Parashat B’midbar 5776

Rabbi Richard Jacobi, 3 June 2016

The Resilience of Unaccompanied Children

On Tuesday, 17th May 2016, together with Rabbis Janet Darley and Margaret Jacobi, I completed a quartet of Liberal rabbis in a pilgrimage to ‘The Jungle’ in Calais. Our leaders were my father, Rabbi Harry Jacobi MBE, and Lord Alf Dubs, a Labour Peer and instigator of the amendment accepted by the government on 9th May to enable unaccompanied refugee children to enter this country so that they might resume a childhood and an education.

On Monday, 20th May 1940, my father disembarked at Liverpool Docks to complete his escape from the Nazis. A couple of years earlier, and several years younger, Alf Dubs was one of the children brought to safety by the team of people led by the late Sir Nicholas Winton. While in Calais, both senior men met with young boys from Afghanistan and Syria. They, more than any of us, could empathise with the vulnerability and trauma of these boys’ situation. Since then, the fire that swept through part of The Jungle on 27th May and destroyed four hundred people’s tents and shelters have compounded the already intolerable situation.

Our Torah portion this week sees the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai, b’midbar Sinai, and this gives the portion and the whole fourth book of the Torah its Hebrew name, Bamidbar. A whole book to describe our roamings between leaving slavery behind and settling into a new land!

What is the very first instruction given to Moses? It is for him and Aaron to take a census, so that there should be accurate measures of the fighting men and of the whole population. On the tents and shelters in The Jungle, we noticed a code, e.g. 5N40, encased in a heart shape, which had been spray painted on. When we asked what it was, we were told that the UK voluntary organisation Help Refugees had been the first people to take a complete census of the population, and that they regularly now update this. Their census records have shown that the French government grossly underestimated the number of people staying there, and had no idea at all how many vulnerable, unaccompanied, children there were.

As of two weeks ago, 157 of the approximately 400 unaccompanied children in The Jungle had a strong legal claim to be reunited with close family already living in the UK. My father and Lord Dubs had a long conversation with just two of these children and we could see that they regained some hope as they heard the stories of escape from over seventy-five years ago. The rest of us in the group met with others, and provided practical help to complement this. For example, kind people had donated £25 top-ups for the mobile phones that enable contact with legal teams, as well as life-saving calls to the volunteers and life-enhancing contact with their parents and relatives (if still alive).

Was it too much for an eighty-something Lord and a ninety-year-old rabbi? NO! Both seemed to gain strength and vigour from doing as much as they could for what they felt was right.

What is too much for us to do? The answer is that we can very often do more than we think. One of the barriers to action is a lack of good information, hence the need for the census in the book of Numbers (Bamidbar). A second is the lack of creativity in thinking of ways in which we can make a difference. In our individual lives, we can learn from the child refugees of previous and current generations, whose resilience, determination, adaptability and creativity are no greater than ours. We are not in the wilderness, nor are we refugees from persecution in Nazi-occupied Europe or brutal regimes in Africa or the Middle East. We can simply choose to allow our resilience, determination, adaptability or creativity out.

Post script:
In our Liberal communities, we have many more luxuries than the Israelites possessed in the wilderness or the refugees try to cling on to in The Jungle. Yet, we still rely on exceptional individuals who have a record of acting for the communal good. Such people have the chance to be recognised at the Biennial Weekend in just over one month’s time.

You could still nominate such a person and show your appreciation of those whose actions teach us how good we can be, and how much good we could do.


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