By Alice Alphandary, chair of South London Liberal Synagogue
For the last week I have found myself at the centre of a mini media storm. An article in The Observer on a project to turn part of my British synagogue into a flat for a Syrian refugee family has caught the imagination.
As chair of South London Liberal Synagogue, I’ve had interview requests from all over the UK and now from elsewhere in Europe too, about this idea – which we call ‘Abraham’s Tent’.
The plan was inspired by our former rabbi, Rabbi Janet Darley, who has spent years campaigning – alongside other faith groups and Citizens UK – to both encourage the Government to allow more refugees into Britain, and then welcome them when they get here.
When Janet retired in July, we wanted to give her something more than a carriage clock or holy book. So we gave Janet a promise – a promise to continue her award-winning work by converting a space in the synagogue into a two bedroom flat to house a refugee family.
We need to raise £50,000 and, as well as undertaking a number of fundraising initiatives, we are looking for donations and grants.
And while all the fantastic press coverage this week will help us reach our goal, I’m surprised it’s considered so newsworthy. After all, helping the stranger is a fundamental part of Judaism and many synagogues are doing wonderful things for refugees.
The Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London has a regular Drop-In For Asylum Seeker Families, communities in Bradford, Durham and Northwood held teas for refugees in November as part of Mitzvah Day and British rabbis were at the forefront of lobbying for recent legislation to allow unaccompanied child refugees into the country.
Jews believe that human beings are God’s partners in creation. As such, we believe that the world was not complete at the time when it came in to being. Humankind must work to improve the world they live in, which Jews call tikkun olam (repairing the world).
We do this by the ongoing fulfilment of good deeds. To our Liberal Jewish community, we believe that we can live out our faith by our involvement in social justice. We see the needs of the world around us, and act to respond in a compassionate way.
The name of the project reflects Midrash (Jewish commentary) that said that Abraham’s Tent was open on all sides to welcome strangers. He was living in a desert society and so providing water, food and shelter to those passing really was a matter of life and death.
Well done to South London Liberal Synagogue for planning to help with Syrian refugee family.— Lord Nick Bourne (@lordnickbourne) 23 janvier 2017
As well as reflecting Biblical teaching, the project has a personal resonance to our community. Jews have very recent past experience of being refugees, as some still are as they are unable to practice their religion openly in their country of birth.
In my own community, South London Liberal Synagogue, our members have parents and grandparents who themselves were refugees. This motivates so many of the project team, myself included, as my own father was a refugee from Egypt in the 1950s. One project team member has a grandfather who was a Kindertransporter. His grandfather was put up by Christians in a church in Durham. Another team member has a grandmother who fled Nazi Germany in the 30s thanks to a Birmingham couple who employed her as a housekeeper. Once given a foothold in the UK she was able to arrange safe passage for her brother who was just a child, and then her parents.
There is a strong sense among many of us that if Britain had not provided sanctuary to our families, we would not be alive today. And we are now determined to show that welcome to others.
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