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Kol Nidre Address 5776/2015

Yom Kippur Appeal

To those of you who do not know me, I am Jonathan Bard and the current president of the OJC, and it is my honour this evening to make the traditional Yom Kippur appeal. Normally, the OJC makes 2 appeals, one for an Israeli charity and one for a UK charity. Tonight I want to make three, even four appeals.

The first appeal is not for your money, but for your help.

The OJC is a community for all of Oxford’s Jews: we are a single organisation with one set of activities, some religious and some secular. On the religious side, we have had held, over the last year regular Orthodox, Masorti, and Liberal services, a quarterly women’s tephilah, a student reform Friday-night service that is sung and the occasional Sephardi service. We rejoice in Jewish Diversity. For our community, we organise events for all ages and interests; supporting everyone from the babes at Playschul, to providing education to all ages and friendship to the elderly and bereaved. And it done by us and for us, alone: we do not have a rabbi - we are a do-it-yourself community. We take responsibility for ourselves.

So my first appeal is for your time. On Rosh Hashanah, Sarah Montagu said, if we don’t do something that you want, let us know and we’ll help you do it. But I want to emphasise that we also need help with what we do now: the OJC needs volunteers for everything, from Kiddush to playshul and from the Mosaic café to Helping Hands. We need to be know that, as our older members age and are able do less, our next generation will start to do more. Without people who help, our ability to support one another, to behave like a proper Jewish community, will decline.

So my appeal is very simple: If you would just like to try helping, or being available to substitute for someone who is ill, or if you want to be occasionally useful, please contact me. Our future, your future as a Jew in Oxford, being part of a Jewish community here, depends on you, on me, on everyone doing their bit for the OJC.

Let me add something else that you may perhaps find surprising: there is an unexpected reward for helping. Everyone who does anything here knows that they get as much as they give: we are a lovely community and contact brings friendship with other volunteers, their children make friends with each other, and we all have a good time. Working together does good to those who help, as well as to those of us, young and old, who benefit from these efforts.

I would now like to turn to the more normal appeal. Those of you who have sat on Council know that what we do there is certainly virtuous but mainly dull. The one time in the year when a topic is guaranteed to bring enthusiasm to the table is the choice of the two Yom Kippur charities whom we will jointly support. Anyone can suggest anything, but we like to choose two charities for whom

  1. the relatively small amounts that we raise in the great scale of things will make a difference rather than just be lost in a great pot
  2. charities with which someone in the OJC has a personal relationship
  3. and particularly charities that mesh with our ethos of tolerance.

Such are our choices tonight. This year, we are actually supporting three charities, and The first is one that has been running for a couple of months and  that, unusually, doesn’t want your money! Re-Specs, a wonderful Israeli charity, just asks us to send them out old pairs of glasses so that they can re-lens them and pass them on to those who need them. We declutter our shelves and cupboards and the poor of Israel further handicapped with poor eyesight benefit.

I am pleased to announce that we now have 65 pairs of glasses to pass on to Re-Specs. For those of you who missed the earlier requests, we will leave the green boxes in the entrance and in the bagel bar out until after simchat torah. So to all of you who wear glasses: Please have one last look for those pairs you no longer want and bring them in.

Our first appeal for your financial help is always for an Israel charity and there is inevitably a big choice. The one that touched Council, however, and will I hope touch you is Forgotten people; this charity supports the Jews who came from Ethiopia, the Beta Israel. This ancient community may be the descendants of the entourage that accompanied Menelik I, the son of King Solomon who returned to Ethiopia with the Queen Sheba around 940 BCE. Alternatively, they may be the descendants of Jews who left the conquered Kingdom of Judah for Egypt after the destruction of the First Temple in 586BC. Either way, this was an old and isolated Jewish community who kept up strict Jewish traditions for more than 2000 years.

Back in the late 1980s, Israel set up operation Moses to help those Beta Israel who wanted to come to their promised land. The story goes that they had never seen a plane before and were frightened to enter such a strange machine. The compelling argument came from their rabbi who reminded them that their return to Israel would be “on the back of an eagle” and so they flew from Ethiopia to Lod airport to achieve their dreams of aliyah and a new life. I was in Edinburgh then and remember that we thought it a privilege to help the Beta Israel to return to their promised land.

However, and this is the sad news, of all the groups from the diaspora who made aliyah, these Ethiopians have fared worst. In Ethiopia, they were poor, peasant farmers sustained by their faith, but their peasant life and limited education did little to equip them to cope with a modern industrialised country.

