On the 100th Session of the Drop-In Centre for Destitute Asylum Seekers
There are three overwhelming reasons why we should care for the wellbeing of those seeking asylum from persecution.
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
All of them are deeply rooted in basic and central Jewish teachings, as well, I’m sure, as in the teachings of other faiths, and in broad humanitarian values.
The first is loving-kindness. ‘Feed the hungry, clothe the naked and free the oppressed’, teaches the prophet Isaiah. This is what God wants of us. ‘Do not hide from your own flesh’, he concludes. Just as we are all made in the image of God and all life is sacred, so too we are all composed of blood and nerves; we all feel pain, need food, warmth and shelter. We are not allowed to ‘hide’; that is, to contrive to avoid noticing the suffering of other people, or to claim that it is not our business. It is our direct concern.
Secondly, the central story of the Jewish People is the journey from slavery to freedom. We were slaves to Pharaoh; God delivered us from the house of bondage and guided us on the path to liberty. You shall love the stranger, teaches the Torah, because you yourselves were strangers in the Land of Egypt and you therefore know what the life of an outcast is like. There is no day in the entire year when we don’t repeat that story; it is the moral touchstone of Jewish values. Out of the experience of injustice, cruelty and the stripping away of our dignity, we must come to learn the essential importance of justice, loving-kindness and respect for all humanity. Just as we longed for the protection of justice when we were outcasts, so we must show justice and kindness to those who are ‘outcasts’ today.
Thirdly, history, down to recent decades, has made Jewish people all too aware of what it means to be marginalised, alienated, and scapegoated. Jewish people know what it feels like to be society’s ‘other’, to be the victim of racism, religiously motivated contempt, suspicion, prejudice and hatred. The experience of trying desperately to escape from encircling death is vivid in Jewish memory. Those who were fortunate reached a foreign land, were fearful about the fate of their family, uncertain of the future and usually destitute. They had to begin from nothing, far from those they knew and loved. Sometimes hands reached out in kindness; it is our desire to be such hands towards others now.
But the Drop-In is not an exercise in doing what we’ve been taught. My experience is that it is rooted in human warmth and solidarity, in being together to do what we can for one another. Volunteers have come forward, Jews, Christians, Muslims, people of no particular faith, people of all ages from their teens to their eighties, because they like being together with those who come to this centre, because we feel human contact and understanding and that, by God’s grace, we are able to help each other. Together, we help each other to see and share a wider and deeper humanity. One of the great achievements of the Drop-In is that it has brought together so many people from different backgrounds to find one another and work together in a common cause valued by all.
I am extremely grateful to those whose brain-child this Drop-In was, those who turned it into a reality and those who have worked at it ever since, to ensure that there are enough volunteers, that it runs smoothly and appropriately, that sufficient funding is available, that people who come here receive food, clothing, medical and above all legal help and that the atmosphere is cheerful and kind. But the most important appreciation lies in what one lady whom I had never met before said to me last September: ‘I thank God, whose grace has enabled your communities to serve Him by helping us’.