Shalom chaverim,

We’ve been very busy here in Israel.  The learning, as always, has been wonderful.  My chevruta partner this morning was the Reform movement’s Chief (only) rabbi of New Zealand.  I’ll be sharing much of what I learned when I return, but in the meantime I want to share with you some things from outside of the Beit Midrash (study hall).

Asylum Seekers in Israel

On Monday, we went to South Tel Aviv to learn about asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan.  There are approximately 47,000 such people currently in Israel.  Yossi Klein Halevi, a prominent Israeli journalist, helped guide us on the day.  As he put it, there are over 60 million refugees and asylum seekers in the world today.  It is a global problem, and those 47,000 African refugees living mostly in Tel Aviv is Israel’s corner of this world issue.  To be clear, these 60 million worldwide or 47,000 in Israel are not people looking to move for a better job.  They are counted in a separate statistic, and Israel certainly has a number of foreign workers.  That number only counts those who are fleeing from war, famine, disease, anarchy and the like.   These 47,000 definitely do not have an easy life.  They had to cross large amounts of land to get to Israel, and they came to Israel because it was the closest developed, stable country that they could reach.  Israel has a rule that if an asylum seeker makes their way into Israel, they will be given food, water and a one way bus ticket to Tel Aviv, which is why so many asylum seekers live in South Tel Aviv–that is where the bus station is.  A few of the asylum seekers are sent to a specially designated holding site in Holon.  This site is much different from the ones in the UK near Heathrow.  The British holding sites for asylum seekers are categorised as maximum security prisons and those who are sent there are treated a maximum security prisoners.  In Holon in Israel, asylum seekers make come and go as they please, so long as they sleep in the centre overnight until their application for asylum is processed.  Once in Israel, it’s a mixed bag.  On the one hand, in general, they are allowed to live and work while they pursue asylum.  On the other hand, the Israeli government is not particularly quick in granting refugee status or asylum status.  To date, only about 200 out of the 47,000 have been granted refugee status.   Furthermore, there is not much government assistance for the asylum seekers.  Many of their children, some born in Israel, are forced to spend most of their time in massively overcrowded day-care centres.  These day-care centres are really not adequate though and several children have recently died in their care because of a lack of staffing, resources and subpar conditions.  As one Israeli told me though, when news of that hit the air, it really caused a bit of outrage in Israel.  As she said, If Israel has a soft spot for anyone, it’s children, no matter where they come from.  So the government has started to allocate more funding and private charities have stepped up their efforts.  Of course, I need to say, Israel was established with a primary goal of taking in refugees that no one else in the world would take.  Many European Jews spent years in displaced persons camp following World War II and the Holocaust.  Israel took them.  There are hardly any Jews anymore in the Middle East outside of Israel.  The other countries made life intolerable for Jews and Israel took them.  Jews have come to Israel from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, and many other places.  Still today Israel is a refuge for Jews that do not feel safe in their home countries.  In the last several years, thousands upon thousands of French Jews have made their way to Israel.  So Israel is definitely succeeding in welcoming in Jewish asylum seekers that no one else is willing to take.  Israel is now faced with the challenge of accepting a share of non-Jewish asylum seekers, just as nearly every other developed and even many developing countries are faced with large numbers of asylum seekers.  As Jews, we are commanded to act justly.  These asylum seekers are certainly victims of grave injustices in the places from where they have fled.  Can they find refuge in the Jewish state?  How about the United Kingdom, or more generally, the European Union?  This is an ongoing question for all of us fortunate enough to live in safe, stable countries.

The Next Generation of Jewish Leaders

On Saturday night there was an alumni event the Hebrew Union College (HUC) where I trained to become a rabbi.  Not only where alumni there, but a fair number of brand new students who just started their training this week.  It was wonderful to meet them, but one thing had me a bit concerned.  The new class of a bit more than thirty students, which includes rabbinic, cantorial and education students, is not even half the size of my class of close to 70.  Over the last seven or eight years specifically, there has been a definite decline in applicants and new students in nearly all non-Orthodox rabbinic seminaries.  While at HUC, I ran into Rabbi Haim Shalom, formerly of Menorah Synagogue in Manchester, who is HUC’s new admissions director.  He’s settling well into his new job and made sure to work the crowd to see if he anyone could identify new applicants.  While HUC will always hold a special place in my heart, Haim and I agreed that any applicants I could identify should be encouraged  to apply to Leo Baeck.  So, with that in mind–have you ever thought of working for the Jewish people?  It’s a demanding and at times challenging position, but there is nothing more rewarding than helping to sustain and pass on a four thousand year old tradition and working to find new meaning for the next generation.  If you or someone you know are interested in becoming a rabbi, please feel free to speak to me.