important that some honouring is done while people are alive, and I’m glad that so many, from Sharansky and Rabin to his own family and neighbours, were able to have the opportunity to express to our hero how appreciated he was. The challenges of a long life were not few, and the last months had been particularly challenging for Grandpa. We are told by the incredible staff at Sydney Corob House that last Friday, Grandpa was delighted to make Kiddush for the whole house, and took the opportunity to make a small speech, saying how glad he was to be there. He was joking (and knowing Grandpa flirting) with the carer who saw him shortly before he peacefully departed, and he, perhaps more than anyone, has most certainly earned his rest.
We all, Norma, Lana, Peter, Danya, Ian, Gidon, Sara, Sarit and I, as well as his adopted grandchildren, Noa and Emma, Olivier and Gary, are grateful to so many friends and family, who visited regularly, shopped, and listened. Special mention must be made of all the cousins, as well as Esther and Edwin Shuker, who have been such devoted fans and carers, as well as Petra, Susan, and of course all the staff at Sydney Corob House.
Grandpa, you are leaving a wide, gaping hole in all our lives, but we are so much more complete for having had you these many years, and you have, literally, changed the world. May we be able to continue your legacy by fighting for freedom, and making jokes (however inappropriate) wherever possible. 

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Blessing our children... and being ourselves at Purim!

This has been brewing in my mind for a few months now, and finally became a sermon this weekend. Purim Sameach!

When I arrived at West London, I discovered a community minhag or custom that I hadn't seen elsewhere. That’s not to say it isn't done elsewhere, but in my travels I hadn't come across it. It is a rather nice one, and I still remember one of my firstShabbat Shirah  services when I hadn't quite learnt the pattern yet and I forgot to include it – I had a couple ofrather upset parents remind me and I never forgot again. I am talking about thecommunity reciting the blessing over the children, a blessing usually performedat home, but which we have brought into the synagogue, encouraging us to notonly bless our children but to bless each other as someone’s son or daughter,and also allowing those with absent children to bless them from afar.
Blessing the childrenis a beautiful ritual, which I didn't see done when I was growing up, but amexcited to now offer to Eliana. It is a ritualised moment when our parents, or when we as parents, or as fellow sons and daughters in community together, take time to offer blessing, love and friendship. But I have lately begun to wonderabout the origins of the blessing. Blessing one’s children was clearlysomething valued in the Biblical mind-set, with Noah blessing Shem and Yaphteh(Gen. 9:26-7) Isaac blessing Jacoband Esau (though he gets them the wrong way round!) (Gen 27 and 28) and Jacob blessing his sons (Gen 49) and grandsons, Ephraim and Menassah (Gen 48:13-22), in whose names we bless our sons today. Looking intoslightly later texts, we find other recommendations to bless our children.  In Ben Sira, a text which was a bit too lateto make it into the Tanakh but in which we find lots of wonderful aphorisms, weare told that
a father's blessing strengthens the houses of the children, but amother's curse uproots their foundations. (3:9)
So weknow that blessing our children can be a powerful thing. But what strange blessings they are that we offer. First of all, why do we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe, Joseph's sons. Why are we not blessing our sons in the names of the patriarchs, especially aswe bless our daughters in the names of the mothers? The most common explanationseems to be that Ephraim and Menashe are the first set of brothers in the Biblewho don’t see each other as competition. They don’t try to overcome each other,and their family dynamic doesn’t embitter their lives as it does so many othersin the Bible. By blessing our children to be like Ephraim and Menashe we offerour children the legacy of brothers that get on with one another, of familyharmony, rather than the constant struggles seen between Isaac and Ishmael,Esau and Jacob and even Joseph and his brothers.
Another interpretation,from the 19th century Israeli Rabbi Shmuel Hominer, notes that Ephraim andMenashe grew up in Egypt, unlike the patriarchs who all grew up in Israel.Ephraim and Menashe maintained their distinct identity as Israelites, eventhough they lived in a place where they were surrounded and outnumbered by theEgyptians and their gods. The ability to remain faithful to Judaism, even whenit is a struggle, is a legacy that we want to pass on to our children.
But after hearing allthese wonderful things about Ephraim and Menashe, what are we to think aboutblessing our daughters in the names of the Matriarchs? While we can see thatthey were clearly strong women who kept faith with God in very difficult times,enduring marital difficulties, infertility, abduction, envy and the struggle toraise children who were, frankly, quite difficult from time to time. None ofour Biblical role models are perfect, and I think that is a good thing, butwere the matriarchs not also women who sent their rivals off into the desert todie, attempted to out-birth their sister, and manipulated and connived behindtheir husbands’ backs? Hardly values I am desperate to instil in the nextgeneration.
It is perhaps alsostrange that we insist on still blessing our children within genderedboundaries. Shouldn't our children be able to find role models and blessings toemulate within the men and women of Jewish history, regardless of their owngender? Perhaps we should be blessing our sons and daughters in the names of Ephraim, Menashe, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, hoping our sons and daughters can be siblings or friends that avoid rivalry and disharmony, and that keep faith through difficult times.
Then again, perhaps the struggle isn't against what is included, after all, we can find fault with most Biblical characters and that can be seen as a positive, especially as each of them has plenty to teach us in both their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps myproblem is more about what is not included. My favourite Chassidic story is that of Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol, who lived in the eighteenth century. I think Ifirst came across this teaching in the High Holiday machzor, but it is also anappropriate one for the weekend of Purim when we do all we can to disguiseourselves. The story goes that Zusha was telling his disciples about the worldto come. He insisted he would not be greeted with the question ‘Zusha, why wereyou not more like Moses’ but rather, he would be asked ‘Zusha, why were you notmore like Zusha’.
While it is importantwe have good role models to inspire us and to look up to, it is also importantto remember that we are each unique, bringing something new and original to theworld that wouldn't have existed without us. And so I have begun a tiny littlerebellion at home. Every Friday when it comes to blessing Eliana, I pray thatshe be made like Sarah Rebecca Rachel and Leah, and then I add her name to thatlist (and perhaps I should also be adding Ephraim and Menashe!) She has beenmade as she is, and it is her life’s task to fulfill the potential that sheholds, not to be better than she can be, but also to try and avoid the pitfallsof the matriarchs before her, not to mention those her own mother may havefallen into.
So tonight as we bless each other, our children, and absent children, perhapslet’s take a moment to acknowledge who they are individually, what they mightbring to the world that is unique and special, and add their name to the listof who we hope they are made to be like. If nothing else, perhaps we will learna new name in the congregation, but maybe we will also remember that we are allmade to be like ourselves, and celebrate this fact together before dressing uptomorrow night and pretending to be something completely different!
Shabbat shalom!

