A plea for Hyman Fine
One day the great Italian Rabbi Eliahu Benamozegh was walking toward the synagogue when an atheist blocked his way and aggressively shouted: “Rabbi! Rabbi! I have read the Torah, but I found only nonsenses! How can any reasonable person believe that is a Holy Book! All these stories of battles! It glorifies violence; it’s stuff for idiots!”
“My dear friend — replied the Rabbi- the Torah is a holy book because it contains the whole world. If you are a poet, you’ll find poetry in the Torah. If you are a philosopher, you’ll find philosophy in the Torah. If you are a historian, you’ll find history in the Torah. And if you are a bully, aggressive, stupid ignoramus, you’ll find senseless violence and plenty of nonsense. Now can you kindly let me pass? I am late for the service”.
The wise words of Rabbi Benamozegh are suited for this Torah portion, Mattot. There is violence (like in almost every Torah portion), but there is also -for those who are interested — a model for conflict resolution. So you have both: violent conflict, such as when the Israelites attack the Moabites at the instigation of Moses. He then actually reproaches the people for not being combative enough. But you equally find a remarkable example of a resolution of conflict. Let me recap where we are. [Numbers 32:1–19]
The Israelites are about to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. But two tribes, the Reubenites and the Gadites, who owned much cattle, set their eyes on the lands on the east side of the Jordan River, which was very good for cattle. So they approached Moses and asked that those lands be given to them as a holding because they suited their cattle. This means these tribes are not about to cross the Jordan, nor will they enter the Promised Land. They are happy where they are and do not want to participate in the war of conquering.
In modern parlance, this is called: sabotage.
It is the second time Moses has had to confront people who do not want to be part of the collective Israelite enterprise. Previously, some Torah portions ago, spies were sent to scout the land. They returned with terrifying -and false- reports, which discouraged the people and deeply undermined their enthusiasm for the Promised Land.
In the end, Reubenites and Gadites agreed not to pull out of the effort altogether. They promised they would serve as shock troops in the vanguard of the Israelites until the land was conquered. In exchange for this, they will keep the lands on the eastern side of Jordan. And Moses agreed.
It is -as you see- a model of conflict resolution. Each of the two parts comes home with what they want. The Gadites and the Reubenites keep the regions of the land they aim to settle, and Moses’ war effort is not sabotaged. On the contrary, because these tribes have settled on that side of the river, they can act as defenders of the borders and strengthen collective safety.
It is an excellent example of conflict resolution! Mind that the starting point was very very bad, with mutual suspicions and accusations. The memory of a previous past experience, the episode of the spies, was still fresh in everyone’s minds. How different the outcome is this time.
It could have been different. Moses could have forced the Reubenites and the Gadites to join in the war of conquering, denying them the right to settle in regions that were not part of the Promised Land. Those tribes could have just held their ground and refused to join the military, happy with what they had. Perhaps they could even ally with some enemy of the Israelites to protect themselves — there were plenty around.
Nothing of this happened, and the unity of the people was preserved. This is a core principle of Judaism; we can see it in action throughout all our history, not only in Biblical times of war. Also, in the Diaspora time of peace. As Jews, we s tend to stick together, even to live near each other, in proximity. We need each other for religious reasons, to have a minyan. Or to provide a market for kosher food. Even if we take the car on Shabbat, we like to have the shul at a reasonable distance. The existence of a Jewish neighbourhood is a reality we all know. And it’s not new! A Jew is not a Jew without a Jewish community.
By sticking together, we Jews have managed to survive physically, in the time of the Bible, and spiritually during the Diaspora.
And yet, let me ask, what is a Jewish community without its elders? We have a wonderful tradition that teaches the benefit of conflict resolutions. But how can we call ourselves Jews, inheritors of such a noble and inspiring tradition, if we are deprived of the blessing of the physical presence of our elders?
I am sure I am not the only one in this room shocked and saddened by the news of the closure of Hyman Fine home.
As part of my Rabbinical duties, I visit Hyman Fine for the major holidays and sometimes during the week. Every time I enter that place, I feel the embrace of the wisdom of the previous Jewish generations. I could spend hours listening to stories from the time of the war, from the East End: treasures of Jewish living history that no book can transmit effectively.
And let me add one thing I haven’t seen reported adequately on social media. The staff at Hyman Fine are simply superb. They are always so caring, ready to walk the extra mile or to spend the extra hour. During the pandemic, they have given the best of themselves. They have been heroes. They really are.
I have officiated funerals of late members of our community and of our synagogue who spent their last years without family at Hyman Fine. Let me repeat, always: come snow or shine, or even hailstorm, they always come to the funeral. They know the person better than I do. At times they even deliver the eulogy — because they have spent so much time listening, supporting, and becoming friends.
And are we about to dismiss them so? Are we about to lose such a treasure of care and dedication? Is this the Jewish way to treat the workers and carers?
Families and guests have been given few weeks to decide whether to move to London — and make family visits almost impossible- or to relocate into another facility, here in Sussex: a complicated move, into facilities which will not be Jewish places anyway.
Is this the way to treat these members of our community, the elderly generation of our people?
Often they are immigrants or children of immigrants. We know there is a low level of antisemitism in the UK — lower than in France or Germany. And why? Because these immigrants have worked hard and have accepted the rules (e.g. setting up Reform synagogues so that they do business on Saturdays). In one or two generations, we Jews — immigrants that we were — have become model British citizens. The aura of prejudices surrounding Jewish business people elsewhere is not so thick in the UK. Ever wondered why? Because the people of that generation, those in our nursing homes, those who are now at Hyman Fine, have been shopkeepers, tailors, cab drivers, and accountants of impeccable honesty and integrity. They worked hard, honestly and behaved decently. They have turned the unpleasant -yet natural- suspicion towards newcomers into respect and trust.
Are we about to express our gratitude in this way? Telling them to move away? That there’s no place for them among us anymore? Because in a headquarter office in London, someone looked at the figures and then decided to put on the marked a piece of Brighton real estate. And why? To increase some funds somewhere, and perhaps some other nursing home in London?
I know nothing of finances — ask my wife. Neither I am a welfare expert. Only recently, I have learnt of the visions they had for a Jewish nursing home in Brighton which would have involved this building somehow. History could have been different; who knows.
I heard many praises for how JCare has absorbed tens of pre-existing smaller charities and homes. JCare, this massive charity that built a monopoly on Jewish nursing homes over time and that -I was told- it is a model for the rest of Europe. It was a trend in the welfare business that I am not sure Brighton alone could have resisted. But it is pointless arguing now about the past. The community must find strength and unity to keep Hyman Fine open — they say there are not enough guests, and it is not sustainable; guess what? I know at least five families are looking for a Jewish nursing home for their relatives!
I have very little authority; I am a newcomer. I know nothing about finances, charity, nursing homes, public health… whatever. But I am a Rabbi, and I know about the Torah. And the Torah says [Lev 19:32] מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם, וְהָדַרְתָּ פְּנֵי זָקֵן; “Thou shalt raise in the presence of white hair, and you shall honour the elderly.”
If there are no elderly people to honour, how can we call ourselves a Jewish community? In the presence of whom, I pray, shall we raise?
Please, please, in the name of our Jewish tradition, find a compromise as Moses and those tribes have been able to find at the time of our Torah portion. So that generation after generation, we continue to learn from each other how to live Jewishly, and the elderly women and men of our people will continue to bless us with their presence and their wisdom.
Ken yehy ratson