IN FOCUS: How the Jewish community has mobilised to help refugees

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IN FOCUS: How the Jewish community has mobilised to help refugees

Refugees welcome sign
Refugees welcome sign

The Jewish community has mobilised to help refugees, raising £85,000 in 48 hours 

The Jewish community has rallied to the plight of refugees from the Middle East, with David Cameron describing the country’s efforts as “the modern equivalent of the Kindertransport”, writes Stephen Oryszczuk.

Earth-shattering images of drowned children lying face down on a Turkish beach last week galvanised the community to call on the government to do more, as many sought to take action directly.

Refugees try to make their way through barbed wire on the Hungarian border ( Photo: Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed. Source Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

An emergency appeal by World Jewish Relief -was launched on Monday to provide food, shelter and emergency materials to refugees in Turkey and Greece. It drew immediate support, with £85,000 pledged by Wednesday morning, by charity chiefs said much more was needed. Synagogue movements across the religious spectrum, as well as the major communal organisations and charities, supported the call for money.


A round-table meeting was convened for Thursday, chaired by Board of Deputies’ senior vice-president Richard Verber. The purpose it to create a “cross-communal response” to the crisis, he said.

Meanwhile, rabbis and cantors from the charity Tzelem UK wrote to the prime minister, saying: “The Jewish community will help in finding homes for shelter… We will raise funds for food, clothing and education.”

Verber, who is also campaigns manager at WJR, said: “We’ve received lots of calls and emails from supporters offering to take in refugee families.”

Synagogues of all denominations also got involved. People sought to help in practical ways, from shul drop-ins and shelters, to campaigns targeting local councils.

Among the first to react was Finchley Progressive Synagogue, which began looking for landlords for 50 Syrian refugee families in Barnet, the rent for which will be paid directly by the European Union for two years. Elsewhere, at places like West London Synagogue, Alyth Synagogue and New North London Synagogue, networks of volunteers were formed to lay on drop-in centres for asylum seekers and refugees, offering hot meals, grocery vouchers, clothing, companionship and advice.

Several members also went down to Harmondsworth Detention Centre to make initial contact, while Masorti Young Adults began collecting resources to support refugees ahead of their trip to Calais over Sukkot.

At Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue and Borehamwood & Elstree United Synagogue, banners were unfurled, reading “Refugees Welcome,” as clothing and other items were dropped off and collected at places like Mill Hill shul. Many offered their places of worship as temporary night shelters for refugees, in the event of an overflow.

4 Refugees welcome
A banner unfurled at Northwood and Pinner shul

Across the capital, community members mobilised in any way they could. Students took to blogs, interfaith co-ordinators liaised with Christian and Muslim communities, and different denominations came together to share expertise.

It was the same story across Europe. Across the Channel, French Chief Rabbi Chaim Korsia urged Europe’s leaders to match the actions of non-Jews who saved Jews from the Nazis by welcoming Syrian refugees, while Italian Jewish leader Renzo Gattegna urged the community to provide aid and welcome refugees, as communities in Florence and Milan worked with civic authorities to source accommodation.

Some 300,000 people have risked their lives to come to Europe this year, a phenomenon WJR chief executive Paul Anticoni described as “the greatest refugee crisis since WW2.” Liberal Judaism chief executive Rabbi Danny Rich said it was “the biggest moral challenge to face Europe for a generation”.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who initially resisted calls to take refugees, later agreed the UK would take 20,000 refugees – mainly children – from Syrian camps. He said it was “the modern equivalent of the Kindertransport”.

Sir Mick Davis, the head of Cameron’s Holocaust Commission and chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, said Britain had a “moral imperative” to help, and that the UK had welcomed Jews fleeing from the Nazis in the 1930s, so should not now “shut itself off”.

At the Holocaust Education Trust dinner on Monday, Business Secretary Sajid Javid said: “If we look the other way… then we are no better than those who tried to bar the door against Jewish refugees two generations ago.” 

Arbeitsbesuch von Bundesminister Sebastian Kurz in Mazedonien. Besuch der FlŸchtlingsstršme am GrenzŸbergang Gevgelija. Mazedonien, 24.08.2015, Foto: Dragan Tatic
Thousands of migrants made their way to Germany where they have been offered refuge

Everyone agreed that, for Jews, this issue was close to the heart. “Many Jews wouldn’t be here today without our ancestors finding shelter as refugees,” said Anticoni. “Just as the Jewish community did not stand idly by in the 1930s, our community must once again come together to take action to support those fleeing violence, war and persecution.”

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis supported WJR’s appeal, saying: “As Jews, many of us have family members who were refugees. Our heritage must inform our response to this deep and tragic humanitarian emergency. I urge our Jewish community to provide a compassionate response at this great time of need.”

Other religious leaders added weight. Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner said the crisis had “touched our community in a way we have not seen before,” adding: “When we look across at Calais and beyond, we see ourselves… Future generations will judge Britain against its response today.”

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism, said: “We see with horror the pictures of the drowned, the hungry and the exhausted, and remember that only a generation ago our parents were refugees, desperate for somewhere to let them in and allow them to live.”

North of the border, Ephraim Borowski of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities echoed those sentiments, in a letter with other faith leaders, saying: “Our faiths in their different ways are rooted in the refugee experience, in what it means to be forced to leave a place where one’s very existence is threatened in search of somewhere safer.” year.”

• To donate to World Jewish Relief’s crisis appeal, which will provide food, shelter and emergency materials to refugees in Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece, where the need is greatest, visit:

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 12.24.21Further Information:

1. West London Synagogue

Collection: Open during office hours Monday-Thursday to receive the following items:
  • Trainers, Hiking boots and Wellies – UK sizes 7-9 only (EU 41-43)
  • Tents, covers and tarpaulins
  • Warm jackets – S and M only
  •  Travelling bags
  • Socks
  • Candles
  • Belts
  • Tracksuit trousers
  • Jeans
  • Blankets
  • Sleeping bags
  • Soap and shampoo
  • Toothbrushes and toothpaste
  • Plastic bags
  • Woolly Hats
  • Socks
  • Pots and pans
 Please no women’s or children’s clothes or men’s clothes in large sizes
Contact: Nic Schlagman – and 020 7535 0270 – WLS is at 33 Seymour Place, W1H 5AU
Drop-In for asylum seekers – Link to latest info:
Recruiting for volunteers for befriending asylum seekers at Harmondsworth Detention Centre with Detention Action and for volunteers for English language classes beginning in January.

2. Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue

Oaklands Gate, Northwood HA6 3AA.
Items can be dropped off between 9:30 and noon each weekday or by prior arrangement with the office on 01923 822592.
Contact Rabbi Lea if you have questions on 07980197779

3. New North London Synagogue

The latest information on the asylum-seekersr drop-in centre

4. Borehamwood Shul:

Open Sunday 20 September 8- 11am.
Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue – In aid of Calais: Solidarity from the UK. Check the Shul website for more information. 
Further details regarding the shul collection are here:

5. Alyth Synagogue:

For more information on the refugee drop-in centre
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