I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at St Pancras on Tuesday morning. I had been invited to go to understand a little more of the “Safe Passage” initiative of Citizens UK, who we are supporting as one of our High Holy Day charities. The meeting place an innocuous grey door on a busy thoroughfare at the heart of St Pancras station. What you would never know as you rush past to get a coffee or to board your train is that that innocuous grey door is the gateway to a new life for many: that grey door is the British border.
A woman in a suit stood so anxiously I assumed she must be there for the same reason as me and I introduced myself. She was indeed the solicitor working on the case. She was waiting for the grey door to open and for her to be called through. She had been working on this case for many months in Calais and she was awash with emotion in the hope this case was about to be won. She explained we were waiting for Mawaz, an 11-year-old unaccompanied minor who has spent the last year in the Calais Jungle. She’d had a text from her colleague in France to say they had thrown him a little party at the Jungle that morning as everyone was so excited that his life was about to begin anew and now he was safely on the Eurostar. A Baptist minister who has been volunteering in Calais for months and a couple of Citizens staff also joined us. They all knew Mawaz from the Jungle. As a very cuddly 11-year-old, once you meet him you don’t forget him. Their excitement for him was infectious.
Three men of Arab origin stood near us clearly trying to hear what we were saying. I asked them if they too were waiting for Mawaz. The three men had just met by the door, each one waiting for a relative from Calais aboard the same train. One was waiting for his brother last seen nine years ago in Syria, another was waiting for his brother last seen four years ago in Germany and the third was Mawaz’s uncle who had not seen Mawaz since he was a toddler as he had moved to Manchester.
As Mawaz’s solicitor was called through we stood waiting with commuters bustling past us. Mawaz’s uncle asked why I was there and I explained that I was the rabbi of a synagogue raising money for Safe Passage to pay for solicitors like Mawaz’s to enable unaccompanied children to be reunited with relatives in the UK. All three men looked at me confused and asked “but why would you?” I explained that my great grandparents Nathan and Pearl Mann, like many other British Jews at the time, met a little boy named Walter off of a train in 1939. He had no family with him but he was fleeing war so they gave him a new chance at life as they brought him into their home to live with my grandma and her sisters. He became a successful businessman, because he was given a chance to escape an adult conflict and to be a child again. I want the same for Mawaz and children like him today. All three men were crying, thank you for helping us but more importantly they asked about how they could get involved in Safe Passage and get their communities to help other children.
When I told them about Nathan and Pearl Mann my great grandparents I wasn’t really telling them the whole story. You see if we’d had a little longer to talk and to go back a few more generations I’d have liked to have started with those verses that we heard this morning even though they feel so wrong at Rosh Hashanah as they transport us to our Seder table. What I really should have said to them was
“Arami oved avi”
A wondering Aramean was my father, he was a refugee who flourished for generations and then suffered persecution but because he was liberated from Egypt I am commanded at every harvest, whenever I feel blessed with all I have, to not just remember my meagre beginnings but to use that knowledge of myself and my feeling of redemption to compel me to be a source of redemption for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. My great grandparents knew that was their responsibility now while I am still able to count my blessings I need to feel my calling to be responsible and a source of others redemption too. How much more tangible a way of answering that deuteronomic plea than bringing the stranger, the fatherless out of a refugee camp, out of squalor and into the security of the home of his uncle, his own flesh and blood.
When Mawaz came through the grey door a few minutes later he threw his arms around anyone who looked like they were sharing in his joy of this new beginning he had been given. He just kept saying “England” with a questioning air of disbelief and almost as if he was checking – is this really the land flowing with milk and honey that people told me of when I set off with my parents on our journey, here two years previously and here I arrive alone, into the arms of this man my parents taught me to love before I even knew him? Arriving with literally nothing but a scruffy bum bag tied round his waist he just oozed love and thanks in the most innocent way – for the border control officials, his solicitor, even for a random Rabbi and Baptist minister. We looked like any other group meeting people off the train but we did get some interesting looks as there were no more than eight of us, but old and young, Jew, Christians and Muslim and all of us with tears rolling down our faces.
In the Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah (33b) there is a whole discussion around what the different calls of the shofar should sound like. What is a Teruah? How do we translate the word to know what it should sound like, the rabbis ask. They find the sound in the cry of Sisera’s mother. As she stood at the window in the realisation that he was not going to return she sobbed for her son and therefore the Teruah is the constantly broken note like her uncontrollable crying. Rabbi Edward Feld unpacks this amazing piece of Talmud. He unravels the extraordinary idea that in the sound of the shofar we should hear the cries of the other. In the Book of Judges Sisera is the Canaanite general who oppressed Israel. It’s Deborah the prophetess who rallies the troops against him but Yael kills him in the most gruesome of ways. It is the victory song of Deborah in Tanach that includes a line depicting the mother of Sisera, watching at the window crying as she realises he is not coming back. So why do the rabbis of the Talmud want us to hear the sobbing cries of Sisera’s mother when we hear the shofar when the victory of Deborah is such a triumph as she saved Israel?
Rabbi Feld says “on Rosh Hashanah we are to feel not only the pride of victory but the pain that was caused to the mother of our enemy even when we fought in a righteous cause. If the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is to signal the final redemption, if we hear in it a taste of messianic longing we should realise that the moment of redemption can only arrive when we are able to incorporate the pain of our enemy within our own longing.”
When the world is in turmoil we cannot see race or creed, we cannot look to protect “our own” we just have to listen out for the weeping of others and only when our conscience is pricked because of the sobbing and we do not question its source, before we see our responsibility to comfort only then will we see a glimpse of whatever you want to call a better world: God’s kingdom, redemption.
After Mawaz’s excitement had died down his uncle put his arm around him and led him off into the station to continue their journey back to his house in Manchester. I watched them walk off and get lost in the crowd, praying for them that to Mawaz Britain would always be the country that took him in when others left him to fend for himself and that knowledge would turn him into a loyal citizen. A hope that he would remember the Baptist minister and Rabbi who greeted him that day and know what goodness can be created when we are able to see what unites us and a wish that he will make the most of every aspect of this new opportunity to live life and that he will soon be working hard at school determined to make a better life for himself in the future. What had brought us there? The simple sound of the shofar blast, the chance to hear the cries of the other and the compulsion to act.
As we turn to page 627 and our Elul psalm, we hear that shofar blast.