Delivered by Rabbi Jason Holtz on 25 January 2015 at a special Civic Service at Bromley Reform Synagogue.
Mr Mayor and distinguished guests, my fellow synagogue members and I are honoured to have you at our Sabbath service today.
This past year, we have been celebrating our Golden Jubilee—50 years of organised, and I use the word organised loosely, organised Jewish life in Bromley. Today marks the final service during this special anniversary year, and we are so pleased to be able to share it with so many civic and religious leaders from the area.
I am certain that everyone has caught on by now that I am originally from America. I grew up in Florida, in a small coastal town called Ormond Beach. It is a great place to live, but otherwise is not known for much. In fact, it’s easier to talk about what it’s near. It is fairly close to Cape Canaveral, home of NASA. In fact, as a child, our school teachers used to take us outside to watch the space shuttle launches. We’re also one of the closest beaches to Orlando. Orlando is an interesting place because its claim to fame is its most illustrious resident, an 87 year-old five-foot tall talking mouse named Mickey. Just to the north of Ormond Beach is the oldest city in the United States, St Augustine. It’s well over 500 years old. Which means it has nothing on Bromley. But, to American ears, anything that’s over 500 years old is pretty impressive. When I first came to England, I was taking pictures of every plaque that said that the building was established over a hundred years ago. I ran out of space on my camera very quickly
There were several adjustments that both the synagogue community and I needed to make after I arrived. It took a few tries, but I’ve adjusted to driving on the left side of the road and using roundabouts. I remember, actually, the first time I came across a roundabout here. I was very much unprepared. I was test-driving a Ford. Fortunately, the car salesman, who was not expecting to be my driving instructor, was quick to react. “Stop!” he yelled, with a bit of terror in his voice. “Look right, go left!” Lesson learnt and adjustment made. I had to make another adjustment too. In British English, the word is “trousers.” I didn’t know that. I said something else.
There have been adjustments that the synagogue has had to come to as well. I came not knowing some of the British liturgical music that is customarily used here, and what’s worse, when I sing some liturgical music that is more common in the United States as a substitute, I do a terrible job at it, singing completely off-key. This is a very kind and forgiving group.
People often ask me if it is very different living here compared to America. This is what I say. “At least 95% is the same, but it’s easier to spot the differences than the similarities.” America doesn’t have the royal family. Although, I have to admit, after American politicians were deadlocked for the umpteenth time last year and the Federal government shut down, many were wishing that the Queen would graciously take back America in forgiveness, intervene and dissolve Congress. America also does not have the NHS or anything at all similar for most people. Whatever flaws and problems anyone might see with the NHS, the United Kingdom should be very proud of it and the values behind providing healthcare as a basic right.
Still, most things are the same. American or British, or whatever else, people are people. We laugh, cry, care, love, grieve, regret, celebrate, become angry, aspire and are inspired and usually for similar reasons. So much of what makes us human doesn’t change, even when crossing a border. The side of the road one drives on, linguistic variations, and so on isn’t ultimately what makes us human. Dare I say, even our preferred sport doesn’t do that. Although, baseball would be a welcome addition. Just a suggestion.
Because it is easier to spot the differences, it is sometimes easy to make more of the differences than the similarities. We look at people or peoples who are different and say they are not just different, but very different. Strangely different.
A few weeks ago, Jews all over the world began reading from the Book of Exodus, and we will continue reading from it for some time. It contains the story that is at the heart of the Jewish faith. We were once slaves and then we were redeemed. Not only that, but we must always remember our origins as slaves and to always empathise with the other, with the disadvantaged and the downcast. The Exodus, and the Passover festival that is described in today’s reading, is not just a celebration of the Israelite’s freedom, it is a reminder of our responsibilities. The Exodus is ultimately a story of morals, of right and wrong.
The sin of the Egyptians was an extreme refusal to see anything but the “otherness” of the Israelites. When the Egyptians looked at their neighbours they did not see 95% the same, they only saw the 5% that was different. Joseph, himself both a Hebrew and the Prime Minister in Egypt, was aware of this tendency. Towards the end of the Book of Genesis, Joseph told his brothers to be slightly less than honest with the Pharaoh about being shepherds. Shepherds, Joseph said, were abhorrent in Egypt. It’s part of the 5% that’s different. So what did his brothers do? They said they were shepherds. What could they do? You’re not allowed to lie on immigration papers.
As the Israelites are being led out of Egypt, they are given one of its most important lessons, which is found in the very first verse of this week’s Biblical reading. “There shall be one law for both the native-born citizen and the sojourner who now dwells amongst you.” After Egyptian slavery, the Israelites know first-hand the evils of magnifying the differences between one people and another, and so legal protections are now enshrined in Biblical law. That was a radical idea thousands of years ago, and unique in the Hebrew Scriptures at the time. Even the greatest Greek philosophers, Plato or Aristotle, did not ascribe to such a radical notion of equality.
Many Jews around the world, particularly in Europe and even in the United Kingdom, are worried that they are increasingly being noted more as being “other” or “different.” There is a lot of anxiety about an increase in anti-Semitism. Some look at the events in Paris and say, “Could London be next?” Thank God, we have not experienced a parallel attack. Even so, anti-Semitic crime is on the rise. So let me address this issue. In Europe generally, this may not be the best of times. However, it is certainly not the worst of times either. Far, far from it. And London is not Paris. I simply don’t experience British society as anti-Semitic. Neither do the vast majority of British Jews that I speak with. Rather, British society as a whole is remarkably tolerant and respectful. While there is an increase in anti-Semitic incidents committed by a relatively small handful of people, we know that our non-Jewish neighbours are as upset about it as we are. We know, too, that government and police leaders are taking it seriously and working to combat it. There has been a continuous Jewish community in Great Britain for nearly 360 years. This is our home and our community is proud to be British. I believe that when all is said and done, and the history books are written about Jewish life in Great Britain, this time period will be remembered as one of the best in history. Rarely has any country anywhere in the world at anytime had it so good. All of the citizens benefit from that, including the Jewish ones. Great Britain is truly great. The United Kingdom is truly united, even in its diversity.
As beautifully diverse as humanity is, and it is diverse, we share in a common humanity. Let us celebrate and always, always remember that.