Why I’m going to India…

The values and ideals of any community shift with the passage of time. Whilst this is often glaringly obvious and well accepted, there are occasions in which traditions or priorities which seem ancient and intrinsic may turn out to be recent innovations which has been canonised by the people. Practices so seamlessly integrated that they become indistinguishable from the scenery around them. Conversely, a value, practice or ideal which seems foreign to the members of a community may, in fact, form part of the bedrock of that society, but which, through geographic and cultural shifts, has simply been concealed or superseded by other values.

When I tell members of the NW London Jewish community that I am going to be a participant on the Chief Rabbi’s Ben Azzai study trip to the slums of Mumbai, the reaction I receive from almost everyone (after the compulsory ‘Ooh that’s exciting!’) is a permutation of “Surely that money can be better spent?” or “Aren’t there Jewish people we need to help first?” or “Since when is this a value which halachik Judaism prioritises?” What many of these people want me to do is argue back, and justify the existence of the trip and my participation on it.

I don’t.

This is because my motivation for applying for this trip was not to confirm my previously held assumptions of the value of social action within Judaism. Rather, it was to challenge myself and the default narrative which was espoused in the Jewish education system of NW London when I was passing through it.

I want to make it very clear. I don’t think any of my teachers or mentors, or those who challenge me about this trip, would argue with the value of helping people outside of our community who are suffering on an individual level. I think many of them would be the first to assist in efforts to better the lives of those struggling, whatever their background. What they do question is the place of large-scale, communal, outward-facing charitable activity. They question if social action in its current form is a passing fad, one of the plethora of values viewed as gospel by wider society, but which need to be treated with caution by an Orthodox community focused on the purity of its Masoretic chain of transmission. After all, charity starts at home, right?

When I put a summary of these challenges to the Chief Rabbi, he exclaimed that this was precisely the reason he spearheaded this programme. To challenge the idea that social action is a new innovation within Judaism, and demonstrate that aiding those who are not like us is an integral part of the foundations of our religion. This is not a modern trend, rather, a return to a deep seated Jewish value which has been almost forgotten. Charity does indeed start at home, but if it ends at home then we are missing a crucial dimension in our Jewish worldview. I have been shown dozens of sources which support this, many of which I have had no exposure to in my Jewish education [1].

When Rabbi Dr Schonfeld began his fight for the foundation of Jewish schools in early 20th Century England, he was met with harsh and virulent criticism by the community [2]. Having a formal Jewish education was not seen as a value intrinsic enough to people’s Judaism to make it worth fighting for. Now, it goes without saying. Similarly, when Soroh Schenirer pioneered an education system for Jewish women in Poland, she made waves across the Jewish world. Now, it is laughable to even suggest that educating women is not a deeply Jewish idea [3]. Jewish outreach has become a fundamental and immutable facet of modern Jewish community life, but was that true before The Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Noach Weinberg? How about the value of a wide-ranging secular education which was certainly prevalent in Medieval Jewish communities, but lost its pervasiveness until Rabbi Samson Rephoel Hirsch re-stressed its importance. These are all issues which we are convinced are fundamental ideals in Judaism, but before someone pointed out that we were neglecting them, they played a minimal role in our consciousness.

This is what I hope to discover in India. I have no doubt that I am going to be harrowed by the struggles the local population in Mumbai go through to survive, and feel incredibly inspired by the work which Jewish and non-Jewish projects are undertaking to support them. The only humane reaction after experiencing something like that is to want to help, both them and others in the world who are struggling, in any way one can. I’m sure that I’m going to return to England as a person more knowledgeable about international development, and more aware of the big issues in the world. But on a deeper level, I want to explore and examine the Chief Rabbi’s claim that our community has abandoned a vital aspect of our Jewish heritage. If it is true, then – who knows? – perhaps this is the first stage of the community reintegrating social action as a bedrock element in its Jewish identity.


[1] Full anthology of sources to follow!

[2] See Derek Taylor’s Book ‘Solomon Schonfeld, A Purpose in Life’

[3] See Rabbi Shalom Morris blogpost about how the idea that women should be ‘homemakers’ is a modern curltural shift, which does not reflect the core values of Judaism.

About the Author
Mikey Lebrett made aliyah from Manchester to Rehovot in 2022 with his wife and two children. He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and received a PhD in Cancer Sciences from the University of Manchester.
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