[Speech] Torn from Home

Rabbi Yuval Keren, Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

Home! What is home?

When I looked it up in a dictionary, I found the definitions long and confusing. Home, after all, means different things to different people.

For me home is the place I can return to at the end of this evening. It is where…

  • I eat my favourite food;
  • I meet my family and friends;
  • I help my neighbours wheel their bins into the drive;
  • My cats return after annoying my neighbours…
  • …My home is my castle!
    However, home is much more than that. It is the residence of my memories and dreams, my community, my society, and my country.

    There is something very solid, very stable, and very permanent about home. Therefore, to be torn away from home is a great trauma.

    The Jewish People have a long and collective memory. One painful element is being torn away from home.

    Abraham was a nomad who followed God’s instruction as he travelled all the way from Ur by the great rivers in modern-day Iraq, to the land of Canaan, where he made his home. His grandson Jacob had to leave home due to famine and go down to Egypt. There they had a good life until the Egyptians enslaved them.

    After liberation, they were homeless nomads for 40 years in the desert until they made their home again in the Land of Canaan.

    When they were exiled by the Babylonians and settled by the great rivers in Babylon, they never stopped missing home.

    There by the place of water and fertile land, they sat and wept for seventy years, until they eventually returned back home – to Zion.

    Then, 2000 years ago, the Romans destroyed their home and sent us yet again to exile. Since then we became the ‘wandering Jew’, the ‘eternal’ stranger in a strange land. At times, we were welcome and protected, at other times, we were the ultimate stranger – hated and rejected, blamed for everything possible, including:

  • economic downturn;
  • war;
  • diseases;
  • witchcraft;
  • and deicide.
    We were at times despised, feared and suspected for our religion, our race, our habits, and even for how we prepare and eat our food…

    For two millennia, we became used to being in a constant state of being torn away from home.

  • We were torn away from Zion, our Jewish homeland;
  • We were torn away from England in 1290;
  • And we were torn away from many European homes in Europe during the crusades;
  • We were torn away from Spain in 1492;
  • And we were at times torn away from our homes in Arab countries.
    Yet the worst of all was the experience of being torn away from home in Europe and North Africa during the Nazi era.

    The paradox is that being torn away from home at that time would have meant better chances of survival. The alternative for any Jew in a Nazi-controlled area, was an almost certain death.

    What does it mean being torn away from home? Can we really understand it if we did not have a first-hand account of it?

    I can only reflect on my small experience. Just before coming to this country in 1993, I had sudden asthma attacks. Only later, I realised that they were connected to my anxieties about moving from home to another county. I was very far from being a refugee. I was free to stay, I was free to go, and I knew I was coming to a good stable country. (Nobody thought about Brexit 25 years ago).

    Now imagine what it is for a little child who is told that she must leave home, with very few possessions, leave her mother, father, brothers and sisters. She needs to say goodbye to her old and familiar world and go to another place, perhaps adopt new parents, learn a new language, and start all over again, all alone.

    Imagine what it is for the family who has to leave everything behind, the four walls that used to be their homes, their pots & pans, their toys, their books, their photo albums… their memories.

    If they were lucky, they would make it into a tent in a refugee camp where it might be boiling-hot by day and freezing-cold by night. They cannot return home, they have no certain future, and they have little hope in sight.

    Imagine what it is to be at the mercy of relief agencies, who sometimes cannot even reach them, at the mercy of their host countries, who want them out as soon as possible, or at the mercy of human traffickers who are after the little money they might have but could not care less about their lives.

    According to the UNHCR, the Refugee Agency of the United Nations, this is the share of over 16 million refugees in our world today.

    Tonight, as we return to the safety of our homes, let us remember those who were torn away from their homes because of hatred and genocide.

    Let us recall our obligation towards those who are torn from their homes in our time, the refugees who are cynically exploited by those in power to advance political, economic or social aims.

    Let us pressure our own government and politicians, to do what they can to ensure that these people can find a safe home, a future and a hope.

    Let us remind ourselves, teach our children, and instil in our society the value of loving your neighbour, and loving the stranger, and the heavy price paid by society for hatred and prejudice towards the ‘other’.

    And let us bring in our days the fulfilment if the prophecy in Isaiah1:

      Then justice shall abide in the wilderness
      And righteousness shall dwell on the farmland.
      For the work of righteousness shall be peace,
      And the effect of righteousness, calm and confidence forever.
      Then my people shall dwell in peaceful homes,
      In secure dwellings,
      In untroubled places of rest.


    1 Isa. 32:16-18
    Click here to read more sermons and articles related to the Holocaust  

    Share this sermon