Those Beta Israel who emigrated in the latter part of the 20th century are Israeli. But, because it was so difficult to cope with Israeli life, many of them dropped out of education and became unemployed or took very low paid work, they are now the lowest of the low in Israeli society. Destitution, domestic violence and crime are still prevalent in these communities and it is hard for them to break the cycles of poverty.

So they have been left behind in their new haven, and the Israeli system has done little to help them. Indeed, they are even oppressed by their new countrymen. We still recall with shame the case of Demas Fekadeh, an Israeli soldier in uniform who was beaten up by the Israeli police last year just because of his Ethiopian origin.

The Forgotten-People charity works hard to help this Ethiopian community: they pay for medical treatment & house repairs, they provide legal assistance and financial advice. Among their successful programmes have been the ‘breakfast club’ for elders, a budgeting course for young married couples and a computer programme where computers and printers are donated by Bar and Bat Mitzvah children – a lovely touch. They also encourage and help teenagers to engage in further education.

Every Jew here is an immigrant or the children or grandchildren or a descendent of immigrants. We identify with Jewish immigrants and it is important that the Ethiopians of Israel feel that the Jews of the Diaspora are on their side. So we need to be as generous to them now as we were in the 1980s when they made their life-changing aliyah.

A moment on the current sad wave of Syrian refugees. I should say that they are being discussed in the OJC. Over Succot, a memorial to our own refugee crisis some 3,200 years ago, there will be mores to be said about this and what we can do.

Our second choice of charity is always a local secular one because the OJC feels strongly that we are part of the wider Oxford community. This charity was the first choice of three members of Council, and the rest agreed with a speed that is frankly unusual in Council. The charity is called See Saw and it helps children who are bereaved because they have lost a brother, a sister or a parent.

I visited Dr Helen McKinnon, the Director, and she told me about their work and I have to say that I was shocked at the scale of a problem, one which I am fortunate never to have had to think about before. Around 1 in 30 children, one in every school class has suffered from the death of a parent, a brother or a sister. These children are traumatised and they just do not know how to react and nor generally does anyone around them. If their grief is not brought out in to the open, it becomes internalised and they can suffer for ever if they are not helped.

SeeSaw helps in two ways: the usual contact is through schools or doctors who realise that bereaved children are suffering and ask SeeSaw to talk to them, and their weekly contacts typically last for a year. This happens perhaps ten times a week. But there is a second problem that they help with. Once a week, they are contacted by the Sobell House hospice because a parent is dying there and whose major concern is what is going to happen to their children after their death. See-Saw volunteers come in, talk to the whole family before the bereavement and counsel the children after the parent has died and help them all to cope with a terrible tragedy. I have spoken to one or two people who have been in this situation themselves, and their immediate response was “why was there no one like this when my spouse or parent or one of my children died”.

To my mind, it is hard to think of a charity that does so much good across all sectors of society and whose aims mesh so well with the support ethos of the OJC. This is a charity that you, we should support because not one of us knows when someone close to us might need their help. And today, they really do need our help: only 10% of their £250K annual costs come from the local authority and the rest has to come from the wider Oxford community.

And how should you give? The instruction to be charitable is found in the remarkable Mediaeval prayer Unetunah tokef that we recited on both high holy festivals

ההַגְּזֵרָ רעַאֶתמַעֲבִירִין וּצְדָקָה וּתְפִלָּהוּתְשׁוּבָה

Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severe Decree.

Repentance and prayer are private, internal behaviours, they are for oneself and for oneself alone. The giving of charity is the external token of our request that the sins of the last year be wiped clean – it is also the token that we are involved in mankind, in both the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds.

As to HOW you should give, the rabbis distinguish 4 sorts of charity.

First: Where you know the recipient but the recipient does not know you.

Second: where the recipient knows the donor but the donor does not know the recipient.

Third: where both know each other and

Fourth: when neither knows the other.

And, say the Rabbis, the greatest of these is the last, where donors are pleased to do anonymous good to people that they do not know, and recipients can accept the gift without having to be embarrassed should they meet up with donors.

This is the opportunity that you now have. To do good in a selfless way, to be kind to people that you do not know but who need your help – it is the outward expression of all the internal prayers that we recite over Yom Kippur.

Donations may be sent in any way you like to Stuart Kenner, our honorary treasurer. For those of you who would like to send a cheque, you will find envelopes outside on the table in the front hall and should make it payable to the OJC KN Appeal. Those of you in e-contact with Stuart, can send a bank transfer, but please mark it KN appeal and send Stuart a confirming email

May I end this appeal by asking you to be more than generous to our charities than you might previously have considered: those whom they support need our help very badly and, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, it is our responsibility to help them.

G'mar Hatimah Tovah - May You Be Sealed for a Good Year

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