Picture: Eliana celebrating Purim as a bee- the meaning of my name!

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Voices of Freedom

I'll be honest, I thought my visit to a photo exhibition on Friday would be more than a tad depressing. An exhibition of photos taken by formerly trafficked women - I desperately wanted to support it but I wasn't looking forward to it.
How wrong I was! The exhibition (of photos by three Ethiopian women - entitled Voice of Freedom, a project of the charity PhotoVoice) did explore painful and unbelievable events; the simple fact that people saw fit to treat these people as commodities - stuff to be traded and made a profit from, raped and abused; the people on the journey with them who had not made it; their continued fear. Yet it also showed the incredible human spirit they displayed in continuing, and the way their lives had been turned around. My grandmother, who survived the Nazi occupation of Lodz and then escaped into Russian occupied Poland only to be deported to the Gulag once spoke of how the human spirit to survive can overcome the most unbelievable horrors. Her voice rang out to me again and again as I was allowed glimpses into these women's lives.
Also poignantly, especially when we hear so much about racial tensions in Israel, these women have been rescued, protected, housed, and rehabilitated, by the Israeli government. And this care and investment is there for all to appreciate in the London offices of Amnesty International. Two of the photographers will soon be returning to Ethiopia, and have spoken to the organisers of Voice of Freedom about their desire to become activists on their return, making a difference to others just as they have been helped and supported.
The three women make their voices heard in the photos, but they sing out from the text next to the photos in ways that were utterly surprising. Like this one, taken in a Church in Nazareth by Zenebech Zeleke:
Photo credit: Zenebech Zeleke / Voice of Freedom / PhotoVoice 
"There is a story that you tell, and a story that you don’t want to tell – but there are some stories that I want a lot of people to see, very clearly, from my own experience.
There are things that you go through and want to tell other people, and it makes you feel better. Some of the things that could be told are: they used to force us into taking drugs, and used to bury people alive, and we have seen them beheading people.
The light gets in – you can let it in and it’s positive. But the darkness it doesn’t let you in – it just swamps you, and that’s what it does."

