‘It is eleven days’ journey from Horeb to Kadesh-Barnea by the way of Mount Seir.’ (Deut. 1.2)
Thus begins Moses’s final speech to the Israelites, delivered as we stand on the bank of the River Jordan, looking over into the land that will be our new home. This is the theme of the book of Deuteronomy: how the Israelites will live in the land that they are inheriting.
As I picture this moment of waiting on the shore of a new land, I cannot help but draw parallels with those who currently stand on the other side of the English channel, a similar expectation in the minds of the better life that might await them in the UK. Since the Dubs Amendment was passed in April, the government has said it will take more unaccompanied child refugees, but so far fewer than twenty have actually arrived in the UK, and the government looks set to miss its own meagre target of resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.
Last week I saw a play called Cargo, which reminded its middle-class British audience of just how easily it could have been them in the position of refugees. The Torah already does this for us. More than simply understanding the possibility of being stateless, as Jews we are constantly reminded of the fact that we were refugees, fleeing persecution in the hope of a better life. This week’s parashah, more than providing us with a law, tells us that we ourselves and our history pose a moral imperative not to stand by as whole peoples suffer.
Unaccompanied refugee children across Europe have no prophet. They have no divine assurances of their survival, as we had on the shores of the Jordan. Instead, they face the daily horrors of hunger and exposure to the elements, and the attempt to find illegal means of getting across the divide. Instead, in part at least, it is up to us – our action or inaction – to determine what will happen to these children. Whatever it is that we can do, we cannot stand by and do nothing.
But what can we, as individuals, actually do? Here are a few suggestions:
Donate money to help unaccompanied refugee children find safe routes into the UK (http://safepassage.org.uk).
Write to the leader of your local council and ask them to commit to taking in unaccompanied refugee children (you can find out who you need to write to here). The process of finding foster families can take 6 months or more, so the quicker councils commit, the better.
If you’re a landlord, join the Homes for Resettled Refugees Register. Many of our reform and liberal synagogues are involved in recruiting landlords within their membership, but I’m sure there are still many out there, and perhaps you know someone outside of the community who you can persuade to get involved.
Visit Calais – in December my dad and I spent a day in Calais, volunteering at the warehouse that services the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp. We spent all day sorting clothes that were not really suitable for the designated recipients – more and more was arriving, but it is a full-time operation to sort through it all. They are also always looking for people with healthcare, legal, and construction skills. (You can register your interest in volunteering here.)
As we finished our reading of the book of Numbers last Shabbat we recited the formula for finishing any book of the Torah: hazak, hazak, venithazek (‘strength, strength, let us be strengthened’). I think we need the strength for the book of Deuteronomy, more perhaps than for any other book, to have the conviction and courage to carry out the justice that it demands of us, starting this Shabbat.
Elliott Karstadt 1st year LBC Rabbinic student