Many Jews will go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, hear the shofar, dip the apple in the honey. It is a Jewish festival after all. But it is a festival unlike any other. Often a festival has a connection to a piece of Jewish foundation history.
It could be Pesach and the Exodus, Shavuot and the Giving of the Torah, Succot and the national trek through the desert. Even Yom Kippur represents the return of God’s presence to the Jewish nation after the worshipping of the golden calf. But Rosh Hashanah? If anything, it is understood as the anniversary of the creation of the world.
Rosh Hashanah is a festival with a wider span. In my mind, rather than being a festival of withdrawal, it emphasises our place in the wider world and our deep responsibility to influence it and bring about change. We will hopefully be surrounded by community in synagogue, eat meals with our close or extended family, enjoy dipping the apple in the sweet honey with those we love. Some may even go as far as eating from a fish head! There is a groundedness and a sense of blessing at Rosh Hashanah.
But none of this applies to the individuals that we at HIAS+JCORE are supporting and advocating for. Through our befriending programme, JUMP, we are supporting young people who are seeking asylum here. They don’t have community. They have left their family behind. They are not allowed by law to work here and subsist on around £47 a week. If they have been placed in a hotel, they live on £9 a week. For comparison by the way, in the UK in 2022, the relative poverty line after housing costs was £150 a week.
In fact, for a number of years now, conditions for those seeking asylum here in the UK are extremely difficult, and with new legislation are getting worse. It is now becoming almost impossible to claim asylum in the UK, a reality that runs against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On Rosh Hashanah, we raise up our voice in prayer to God. We may well talk to our friends and neighbours in synagogue. We will have fun and laugh with our family. Those seeking asylum do not often have a voice. In our team, we often find ourselves being the voice of those we support, helping with housing issues, health issues and issues of poverty.
But we are creating a community around JUMP. We are bringing our many be-frienders and their be-friendees together for picnics and other social events. We want to allow them some sense of family, even though not fully real.
You too can be a be-friender by the way. It does not take up loads of your time and delivers such important support. If you would like to register and find out more, just click here.
Our ambition at HIAS+JCORE is to be an advocating and lobbying force for refugees and asylum seekers while building programmes that support them. There are so many changes that are needed in the asylum system to make it more compassionate and less traumatic. We will stand with other refugee organisations and work with them in order to bring about such changes.
Doing this will involve mobilising support from across the Jewish community. Whether you are involved in a community or not we would love you to help us tap into the community’s values of compassion and responsibility and use these values to support the many asylum seekers in need. The Jewish community has many internal challenges, and it has the ability to take on these challenges and move through them. Let’s not forget the good we can do outside the community.
On Rosh Hashanah, many believe that God created the world. It would not be a perfect world. Perfecting it was down to us. But he created the whole world, with all its subsequent peoples and cultures.
When we fled Europe in our masses because of Nazi persecution, there were many in the west who saw us as a threat. Let’s ensure this Rosh Hashanah that we don’t look at those running from their countries because of persecution as threats. Let’s do the Jewish thing, be their voice and give them a supportive, helping hand.
- David Mason is executive director of HIAS+JCORE, the UK Jewish Voice on Refugees and Racial Justice
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