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Our shared Jewish and Muslim calling to go green

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To mark Inter Faith Week and ahead of Mitzvah Day – which this year has a green theme – religious leaders from five different faiths will be addressing the dire ecological crisis we face across the globe, drawing on scripture in their calls for urgent action.

In our first piece, which also appears in this week’s Jewish Telegraph, Rabbi Jeff Berger and Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra give the Jewish and Muslim point of view:

The earth, according to both Jewish and Muslim traditions, was created by G-d and entrusted to humanity. A single guardian couple, Adam & Eve, has now expanded to more than 7.8 billion people. The dynamics have changed dramatically, but we are at risk of destroying the very habitat that supports our human life.

There are few things that can impact all of humanity – regardless of race, religion, culture or ethnicity – as much as ecological collapse.

In the Genesis story of Creation (Chap 1:28), man and woman, while still in the Garden of Eden, are commanded to be Fruitful and Multiply. But in the re-telling of the story (Chap 2:15), the first man is charged to Serve and Preserve the Garden.

The Jewish cycle of festivals is built around an agricultural calendar. Our weekly cessation of labour, on the Sabbath, benefits humans and livestock alike.

In the Torah, G-d tells Moses to instruct the people to treat the environment with care. Landowners are annually obliged to share their bountiful harvests with the poor, widow, orphan and stranger – the dispossessed, so that they too are looked after. They also must let their fields rest every 7th and 50th years. Separately, the Torah commands us not to unnecessarily destroy nature.

In the later interpretive writings of the rabbinic period, we have wonderfully rich passages charging us to maintain G-d’s work, the earth, for “if you destroy it, there’s no one to repair it after you.”

We also have the 1st century BCE story of Honi the Circle Maker who saw a man planting a carob tree which would take 70 years to reach maturity. He asked if the man expected to live so long to see it bear fruit and was told “just as I found trees my ancestors planted, so this is being planted for generations to follow.”

The carob tree planter’s story resonates with the words of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He said: “No Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds and then a bird, or a human, or an animal eats from it but that it is a charity for him.”

He also strongly emphasised the importance of planting trees, saying: “If the Day of Judgement were upon one of you and he has a sapling in his hand, then let him plant it.”

The Qur’an says that the human being is G_d’s steward on earth and has been given dominion over the creation. Every human being is a trustee of this fragile planet. The duty and responsibility of this trustee is to preserve and protect it for us and for future generations, and not to dominate and destroy it.

Perhaps the best way to express the relationship between human beings and the planet is that we are in a position of stewardship to Nature.

So what can we do?

First, learn more. Understand where the harmful impacts are coming from and how to reduce them.

Second, let’s stop ignoring or denying the severity of the problems.

Third, let’s begin an honest assessment of our conduct to see where we can make possible changes.

And fourth, let’s encourage our communal institutions to also act more responsibly.

Left as is, the trajectory of our decisions and consumption patterns will accomplish the opposite of the generation of Honi the Circle Maker.

We will be negligent in our duties of stewardship for this magnificent planet with which the Almighty has graced us, and little or nothing will remain for our descendants.

As faith leaders, we believe it is our responsibility to share a message of great concern and to promote a movement for increased awareness and responsibility.

Please join us, on Mitzvah Day and every day, in helping to change our habits.

A New Year – A New Challenge

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My two strongest childhood memories of Rosh Hashanah are the amazing food at family meals and going to synagogue with my father to hear the Shofar. What are yours?

For some of us, eating certain foods during the Jewish festivals evokes early memories that formed part of our Jewish identity. My Russian-born diminutive aunt would sequester all the women in the family in her home for 3 days of cooking in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah. The meals themselves remain in my memory as times of great family togetherness and much fun for the children.


On Rosh Hashanah, Jews are obliged according to the Torah to mark the New Year as Yom Teruah (A Day of Sounding Out) and Yom Zikhron Teruah (A Day of Remembering to Sound Out). Our Mahzors list 10 things we should contemplate when listening to the Shofar – among them are G-d’s Majesty, the Creation of the World, the Binding of Isaac, the 10 Commandments and more. The big stuff!

