The Mazkir Reflects – Rafi Cohen

“What a week it has been, and it’s only Tuesday.”

Rafi Cohen, Mazkir

I said these words on Monday evening as the clock approached midnight. It did indeed feel like a week had passed with so many incredible, moving and touching events tying together the previous few days. Let me take you through those events and tie together some semblance of meaning.

Over Shabbat I heard several times from Rav Gidon Weitzman, originally a Cardiff BAnik who now heads the English-speaking section of Machon Puah, the institute bringing together fertility, intimacy, medicine and halacha. Each time he spoke he challenged those assembled to think carefully about our own preconceived notions and personal priorities as we grappled with one ethical dilemma or another.

When he spoke to a gathering of Bogrim at a Melave Malka hosted by the Kenigsbergs, he challenged us to go one step further, to realise the connections that tie us together and that bond the Jewish people, no matter where we are from in the world, are stronger than any other. We can feel closer to someone from halfway around the world, just because we are both Jewish, than to our own next-door neighbours.

Each time Rav Weitzman spoke, it was infused with a deep love of Israel and full of hope for a bright future. He spoke about an emergent ‘nusach Yisraeli’ and the merging of the nuschaot and minhagim as disparate Jewish cultures mix together in Israel. He spoke of Charedi integration and service and viewed the internal social struggles of Israeli society through a lens that made me think “maybe things might actually turn out ok!”

On Sunday Bnei Akiva was privileged to be invited to the inter-school round of Chidon HaTanach UK. It was an amazing to watch young Jews who had so clearly invested a huge amount of time and love into the study of Tanach, and a huge shout out must go to those of our Chanichim who were representing their respective schools!

Then came Monday. I don’t think I have ever had such a Monday.

As a former student of City of London School, I was invited to a special Rosh Chodesh Shacharit as the school’s Jewish Society has recently been the recipient of a Sefer Torah. During my time as a student, with no Torah, we could only daven Shacharit in school on certain mornings of the week. Access to a Torah (as far as I am aware the only non-Jewish School now in possession of a Torah) is a game changer to the lives of Jewish boys in their formative years in the school. Amongst the guests were the grandfather of a current student (another of our Chanichim), who had attended City in his time, as was Rabbi Moshe Levy of Chazak, who regularly teaches at JSoc lunches.

At the celebratory breakfast, Rabbi Moshe gave a message of thanks to school and staff for their unwavering commitment to provide an atmosphere where boys of all faiths and none can grow, develop and learn in parallel with maintaining a strong pride in their unique, individual heritages and faiths. He also encouraged the students, current and former, to realise what a blessing this was, to always keep the Torah close, to guard and protect it, and to bring it with us whenever we step out into the world.

Next on Monday, I travelled to the offices of the Board of Deputies for a very special meeting[i]. Representatives from across Anglo-Jewry, young and old, religious and secular, leaders and laypeople, had the chance to hear from Dolkun Isa, the President of the World Uyghur Congress, representing the 11 million minority ethnic group who live in the Xinjiang Region in north-west China. The Uyghurs currently face terrible degrees of oppression, curtailment of rights, and anywhere between 1-3 million may be currently held in over 1,000 concentration camps (which China refers to as Vocational Education and Training Centers).

Mr Isa told us his personal account, of seeing the resources and rights of his community being repeatedly impinged, of setting up youth camps to educate the young of the community and preserve their culture and identity, of leading student protests and being put under house arrest and kicked out of university. Eventually Mr Isa left his family as he fled China, with Chinese propaganda labelling him as a terrorist causing him to be detained in airports across Europe. In 1996 he established the Uyghur Youth Congress in Germany and eight years later he helped establish the World Uyghur Congress.

His story was a harrowing one, and one which sounded all too familiar; curtailment of rights, destruction of mosques, propaganda, executions, rapes, concentration camps, and a world seemingly standing by out of fear of a great superpower. Worse than standing by, many countries are even working closely together with China, sharing trade deals and importing skills and technology (Huawei 5G anyone?). There are even parallels with the fact that China is hosting the Olympic games! We asked what we could do. “Tell people, teach people, you know what this was like.”

