Bursting The Bubble

This week’s headline in the London Jewish Chronicle is “Mirvis: too many young people live in a bubble”

The Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth has issued a call for young people to do more to help the less fortunate. “Rabbi Mirvis said young Jews “totally” lived in a bubble which led to a lack of understanding of conditions in the wider world.” In the course of promoting the new Ben Azzai Programme the Chief Rabbi made reference to a recent trip to India where he was “taken aback by the disturbing levels of hardship in India’s slums.

This week we read the Parsha of Shoftim, which resonates on matters of justice. Included in the parsha is the eglah arufah, where measurements are made on the distance of a corpse from a town. Through a sacrificial act the elders of the town absolve themselves from the crime of murder.   The Mishnah (Sotah 9:6) extrapolates that although the murder was not directly committed by the townsfolk, they were also unaware of the plight of the victim. The implication is that if we fail to act when we know that people are in existential danger, inclusive of being deprived of basic needs, we are culpable in their deaths.

Whilst alleviating poverty has always been within the frame of Jewish activism, there is no doubt we have lost sight of how to truly make an impact when we undertake to support the less fortunate. Fighting hunger and poverty is critically important, and critically neglected.

Over the past few weeks much has also been said about the generation gap within our Jewish community, in relation to leadership, expectations, and ways of connecting to the community. On the matter of whether we are doing enough to combat hunger, our generations can come together, and all share the same misgiving.

I am one of those who are fortunate to have a generation above me and a generation below me. My wife calls us the sandwich generation. My children contend that there is no middle generation, I’m just as grumpy and outdated in my views as the generation above me. Nonetheless, I find that my concern for economic wellbeing is firmly attached to my family, at the expense and opportunity cost of others to whom I am not related. It is all too easy, especially with so many virtuous requests for philanthropy, to push aside and not take the time to consider the plight of homeless and starving human beings.

The bubble that Rabbi Mirvis refers to is truly one that pervades our insular Jewish community in Perth. We live in an environment that shelters us from people both within and beyond our own community who are unable to buy so much as a loaf of bread. Our social activism is reduced to changing the colour of our facebook profile, colouring our hair, or wearing some type of garment to empathise with a cause (don’t forget to drop in that gold coin). Our problems occur when a child gets a hairline crack in their ipad, or knocks out the plug from their fleecy woollen underlay, or when Coles runs out of stock of soup nuts. We get agitated because it took two minutes longer to get home, or the rubbish got collected late, or because there are too many ads on TV. We have totally lost the plot with our first world problems, and become completely immune and lacking in compassion for what is really important.

As a young child I often observed the frugality of my grandparents OBM who would recycle everything and exercise great thrift. My grandmother Z”L would talk about food rations during the war, and about bartering their produce. She would trade a tin of meat for three eggs. At a young age I had little appreciation for her experience. Today, Baruch Hashem, I realise that my household has never known hardship. However this means there is no call to action and I cannot relate to the reality of the poverty that inflicts more than a fifth of the world’s population.

We are immune to the suffering of others. I was delighted to read Rabbi Mirvis’ call to burst the bubble.

I also found it fascinating to compare the observations of India made by Rabbi Mirvis to those of Rabbi Shalom Coleman, who 50 years ago also travelled to India and wrote of his experience. Rabbi Coleman will I”YH shortly celebrate his 97th birthday. He continues to officiate at the Maurice Zeffert Home and still shares his knowledge and inspiration with indefatigable energy. He towers above three generations below him, and his leadership has directly led to the prosperous Perth Jewish community that we enjoy today.

Rabbi Coleman wrote about his visit to India and his early encounter with the Bnei Menashe in his autobiography “Life is a Corridor” on page 621, as follows:

“Ezekiel took me to the Magen Hasidim “Shield of the Pious” Synagogue where I spent the Friday evening service, and Tiferet Yisrael “Glory of Israel” Synagogue on Saturday morning, and in two unconnected incidents, was rudely awakened to the economic problems of the Bene Israel and their deficiencies in Jewish education.

Sam advised me to spend Shabbat with a respected religiously committed Bene Israel family, and I was grateful for the invitation.

My host and his son, along with the President of the Magen Hasidim Synagogue, my interpreter, took me to their home after the conclusion of the Friday night service. My host had a hand-loom factory and presumably his son worked for him. I should have thought the family were reasonably situated.

It was very dark as I followed him up a winding staircase. However with the reflection of lighting from outside the windows, and it could have been moonlight, I noted that we passed several landings, and finally reached the fifth floor.   It could have been the top of the building because two ladies, my host’s wife and that of his son, were sitting on a parapet which could have enjoyed better security. The drop was all of fifty feet.

The apartment was spotless and Shabbat candles made a heart-warming welcome. As I looked around I discovered it was one room containing a double bed, a card table, and four chairs, and little else.  

I noticed there were about six children lying on the bed, and my host, his son, the president and myself, were invited to occupy the only four chairs I observed around what we should call a card table.

I was duly requested to inaugurate the Sabbath meal with Kiddush.   The “wine” was in the form of two grapes immersed in a third of a small crude glass of water.

The usual custom at this point is to wash hands in order to make a blessing over bread. However, no-one moved. Then I saw there was no bread. I suddenly realised this family had little food.

Our entire meal was made up of a single banana divided into four, a piece for each man at the table.

Traditional or orthodox Jews are forbidden to carry anything on the public highway on Shabbat, otherwise I may have had something arranged for this poor family.

With the children looking on I simply said “Please give them my piece of banana”.   Whereupon the answer was given “The children may care to eat what the Rabbi leaves over”.

It was explained to me that food without the Rabbi’s blessing, ensuring that he tastes it, could be interpreted as an insult. I had hardly licked the piece of fruit when I gave it to the children with my blessing, and thereafter the meal was an interlude of something like two hours of singing Sabbath songs and talking Torah. Before leaving I asked where the son and his family lived. Imagine my astonishment when he pointed to a door in the ceiling! I felt very humble coming from a land of plenty. I thought to myself, if this is how a family with a hand-loom factory lives, then what must be the destiny of my brothers and sisters.

If only the people in the West could see how the Indians live, and my Jewish fraternity experience the beauty and love radiating the faces of this lovely little family, happy with their lot, values might change for the better. Perhaps more consideration for the under-privileged would be in evidence. Life could be easier for everybody. I felt a conflict of emotions arising in me. It was one of distress and admiration.

Rabbi Coleman’s experience in 1970 and Rabbi Mirvis’ experience in 2016 show that time and modernisation has not delivered sufficient progress and there is much to be done. Perhaps there is a way of further connecting our community to initiatives that deliver food to poverty stricken populations?