We no longer have the right to preach our ways

Friday-night kiddush in shul makes me feel like crying. Perhaps you know this quaint little ritual. The rabbi, or cantor, or someone important, pours a full chalice of grape juice at the end of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, turns to the congregation and intones the Friday night benediction over the cup. The problem is kiddush doesn’t count halachically unless accompanied by a meal. This meal-less kiddush is simply a vestigial throwback to the time when people used to eat their Shabbat supper in the synagogue. Now it remains as one of those nostalgic Jewish anachronisms, like the second Yekum Purkan. Each week leaves a sad cup of half-drunk juice for the caretaker to deal with.

Friday-night kiddush in shul fills me with hope, for it’s not hard to envision just who was eating Friday-night meals in warm wooden shuls in the shtetle – the poor, the travellers, the homeless.

It’s not difficult to set the scene. Each week, as the service would end, the rabbi would say kiddush over the wine and invite all those who had nowhere to eat to stay behind, near the stove, with a bit of challah, some soup perhaps. The shul doors would remain open, and all those who were hungry could indeed come and eat.

Fast-forward to my shul today. Take the Shabbat-morning kiddush as our sample. The sushi, nestled next to the rugalach, with the crackers and dips right behind. And we all dig in, eat off little plastic plates and drink from little plastic cups, and then, after devouring all that (and filling about four heaving bin-bags), we all go home and eat some more. And so few of us were ever hungry to begin with.

Because there are scant Jewish poor in our cities, these rituals that once served the downtrodden are now empty and tokenistic. The shabbat-day kiddush reminds us to welcome the stranger at our gates. But our shul gates are locked, our security on high alert. For the poor stranger, the message is clear: ignore our liturgical promises, this is a place only for Jews.

Nominally, this sounds like a whinge from the interfaith left. “Open our synagogues when hate-crime is on the rise? Are you nuts?

“Follow the lead of so many churches (and more than a few mosques, Hindu temples and gurdwaras) and respond to the rising tide of absolute hunger in our neighbourhoods by creating a soup kitchen for the poor in the empty shul hall? Meshuganneh! The goyim will trief up the place.” (This was the response I actually had after floating the idea to one well-heeled synagogue).

But just recently, Dame Louise Casey issued a report on the state of (dis)integration of British society. Her conclusions were stark: The less integrated we are as a nation, the greater the economic and social costs we face – estimated as some £6billion a year. Our shut synagogue doors; our traditional Jewish school curriculum under the fatwa of the Beth Din which specifically forbids visits to any mosque or church, temple or gurdwara; our community centres in the poshest parts of London; our Shabbat UK navel-gazing obsession with our own community – these are not neutral activities; they are detrimental to the UK economy .

Back in 2015, Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush wrote: “We’ve had 2,000 years’ experience of living as a minority – Muslims have had almost none. They need to undergo and build a set of values that adjusts to that status…I believe by force of reasonable argument we can show them there’s a better way than feeling like aliens in their own countries.”

Though we Jews may be a model minority, let’s not get too holier-than-thou. As long as our kiddush ceremony welcomes no poor, our shul halls keep no homeless warm from winter cold, our community centres teach more krav maga than English, what right have we to preach our ways to the stranger at our gates?

About the Author
Rabbi Natan Levy is the Interfaith and Social Action Consultant
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