These women, who have found their freedom, are now taking on the responsibility that freedom affords them, just as we move from freedom at Pesach, to responsibility at Shavuot. There were so many Jewish (as well as human) resonances in this exhibition, I frequently found myself welling up, and I hope the Jewish community, as well as many many others, engage with the women's voices and what they are trying to tell us. If you can see it, you should (and if you are outside London I can put you in touch with the organiser to see what it would take to make it happen elsewhere!):
Voice of Freedom: photography by formerly enslaved women
Amnesty International UK, New Inn Yard. April 16 until May 13th 
Project website: http://ourvoiceoffreedom.wordpress.com/  

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Reflecting on Living Below the Line

There has been an awful lot of support this week, thank you. But more importantly, there have been an awful lot of conversations. I don't need support. It really wasn't a big deal to eat lentils and pasta and toast for 5 days. It was boring and a little sapping, but really no biggie. 
What is a big deal is that I got to drink fresh clean water, not an option for large swathes of the world living in poverty. What is a big deal is that in the UK, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we have need for food banks, and parents going to bed hungry so their children won't, although they may go to school without breakfast. What is a big deal is that people are having to choose between heating and eating, and are asking food banks for no- cook packages as they don't have the means to heat food. What is a big deal is that it is often faith communities that step in at moments of crisis, but poverty is something so isolating that people don't talk about it. Sometimes until it is too late. 
There is something silly, if not gross, in 'playing' at poverty. It will all be over in 5 days, and I can go back to my marmite and fairtrade bananas. I also didn't need to spend this week worrying about travel costs, childcare, debt collectors, rent/mortgage payments. So I have no idea really. But what it has done (other than raising money to help Tzedek tackle poverty) is open up conversation after conversation about the systems that create poverty, the food we waste, and the realities that are so often kept behind closed doors whilst the anonymous strugglers are vilified and bullied as lazy scroungers. Indeed in the disabled community, while many were physically attacked in the past, this violence is now repeatedly accompanied by cries of 'scrounger!' 
Communities are starting to stand up and ask the right questions of our politicians, and of ourselves, and how our own consuming of cheap food and products adds to the cycles of poverty around us, and how perhaps, we aren't quite all in it together.
If you would like to support the work of Tzedek, this is one simple way to:

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Living below the line - day 3

I'm pretty tired. But I don't know for sure it's the lentil-toast-spaghetti diet that is doing that or the 22 month old who won't sleep properly. Cooking breakfast and dinner for her are also a touch challenging- resisting the urge to pop a morsel of crumpet/ banana/ egg in my mouth is perhaps a reminder of how much nibblin one can do without even realising, if you have the means.
People seem to want to know about what I'm eating, but that has certainly not been the most important thing about this. Today I've been really struck by the conversations it has enabled. A dear friend in a far off distant land messaged me to say they had donated directly to tzedek (touchingly another friend abroad donated to a charity local to her in honour of our efforts) but that more importantly she and her partner had sat down and spoken seriously about their own relationships to food, about good poverty, and about living with so little. 
And whilst these messages were arriving from afar, I was in a meeting (resisting the biscuits and yoghurt coated raisins and grapes and...) and they thoughtfully added living below the line to the agenda so that the group could hear about it, have a conversation about it, and think about how communities could act to help.
The money raised is touching, the minds and hearts engaged means much more to me. 
And to close, breakfast was toast and butter, I've drunk a lot of water, lunch was lentils, an egg (16p- I'm down to £1.04) and red cabbage. I usually cook this with onion raisins and apple and vinegar, so thought I'd try onion and water. It's not great. Having a store cupboard is a real blessing far too easy to take for granted. Tonight I attempted a pasta sauce from tinned toms onions and garlic (herbs and cheese would have helped!)
and that will probably be lunch tomorrow too, and if I can stretch the sauce a third meal too(as you can see I have not laid it on heavily!) I am craving chocolate and kale. But Friday isn't far of for me. It is for many others. 

