Census time

Having just filled in my census form, I thought I'd share my shabbat thoughts (sermon!) with you all, as well as what I thought was a charming piece from a colleague who has just started blogging at www.rabbineil.com from March 22nd. This was delivered at WLS March 26th when we were also holding a service to honour our fabulous group of young adults. Enjoy your census filling, and being counted!

10 years ago, I was living in the attic of a student house with three lads from Rochdale, Wigan and Chorley. It was with great excitement that we opened our census packet and filled it in, letting the world know we were here, filling it in for ourselves for the first time, excited to be counted as independent units in our own right.

I was particularly excited because a year or so prior to this I’d been a deputy for the Union of Jewish Students on the Board of Deputies, and had taken part in a discussion on whether the Board would endorse the inclusion of a question on religion. This was one of the most interesting discussions during my time on the Board, and I remember one exchange in particular. An Orthodox woman in a sheitel (a wig) took the floor to express her view that it was a terrible danger to us as Jews to have a government that can easily access data that identifies us as Jews. Her concerns were born out of the experience of the Shoah, and so it was fascinating that they were answered by Ben Helfgott, a survivor. He said we cannot define our Jewish lives here, today, by fear of the past. He also pointed out that every time we buy something kosher at Tesco and use our club card, it is registered. If we have direct debits set up to Jewish charities or synagogues, this is electronically logged. And ultimately, we must be a community that is proud and that makes its voice heard in British society. The Board ultimately endorsed the question, and as we know, it was included for the first time in 2001, helping us all discover that in the UK there are more Jedi than there are Jews.

The term census comes from an ancient Roman institution of registering adult males and their property so that they could be properly taxed and called up for military service. Yet these practices pre-date the Romans (after all, what have they ever done for us?) and biennial surveys took place in ancient Egypt, Mari and Ugarit. Of course the Hebrews were no different. Torah tells us (indeed this was just a few weeks ago) that the first census of the wandering Israelites took place at Mount Sinai, before the first year in the desert was up, and it consisted of each male Israelite over 20 years of age contributing a half shekel (Exodus 40:17). In Numbers (26) we hear about a second census, which took place at Shittim in Moab, shortly before the Israelites were ready to enter the Promised Land. One other census (again of able bodied men) gets a mention in the Tanakh, in II Samuel 24:9 at the close of David’s reign.

David’s census was met with divine wrath, which has contributed to a strange tradition that it is forbidden to count Jews! The giving of the half shekel as a way of conducting a head count not only contributed a communal resource, but perhaps also indicates a way of taking a census without actually counting people. I remember being very confused when a chabad Rabbi at university counted how many shoes were in the room and then divided them in two to work out how many of us were there. In the Talmud (Yoma 22b) the Rabbis analyse a passage in Hosea (2:1) to argue that one shouldn’t count Jews. Hosea says: ‘the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted.’ It doesn’t say explicitly that it is forbidden to count Jews; just that it is impossible to count Jews. Derived from this comes the idea that to number a people is to limit them. The Encyclopaedia Judaica suggests that not being counted is part of an ancient primitive taboo against recording cattle or crops, people or possessions, and suggests this is down to a fear of having one’s name recorded on a list that might be used by unknown powers (certainly the fear of the lady at the Board of Deputies). However the reason generally offered these days is that we shouldn’t tempt fate by investigating God’s promised blessing of great numbers too closely, but receive it gratefully (Encyclopaedia Judaica “Census”).

This weekend, we all need to be counted. First of all as citizens it is important that we are counted; our local authorities estimate that for each person who fills in the census, they benefit by around 500-600 pounds a year in services – that’s five to six thousand pounds per person until the next census – if there is another one. So we need to be counted to continue benefitting and helping our councils offer the best service possible. At a meeting of the Westminster Faith Exchange last week I was informed that Westminster has the second worst return rate in the country, so if you are a Westminster resident in particular, we need to help them continue to offer a high level of service not just funded by parking tickets, but aided by each of us filling in our census.

For the Jewish community it is equally important that we not only fill in the form, but declare our Jewishness. To plan its services over the coming years the community needs the data that the census can provide; the census can help us to plan old age resources in years to come, and identify the levels of disadvantage in the community. Dr David Graham, from Jewish Policy Research, wrote in the JC in February (24th) that the Census of ten years ago: “told us that over 4,300 children lived in households with no adult working, and that 9,500 Jews under 49 suffered from a permanent illness which limited their ability to work”. Thus it helps community charities like Jewish Care know where to invest resources, and who on the margins of the community they should be more aware of. 2011’s poll will be doubly important because it will be the second consecutive year that religion has been a part of the census, helping researchers and communal bodies identify trends, and thus plan for the future.

Speaking of the future, this shabbat we have been honouring our Young Adults. This is a vibrant, committed group who regularly stand up and count themselves in as Jewish. They have performed the ritual of Havdallah in public spaces all over London, studied Torah in pubs, and danced the night away in the Synagogue. They are a growing group, who never fail to surprise me in how open, supportive and welcoming they are to each other and to new comers. You guys are an important part of the communities’ future, and your commitment to building Jewish identities for yourselves that are learned, engaged and joyful continually gives me hope, and means it is always a privilege and a pleasure for Danny, Micol and I to work with you. Your standing up and counting yourselves in is so important – we don’t like doing head counts of you, because it’s about quality not quantity, but it’s been very impressive to see your group and activities expand and grow, in large part due to your own initiatives and commitment, and your warm welcome of each other.

I have also been struck this week by how important it is for us all to stand together, supporting each other from time to time. Jews do love a good disagreement, but as anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence infected SOAS (where my husband and one of our members work) last Sunday, I was reminded of the need for us to be united, but also of the importance of having friends outside the Jewish world who are prepared to stand up and defend us when legitimate criticism of a foreign government descends into vile anti-Semitism. The same applies to way attacks and bombs in Israel have been reported and misrepresented in recent weeks. When we as Jews speak out against these things it just doesn’t have the same impact as when our friends from other communities do.

However we count ourselves, and I hope we all count ourselves in if nothing else, it is so important that we all continue to meet each individual with the warmth and hospitality we would want to receive. I hope, if relevant, you’ll feel able to tick the Jewish box on the census this weekend, but more importantly, I hope you will count yourselves in by being a part of a growing, vibrant, engaging Judaism that makes you feel your life has more meaning, and which brings you joy and energy. I also hope we can all learn from the Young Adults, and continually work to expand our West London family community, but also the Jewish community, by being welcoming, open, and creating Jewish spaces that Jews by birth and Jews by choice, and all the other types of people that want to be engaged in Jewish life, just can’t help but want to be a part of.

May we all be counted as important within our community, and may we count our community as important to us. May this be God’s will, Venomar, Amen.


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