Rabbi David Fohrman from Aleph Beta looks in the Torah for references to Shofar and finds a connection with our national collective experience at Mt Sinai. He suggests that the verse ‘and the sound of the Shofar grew louder’ (Ex. 19:19) shouldn’t be taken literally – that there wasn’t anyone physically blowing a Shofar.

Instead, he believes, the initial sound of G-d’s revelation to Moses began as a Teruah and eventually coalesced into the words that formed the 10 Commandments. So, in listening to Shofar, we’re reminding ourselves of Sinai and of the spiritual sound of being in the Almighty’s presence.

Another Torah reference to hearing a Heavenly Voice goes back even further, to the Garden of Eden, when after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil, Adam and Eve hear the primordial voice of G-d ‘strolling in the Garden’ (Gen. 3:8). Rather than rejoicing with the Almighty, the first couple are said to have hidden, leading G-d to ask the question ‘Where are you?’

The rabbis of the Talmud write that by blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah we ‘confuse the Satan’ who is waiting to accuse us before G-d for our shortcomings. We might ask, ‘Is the Satan so foolish to fall for the same trick every year or do we simply not understand the deeper meaning of this text?’

One approach is to recognise that the confusion is inside of us. Throughout the year some of us go about our lives thinking little about our souls and much more about our mortal existence. The sound of the Shofar confuses that little unhelpful voice inside each of us that always ‘finds excuses why not to do something in our best interest’.

Waking early in the morning to spend a few moments in meditation and prayer or being generous to others who are in need of the things we already have an abundance of, seems relatively simple, but so often just doesn’t happen. We’re trained to be self-centred from a young age.

The Shofar in the Book of Joshua was also used as a clarion call to gather troops together before going to battle, especially outside the walls of Jericho. This year’s Mitzvah Day theme calls our attention to the challenge for each of us to do better in looking after the ecology of our planet.

In case you haven’t chosen yet, please have another look at our available projects website for some amazing opportunities; including Gratitude’s gardening project in Hertfordshire, the JVS gardening project in Golders Green or helping at the Spitalfields City Farm. There are numerous crafts (Jewish CareHaven House), cooking (Feast) and collection (Camp SimchaLord’s TavenersBike Project) opportunities as well as projects in hospices, for the homeless and with refugees. Now is a good time to decide.


Fortunately, my wife learned some of our family recipes from my aunt before she passed away and has added some delicious ones of her own. And, for the last decade I’ve been privileged to take our children to hear the Shofar at synagogue.

The Shofar blast stirs us to check our complacencies, to examine the year that’s gone by and to ask ourselves in relation to G-d’s presence ‘Where am I?’

What answer will we give this year?


Wishing you Shanah Tovah & Tizku LeShanim Rabot,

Rabbi Jeff Berger

United Nations – 17 Global SDGs

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I imagine that it will soon be unusual for anyone living in the 21st Century not to be aware of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the global community at the United Nations in 2015. The aim of the SDGs is to create a map to a more sustainable future for all of humanity. More information can be found here.

My introduction to SDGs began a few years ago at a conference in Caux, Switzerland.

According to the UN website, ‘Sustainable Development Goals address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace & justice.’ They are interconnected with the aim for the world community to achieve them by 2030.

At first glance, one might not necessarily associate all of these goals with Judaism but we believe the argument can be made that they’re as Jewish as can be. We may simply need to widen our definition of ‘who should be included’ in our sense of Jewish responsibility for helping to create a better world.

The most basic goals are aimed at Eliminating Poverty (1), Zero Hunger (2), Good Health & Well-being (3) and Quality Education (4). These would surely fall under the category of Gemilut Chasadim (Acts of Loving Kindness) which we associate back to the Biblical time of Abraham & Sarah.

Now you might be asking, how does this connect to my Mitzvah Day project? If you’re looking for projects that connect to these SDGs, you can find out if there is a night shelter or foodbank nearby that would appreciate some support. There might be a cooking project you can run for a local homeless shelter, or you may look to promote quality education through initiatives such as the Mary’s Meals back pack project.