Monday, 28 April 2014

Living below the line- the first 2 days

I must confess my Saturday night excursion to the local megastore  was not as bargainful as I had hoped. I may have peaked too early in the week when I found my 20p squished kingsmill (usually reduced bread near its sell by date is still around 80p, and Kingsmill is one of the few widely available breads that is also stamped kosher).
I had planned to buy up cheap veggies that were reduced, but a bag of REDUCED cauliflower and broccoli was still well over £1 and it was enough to make maybe 2 bowls of soup. I also couldn't bring myself to buy battery eggs and non fairtrade hot drinks, though I still have £1.20 to play with.
What I ended up with was:
A bag of value onions, red lentils, value spaghetti, red cabbage, value tinned tomatoes, a head of garlic and value butter (my big splurge for the week as will make toast yum and frying for sauces etc accessible). Plus my kingsmill in the freezer.
Breakfast has been the same both days; buttered toast. Not so different to my usual! What was immediately different was Sunday morning, as we planned a day of visiting grandparents and playing in the park, I realised we couldn't just 'pop in' somewhere, so everyone (even those not living below the line at home) needed a packed lunch prepared. So my spaghetti with sautéed onions and garlic needed to be prepped (and baby and hubbies pasta salad thrown together) before we could think about getting on with our day. 
The social contracts and impacts around food continued to strike me today. As I passed St Paul's cathedral, site of Occupy protests, the steps were all occupied by people munching on sarnies, sushi and coffees that largely cost more than I (and of course many others) will spend on food all week. No socializing in restaurants, no 'meeting for a coffee'. And of course for most people really living below the line, traveling to such social occasions isn't an option. Food is for many something we totally take for granted, and revolve much of our day and socialising around.
Many friends have had wonderful suggestions for making this week work, but many of them serve to demonstrate how difficult negotiating a healthy diet can be in the west and on a tight budget - they range from growing your own (a challenge if you don't have your own garden, or are moving around a lot) to heading to certain areas of town to bulk buy certain ingredients, to foraging and benefitting from food freebies around London. All of which would constitute a full time job and requires a travel budget. As one wise discusser pointed out, this stuff is all much easier in a community, and food poverty (poverty generally) is certainly an isolating experience for many.
So for dinner last night I enjoyed a tasty red lentil soup, with bread and butter. Tonight's dinner is the same mostly because I'm too tired to cook my exciting pasta sauce ingredients and red lentil soup is soo easy. Lunch was an experiment that thankfully worked- left over lentil soup on spaghetti. Cold. I was at a meeting and I must thank the organiser who in solidarity with me didn't buy the gathered clergy any biscuits! I thank them all for their sacrifice!
Not snacking has been something I've noticed the lack of, but going without nosh and squash will certainly do me no harm. Taking all my protein from lentils is more challenging, and I do think I will need to use some of my leftover money for fresh fruit/ veg. 
But of course on Friday I can also return to my usual intake, which many cannot. I don't expect what I am doing to massively change anything, though I am thankful to all of you engaging in conversations and attempting to understand the issues more... and to those of you I know struggling to make money go as far as it can for sharing your wisdom and struggles - it is your voices that can bring this reality to the fore. And to all of you inspired to help make a difference for those living in extreme poverty through the work of Tzedek, it's not too late to give! https://www.livebelowtheline.com/me/debbieys 

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Living Below the Line

Next week I and a small group of Rabbis will be Living Below the Line (eating on £1 a day) for 5 days. We have a blog at http://rabbisbelowtheline.wordpress.com/ where you can read why each of us is doing it. This was my first post there this morning:

As a congregational Rabbi in one of London's wealthiest communities, it was perhaps surprising the regularity with which those in crisis, or serious continuing need, quietly and with deep embarrassment needed to come and ask for help. Sometimes I and sometimes my discretionary fund paid people's electricity bills, helped ensure children were fed until benefits became available, and ensured a disabled congregant could pay rent rather than go into a hostel. No one likes to ask for a handout, and receiving it from someone who knows them can be even more difficult, but these quiet, hidden voices are with us every day, and are growing in number.
So when Judith Williams asked me to Live Below the Line to support the work of Tzedek in tackling extreme poverty in developing nations, I couldn't think of a good reason to say no. Tzedek's work is very close to my heart, after a late beloved friend helped establish their Ghana programme, a friend who also campaigned tirelessly for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, another group constantly struggling to make ends meet. But what seemed like the bigger opportunity, was that of creating conversations around all this poverty, need, and hunger.
When I met with Molly Hodson from the Trussell Trust a few weeks ago, I was shocked to learn about the incredible increase in demand for their services. (Stats are here) and they are very much a short term stop gap. Campaigners like Jack Monroe who is also living below the line next week but who also knows just what it means to go to bed hungry so that her son could eat that day, has also been campaigning for us to challenge the system that required food banks.
Next Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is a Shmita year. A year of release. Biblically this meant that the land lay fallow and belonged to no one. Any perennials that produced food were there for everyone to help themselves to. This wasn't an easy year, and careful preparation and social cohesion was necessary. But wouldn't it be amazing to emerge from the next Shmita year with a system that gives access to our incredible resources to those who need them. The ways in which we consume has a huge impact on the world around us, from sweat shop workers in Bangladesh, to low paid farm labourers and shop workers receiving less and less because supermarkets are engaged in a price war. Shmita is not a simple answer, and there are no simple answers, but we should be angry about the reality as it is today. Living below the line isn't much, but I hope it is a small soap box from which other conversations and voices will be heard.

If you are able to support Tzedek as part of Living Below the Line, you can donate here: https://www.livebelowtheline.com/me/debbieys