These messages resounded in my head over and over throughout the afternoon as I headed to the Holocaust Memorial Day at Westminster’s Central Hall. As we heard from Holocaust survivors, from survivors of more recent atrocities, from religious leaders, and from Prince William.

I was sat up in the gallery with members of other Youth Movements, and I could see that all the speakers had notes in front of them and that there was an autocue at the back of the hall. Nothing wrong with that, the ceremony was being broadcast after all. But one speaker had no notes and did not use the autocue, and it seemed to enhance the idea that he was speaking from the heart. Chief Rabbi Mirvis spoke fluently, movingly and beautifully about choice. 75 years ago, we had no choice, were deported on the whims of others, we went left or right on the whims of others, the we lived or died at the whims of others.

Today we are blessed to live in a time where we can choose. We have freedoms like never before. But the Chief Rabbi exhorted us to realise that in some things we do not get to choose, when it comes to memory, and taking a stand to make the world a better place we do not get a choice, we have an obligation.

To finish my long weekend, I was taken to see ‘Come From Away’ (for a second time!), a brilliant musical about the flights which were diverted when American airspace closed on 9/11, and one community, Gander in Newfoundland, Canada, that doubled in size taking on 6,000 guests at no notice for around five days.

It is an incredibly moving musical and I can’t sing its praises highly enough. In one particularly emotional scene a local hears that a Rabbi has been diverted and is now in town. The local seeks out the Rabbi to tell him his story and to finally reveal to one person what he hadn’t in over 50 years:

“I was born in Poland, I think. And my parents — they were Jews — they sent me here before the war started — I still remember some of the prayers they taught me. As a boy, I was told I should never tell anyone I was Jewish. Even my wife. But after what happened on Tuesday [9/11] — so many stories gone — just like that. I needed to tell someone.”

Framed against a backdrop of people of all faiths praying for peace, interwoven will the classic tune of oseh shalom bimromav, it is a gut-wrenching cry for what has been lost, and what may yet be rebuilt from the ashes.[ii]

“So what?” I hear you asking, “Okay very nice you were lucky to go to a few meetings and events…and? What is the point of these ramblings?”

The point is this. I used to think we were a generation without a cause, that we struggled to find direction. Arieh Handler and the founders of Bnei Akiva UK helped to provide a home for Jewish children from Europe during the Holocaust. The next generation had the original Hachshara and took their skills to literally build the land from scratch. The next had to fight to protect Israel in war and the next fought to free the Refuseniks from behind the iron curtain.

What is our calling?

I believe our calling is to be active choosers, to make the conscious decision to be part of the story, when it would be so easy not to be.

  1. Rav Weitzman reminded me how powerful it is when we choose to connect to Jews throughout the world and when we choose to see the hand of God in daily life in Israel.
  2. Shacharit at City reminded me how powerful it is when we chose to keep the Torah with us and part of our daily life.
  3. Dolkun Isa reminded how important it is to choose to act.
  4. The national Holocaust Memorial Day event and Come From Away reminded how important it is to remember all the individual stories that make up our history.
  5. Chief Rabbi Mirvis reminded me how none of these things are choices, they are all obligations.

And how am I choosing to be active? I am proud to be the Mazkir of a Tnua that will see around 750 Chanichim, Madrichim, Technical Tzevet and Shlichim coming on Summer Machane in a number of months. Over Machane we will find time to pass on Dolkun Isa’s message. I want each person to write a letter which we will copy four times, sending one to the Foreign Office, one to the Chinese Embassy, one to the Israeli Embassy and one to the German Embassy, I want this to be taken up on future Machanot, I don’t want anyone to forget or go about their daily lives while there are concentration camps in the world. Because we have been there. We felt alone and we died alone. I want the Uyghurs to know that someone stands with them.

Read up, spread the word, tell others how they can act. In these parshiot we tell the story of our nation’s freedom from oppression.

Let us remember our past, remember that we were oppressed, and prevent others from experiencing the same fate.

Shabbat Shalom!

[i] Read more about the meeting here.

[ii] The Rabbi was Levi Sudak from Edgware Lubavitch. To hear his version of the story (perhaps more incredible than the musical makes it out to be), watch this interview with him at Edgware United Synagogue.

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