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Rabbi Miriam Berger

I am Jewish - Sermon and readings

You can listen to Rabbi Miriam's sermon or read it below:



Quotes from the book in memory of Daniel Pearl in answer to the question of what is means to say "I am Jewish"

“I am Jewish. It began at birth purely by chance. It continues through my life as a great challenge and will end in the final moments of my life. What is most amazing, though, is that even after I am gone, Judaism will continue. Avraham Burg

“I am a Jew. My mother is a Jew.  My father is a Jew. We all met at Sinai”.  Irwin Cotler 

“To be a Jew means to belong to a national group that can be left or joined, just as any other national group is left or joined.” A.B Yehoshua 

“I am a son of this people, a nation that is adamant about remembering the past, inspired by its heritage, receptive to change, undaunted by the great prophecy that forges the destiny of the Jewish people, as in the words of the verse: ‘old from new produce’.”  Shimon Peres

“A heritage, preserved through millennia by courage, achievement and loyalty and for all these reasons a source of legitimate pride, to be cherished and passed on to those who come after us”. Bernard Lewis

“Today we are all Jews by choice”. Michael Steinhart

“To suffuse history with holiness” Julius Lester 

“To be a Jew is to go on a journey of discovery” Rabbi Tony Bayfield 

“Chosen-ness means taking responsibility for making our world a better place” Chaim Kramer

“A unique, private and national identity rooted in a common mission and a responsibility for partnering with God in ever perfecting the work of creation.” Rabbi Uri Regev

“Struggles for the very security and peace of bodies and minds that our forefathers proclaimed, three millennia ago, to be the self -evident right and destiny of all mankind” Ehud Barak

“I make no claim that Jewish culture is superior to other cultures or that the Jewish song is better than the song of my neighbour.  But it is mine.” Theodore Bikel

Throughout today’s service we have heard such wise words from across the Jewish world of what it means to say the words “I am Jewish”.  Belonging, community, a shared history, a personal theology, the words we pray, the actions we perform and the passion we feel. But to each and every one of us, uttering those words in a multitude of contexts, the words “I am Jewish” mean something slightly different to us all. Yet in the next couple of weeks, we are all being asked to actively tick the box that says the words “I am Jewish” despite it coming with no space for nuance, no explanation, just a simple statistical identification. 

It’s not loaded in this context. It’s not engaged in Jewish politics it’s not asking under whose auspices can you say I am Jewish. It’s not asking whether you are halachically Jewish, whether you’ve been to the Beit Din, it’s not asking if you light candles on Friday night or attend synagogue services. It’s not a question about belief or practice and yet it’s a question of religious identity and it is separate to a question of ethnicity to which Judaism can only be added.  No panel is going to decide whether you are religiously Jewish or ethnically Jewish, you are just being asked to actively tick the box to say you are Jewish if you identify in any way as being Jewish. 

The national census, an incredibly important resource so much so that we are obligated by law to fill it in and can be fined £1,000 for not completing it or for supplying false information. However, some questions are left to your discretion, there are questions you can opt to skip and one of those is the question of religion.  Yet today the plea that you can help to spread around the Jewish community is please please tick the box that counts you in as a Jew. Tick the box that says “I am Jewish” even if you would like to write a doctoral thesis explaining the nuances you would like to add as a caveat to the statement. In your mind it might be “I am Jewish but…” or “I am Jewish so… “or “I am Jewish despite…” but in this context “I am Jewish” will suffice. 

I know that our past has taught us that appearing on lists as a Jew can have terrifying connotations. But Census data is anonymised and used to understand populations as a whole and cannot be used to identify or target individuals in any way whatsoever. Why is it so important? Are we trying to massage the facts, make our numbers look more impressive?

Perhaps the Talmud can help. Sanhedrin 17b tell us that a Jew should only live in a place where the following 10 things are found: a court, a charitable fund, a synagogue, a public bath, a public privy, a mohel, a doctor, a scribe, a shochet and a teacher. 

What has such a dictum got to do with us in London in 2021?  Dr Jonathan Boyd from Jewish Policy Research explains further:

“Close examination of census data allows us to construct an immensely detailed demographic portrait of the Jewish population – its age profile, geographical contours, socioeconomic conditions, health status, living circumstances and much more. And the existence of this data helps every single Jewish organisation in the country to understand exactly what the Jewish population of the UK looks like, how it has changed over time, and how it is likely to evolve in the coming years. 

Jewish Care has used the census to help project how many elderly care home places they are going to need to provide going forward. Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJeS) has used it to help figure out how many school places to provide. Langdon has used it to provide accurate assessments of how many Jewish children have learning disabilities. World Jewish Relief has used it to determine how to encourage more people to support its vital work overseas.

Equally essential, local and national authorities use census data regularly to make decisions about services that address the needs of the Jewish community. It’s used to help understand the scale and nature of antisemitism. It’s used to determine intermarriage rates. It’s used to help create low-cost housing for disadvantaged Jewish families. It’s used in every single credible survey of the Jewish population – every data point you have seen about the proportion of Jews who think x, do y, or believe z (assuming it is credible), draws on census data.”

You see we might all have a very different understanding of what we mean when we tick the box that says “I am Jewish” but it provides vital data to ensure you live in a city which recognises how those words might materialise into fulfilling your needs. Whether it is nursery places in three years, Jewish care beds in forty years or a cemetery plot in sixty years, projections for all sorts of needs stem from these bare facts. 

If people decide it’s nobody else’s business, it’s their right not to answer, but if answers are skewed because of fear of being other, we won’t have the numbers we need in the next ten years to be the place the Talmud tells us we need to be, to provide for the future of British Jewry.  

The problem is you aren’t the ones that need to hear it. One assumes many of the people logged onto this Shabbat service, just as those people who are getting messages from their shuls are the people who are most likely to tick the box without thinking twice. So therefore, who do we need to tell? Who do we each need to reassure?  Who needs to hear that they are ticking the box for the good of all of us? 

There is a reason that the Torah narrative takes a survey, a census of the Israelites, immediately before the narrative turns to the building of the tabernacle. We have to have a sense of who we are building for. The census takes a picture of a very particular snapshot in time, but its purpose is one of knowing what we are going to be building for in the future.

So, when you tick the box under religion that says “I am Jewish” ask yourself not what it means as a concept to declare such an identity but what it means in terms of what you want from the Jewish community of your future which you are helping to develop. 

What are we building for? What are we working towards? 

In the wilderness we took a census and then built the Mishkan for God to dwell among us. The 2021 census needs to be our own communal driver to build for our future but what will cause God to dwell among us today? As we approach the Aleinu we turn to our final response to what it means to say: “I am Jewish” and recognise that declaring our identity can be one simple step of holding onto the responsibility that such an identity binds us to. 

Sun, 26 June 2022 27 Sivan 5782