Recently I went to a meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly, which is a sort of talking shop / workshop for Progressive Rabbis. This was one of the meetings for Rabbis from both Progressive Movements, LJ and MRJ. I was invited to be there as a student observer and it was one of the most interesting days I’ve had yet as a student rabbi, listening to the rabbis discussing the future of the Movements and in what ways we could come together more. I came away with the very definite feeling that the future of Progressive Judaism in this country is in safe hands.
Deborah Kahn-Harris, the Principal of the Leo Baeck College, told the Assembly about the College’s recent QAA inspection and report – they do a thorough survey every five years. Apparently they were delighted and somewhat amazed at the level of enthusiastic support the students gave the College and Faculty. We told them how much we enjoy the process of learning and the feeling of being supported by the Faculty. The five year training we receive is really a joint project undertaken between the teachers and the students with a sense of loyalty and friendship for our shared enterprise.
I should like to tell you another story of loyalty and friendship and even love that we all heard that day from our keynote speaker, an impressive young Moslem Dr Waqar Azmi, who has set up a charity called “Remembering Srebrenica”, dedicated to ensuring that horrors like the Holocaust and Srebrenica will not happen again. Which in this age of Trumps and Le Pens is a big ask, but one that I hope most Jews in this country would subscribe to.
In 1992 Bosnia was on fire; Moslems, Serbs and Croats were all at each others’ throats. Between twenty and fifty thousand women were systematically raped during that war, and in 1995 nearly 8400 men and boys were massacred at once in Srebrenica, under the command of General Ratko Mladic´. The survivors of the war are still trying to put their lives into some kind of order in a new ‘normality’.
Let’s go back for a moment to the 1940s and our own special horrors. On January 27th, we commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – our own Holocaust Day Remembrance. Here is the story we heard from our keynote speaker, about two families of Sarajevo, one Moslem and one Jewish. It has a bearing both on the catastrophes that happened to Jews in World War 2 and the Moslems of Sarajevo in the Bosnian War of 1992 – 1995.
When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia and seized Sarajevo in 1941, the Jewish families were either destroyed on the spot or enslaved: some perhaps were shipped off to the camps. One Moslem family, the Hardagas, hid a Jewish family, the Kabiljos, in their home – the two men were friends and partners in a furniture business. Eventually the Kabiljo women and children were able to flee to Mostar, also in Bosnia, but under Italian control. Mr Kabiljo was captured by the Nazis and sent to a slave camp. Mrs Hardaga used to take him food until he was able to escape and the Hardagas hid him once again. The head of the family at that time was Ahmad Sadik. He was murdered by the Nazis for helping Jewish families by writing Christian names into forged identity documents, so that the Hardagas could help them escape, as the Kabiljo women and children had done. Eventually the Kabiljos settled in Jerusalem and told Yad Vashem their story. In 1984, Ahmad Sadik and his family were named ‘Righteous among the Nations’.
Cut now to 1992 and the start of the Bosnian War. The Kabiljo family did everything they could to get the Hardagas out of Sarajevo. But try as they might they could not even make contact, because all communications were down. At last they got a message through via an Israeli journalist and heard back that some of the women of the Hardaga family were still alive.
Yad Vashem was able to organize the Hardagas onto a six bus convoy that brought Moslem refugees out of shattered Sarajevo; but could not get them out of the country. Eventually the Kabiljos appealed to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and he wrote to the President of Bosnia about the Hardaga family. They were then permitted to leave and chose to follow the Kabiljos to Jerusalem.
There is a postscript to this story: Sara, the daughter, became Jewish and actually now works for Yad Vashem.
An amazing story: but we can all multiply examples of loyalty and friendship from our reading, or general knowledge and, I suspect, even in our own lives. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as the story above, but each of us can bring about acts of love and kindness towards people we know well, or just come into contact with on a casual basis. Simple things like giving someone a lift when they need it, or cooking a meal, or inviting someone into your home – there are hundreds of things we can all do for each other, whether the ‘other’ is Jewish, German, British, Moslem or whatever.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has lately reminded us in his online D’var Torah of Hannah Arendt’s thoughts (in her book ‘The Human Condition’) about forgiveness. She believed that forgiveness between individuals and peoples marked the difference between tragedy and hope. Without forgiveness both the world and the individuals in it are stuck in a state of hatred and recrimination and revenge: so yes, forgiveness is an absolute necessity. But I think that friendship and love, compassion where it’s needed and understanding of others are all just as important for human beings to flourish. I want friendship as well as forgiveness, and the everyday will serve – meals shared, laughter enjoyed together, help offered in small (or large) ways: this is how understanding of each other is gained and emotional support for each other is made possible.
We don’t all have to be heroes: but we should all behave to each other as members of the same human family – a family, that is, at its best; remembering that we are all made in God’s image. And if we love God, then we can and should love each other, for we are all made in the image of God. In Charles Kingsley’s famous words “do as you would be done by” or as our own Bible says –
Ve’ahavtah lerayechah kamochah – Love your neighbour as yourself.
May this be God’s will for each and all of us.
Student rabbi Dr Roberta Harris-Eckstine