Then there’s Clean Water & Sanitation (6), Affordable & Clean Energy (7), Decent Work & Economic Growth (8), and Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure (9), affiliated with our idea of Tikkun Olam (Repairing our World). By creating enriched opportunities for people around the globe, we minimise much of the current suffering among people in countries of all economic standings.

Mitzvah Day is currently in around 30 countries around the world and we can’t wait to see where it goes next. You can also support these causes through running a bike collection for the Bike Project, collecting ring-pulls to be sent to the Philippines by The Purple Community Fund as part of a recycling, women’s empowerment and training programme, or support the Lord’s Taverners Club with sports kit – they also provide training around the world for people to become sports coaches.

Then there are the economic goals of Sustainable Cities & Communities (11), Responsible Consumption & Production (12), Climate Action (13), Life below Water (14), and Life on Land (15) which can be linked to humanity’s responsibility found at the beginning of Bereishit where G-d charges Adam & Eve to ‘serve & preserve’ the Garden of Eden.

Now this clearly ties into our 2019 theme and Mitzvah Day’s ongoing commitment to be as environmentally friendly as possible. You’ve likely already heard about ways to organise a litter pick in your local area, projects for planting trees and wildflowers, making vegan bird feeders and upcycling projects like making dog toys, using old textiles, for animal shelters.

And finally, there are the goals of Gender Equality (5), Reduced Inequalities (10), Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions (16), and Partnerships for the Goals (17), which are addressed by our Jewish principle of Tzedek (Justice).

Mitzvah Day strongly believes in partnership principles, these are the relationships that connect us and allows us to thrive. Whether working to make things happen with a local charity partner, as part of different faith communities coming together, or in a partnership within your community – we are stronger together than we are apart.

A Mitzvah Day charity partner that deeply espouses these values is René Cassin who works to promote and protect Universal Human Rights. If you’re interested in learning more about modern day slavery, the refugee crisis, detention centres, discrimination against minorities or other human rights causes, Rene Cassin can support you in bringing this to your community.

That the first human beings were created in G-d’s image (B’Tselem Elohkim) reinforces the need, as well as the opportunity, to see in each person regardless of race, religion, cultural background or ethnicity, the Spirit of G-d. Encouraging people to live according to their higher ideals benefits us all.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals not only tie into our key Jewish principles of Tikkun Olam (Repairing our World), Gemilut Chasadim (Acts of Loving Kindness) and Tzedek (Justice) but we hope they’ll connect to your Mitzvah Day projects as well.

Wishing you a refreshing August.

Rabbi Jeff & the Mitzvah Day Team

Reflections on Ramadan and Interfaith Iftars

Reflections on Ramadan and Interfaith Iftars by Rabbi Jeff Berger

Ramadan UK 2019 occurred from 5 May to 4 June, and the fasts typically began as early as 3:00am and often went out after 9:00pm.

Now here’s a little bit of astronomy for you. A solar calendar has 365 1/4 days, the lunar one is roughly 354 1/3 days. While the Jewish calendar is solar-lunar in composure and adjusts so that Passover always falls during the spring, the Muslim one is only lunar. Thus, each year the start of Ramadan shifts by 11 days. Muslims over 18 years old will remember fasting in the middle of the English winter when dawn is close to 8:00am and sunset occurs around 4:00pm. Muslims also have a way of adjusting the time for breaking-the-fast in areas closer to the polar caps where sunset is delayed for long periods.

Occurring in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and involving fasting (sawm) from pre-dawn to dusk as well as much prayer and reflection, the month of Ramadan marks the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).

For the devout, it offers an opportunity to read through Islamic Scripture, leading to a sense of spiritual purification. Muslims are encouraged to increase their financial giving (zakat), and all good deeds (taqwa) are amplified many times over.

Children above puberty are expected to fast during the month of Ramadan. Men and women refrain from marital relations. There are fasting exemptions for pregnant and nursing women as well as for the sick or the elderly. The fast ends each day with a meal known as Iftar.

At Mitzvah Day, most of our staff were invited to join an Iftar at least once last month. Whether it was a gathering like the one hosted by Naz Legacy in partnership with the Mayor of London, which began at St Pauls Cathedral with Bishop Sarah with the Iftar meal at Guildhall joined by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, or more local ones, like in Gospel Oak where the community is still coming to grips with a fatal knife crime that occurred in early April, the overwhelming sense a guest receives is a deep warmth and hospitality. The hosts went to great lengths to provide kosher food for Jewish visitors and to cater for all different dietary requirements, and the warmth of welcome and embrace overflowed.

Iftars are a bit like the New Year count down. People begin gathering an hour or so before the fast goes out, to either help set up the room or to hear speeches from the local Imam or community leaders explaining the aims of Ramadan and some of the tenets of Islam. More than once, unsuspecting non-Muslim guests were caught off guard when a microphone was handed to them with the request to say a few words.

And then, as the Muezzin calls out the end of the fast, you can hear bottles uncapped and the sound of water pouring into glasses, followed closely by the offering of a very sweet dried date. The rest of the evening progresses rather quickly as there is only a short while to have the first bites of food before it’s time for the night prayers. The main meal follows thereafter.

Beyond the incredible and seemingly effortless hospitality from those who have been without food or liquid for 18 hours day-in and day-out throughout Ramadan, is that sense of holiness that comes from religious fasting. Over the past few years it has become commonplace for government offices, synagogues and churches to host Iftars for their Muslim neighbours – as a way to reach out, to build bridges and to improve social cohesion.

From a Jewish perspective, one couldn’t help but notice remarkable similarities. In Hebrew the word for Fasting is Tsom compared to the Arabic Sawm. Muslims have a tradition during the last 10 days of Ramadan to increase their reading of the Quran in the Mosque. Because it’s not known on which night (Laylat al Qadr) the revelation occurred, there’s a custom to stay awake on odd-numbered nights. Many Jews just did the same thing on Shavuot to commemorate the revelation at Sinai.

The Mitzvah Day Team would like to extend a special thanks to all those that hosted us and to all those that extended invitations, as we couldn’t attend them all. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be so warmly welcomed into so many communities this past month and we look forward to joining you for Mitzvah Day projects in November!

Shavuot – Festival of the Harvests

Shavuot – Festival of the Harvests

Shavuot is one of the 3 major ‘foot festivals’ in the Torah because it was a time of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Biblical description of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, marks the conclusion of the counting of the 49 days, 7 weeks of the Omer which counts the time from Passover to Shavuot, the harvest festival. There are two harvest items that were taken as offerings to the temple, the first being an offering of 2 superior loaves of bread made of the finest white flour from the new wheat crop and the second was bringing the first summer fruits.

The Talmud describes how farmers throughout the land would tie their first new buds with a ribbon and later when these matured into fruits, they would be harvested, delicately placed in a basket and taken to the Temple in gratitude to the Almighty for the land’s bountiful produce.

Not long ago on a study tour in Israel, a Christian minister was awestruck trying to imagine the animated procession of devout farmers on their ascent to the Holy City, because pilgrimage is a part of all of the Abrahamic traditions. For Muslims, hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, bears a striking resemblance to our foot festivals and even the word chag and haj can be seen to come from the same root sources.

When the pilgrims arrived to Jerusalem with their gifts, the farmers would recite a declaration that still appears in our Passover Haggadah, a testimony to the Almighty’s kindness not just to us, but to our forefathers going back to the promise made by G-d to Abraham and his descendants.

Shavuot is also associated with the Book of Ruth because it takes place during the harvest season, and Ruth who was widowed and living with her widowed mother-in-law Naomi, extended herself in an act of selflessness and kindness by collecting grain for their household. The once wealthy Naomi who had lost her status and possessions during a prolonged stay in Moav, was left with nothing except the generosity of the local farmers, who according to the Torah laws, allocated a portion of their fields for the poor. Ruth’s good fortune was to end up in the field of Boaz, a wealthy and generous patron.

From these 2 elaborate harvest ceremonies and from the decision by the sages of old to link the Book of Ruth with Shavuot, we can learn important lessons. The first I would like to focus on is the need for those of us who have plenty, to follow the example of Boaz, to graciously share what we have with those in need.

The second message we can take is that, whether it would have been commanded in the Torah or not, we are universally and morally compelled to help look after the welfare of our fellow human beings. For those in need of compassion, or for others starting their lives over after traumatic circumstances forced them to relocate to the UK, surely we can spare something, especially a small portion of our time, to be of support to them.

This is a message especially relevant for those of us at Mitzvah Day who continually reach out to charity partners old and new, and our dedicated Mitzvah Day participants, learning about their needs and how we can support them both during Mitzvah Day and throughout the year.

Be sure to check out our available projects page and make sure you’re registered for Mitzvah Day 2019, November 17th!

Wishing you a joyous Shavuot festival,

Rabbi Jeff and the Mitzvah Day team

Addicted to Hatred – 4 September 2018


Addicted to hatred

Calming island sunset in Japan where Rabbi Berger could reflect.

With only a week until Rosh Hashana, many of us will be reflecting on the past year and looking forward to what lies ahead.

In our family, we were fortunate to survive this year’s GCSE exams and to visit American relatives in August who introduced us to the popular Netflix series FAUDA. Created, written and produced in Israel and based on real-life experience, this award winning drama which debuted in 2015 has run through 2 seasons, with a 3rd series expected in 2019.

A gripping drama about an Israeli counter-intelligence unit operating in Gaza, it grabs its audience from the first instance. Nearly every scene is driven by blind rage, violence and seething hatred. The remainder is filled with immorality and lawlessness – a perfect formula to appeal to today’s mass audiences.

One can see why this kind of entertainment is addictive. Anger and rage are the new caffeine in our diets – not just on TV but in so many places; on social media, on university campuses and in what used to be civil society. In politics this trend is not just in Hungary and Poland, but in the USA and the UK.

Look around and you’ll see how easy it is to be drawn to this dark side and to observe the social trauma it can cause. But you’ll say, surely there are those who ‘deserve’ our hatred. Perhaps yes, but as Yoda, from Star Wars warned,

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Readers are probably familiar with the famous quotation attributed to an anonymous monk from the 11th century, repackaged in 1961 in simpler language and attributed to Aldous Huxley:

“As a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change, so I tried to change my nation. When I found it impossible to change the nation, I began to focus on my town. Failing even this task, and as a mature person, I tried to change my family, Now much older, I realise the only thing I can change is myself.”

When we examine the emotional ebbs and peaks in our daily lives, we can see from where we get our energy. Our passions often are the source for our greatest enthusiasm, fulfilment and joy.

How sad then to see so much energy being wasted on stereotyping, prejudice, bigotry, anger and resentment. This can even be found inside our houses of worship, where intolerance and impatience can come to the fore, when acceptance of differences would be more appropriate.

All the while, those most upset insist that others are the source of their unhappiness and displeasure. If only ‘they’ would be like ‘us’, life would be much more predictable and satisfying.

Sadly, in this digital age we’ve almost entirely lost the ability to dialogue; to recognise different views and to acknowledge them with respect and understanding. Instead, we adopt uncompromising platforms, and when we meet those who disagree with our ‘narrative’, the result is shouting and aggression.

Many of us, though familiar with the first part of the monk’s parable quoted above, are unfamiliar with its conclusion.

“Suddenly I realized that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”

It’s not too late.

Perhaps, this week before Rosh Hashana – and days before the UN-designated International Day of Peace – we can strive to let go of our hatreds and fears. To do so only requires a quiet mind, reflecting within to identify where we can better expend our emotional energy, and then consciously moderating our thoughts and tempering our behaviour.

When we hear the Shofar welcoming New Year 5779, let’s do so from a new place – an internal space of resilience and calm, appreciating that all of us are created in G-d’s image. Finding holiness first in ourselves, we should then be able to recognise it in those who are different from us.

May we merit a year filled with G-d’s blessings, and with the goodness we choose to bestow upon ourselves and upon each other!

Tizku LeShanim Rabot/ Shanah Tobah