Progressive Judaism’s weekly opinion column

By Rabbi Miriam Berger

Rabbi Miriam Berger

Rabbi Miriam Berger

I was recently talking to a friend, who is a journalist. He asked about my decision to sign up to “Live Below the Line”.

It is a campaign that raises awareness of the plight of those in poverty, both in one’s own borough and in far-flung countries, by encouraging individuals to live on just £1 a day for five days and to seek sponsorship in the process.

My friend said to me: “You need to be careful Miriam, what with living below the line and opening your synagogue as a winter shelter, you are making a big statement – poverty is highly political you know.”

But am I making a political statement with what I am doing? What I think I am doing is looking outwards and trying to understand the world around me. Am I pretending to be poor for a week?

I’m not even coming close. I will still be living in my warm and secure house, I will not have to consider my food choices by the length of time the oven would need to be on, nor deny myself a hot drink because boiling the kettle would be frivolous.

I also won’t have to make the decision as to whether I forgo spending £1 that day on myself or instead feed my son.

Food banks have been high in demand in the UK

Food banks have been high in demand in the UK

These are real life considerations. You don’t have to look to Africa to see them – they are being agonised over every day by residents right here in my London borough of Barnet. Religious leaders are not just here to conduct the rituals of religious life.

We have to ensure that we are giving a voice to the values which underpin our religion. We cannot simply quote Torah about protecting the “stranger, the orphan and the widow”.

We have to be helping our communities to find tangible ways in which they can identify with the vulnerable in our society.

How they can create relationships with them, support them and look to redress injustice to prevent it happening to the next person, rather than simply support those who suffer the consequences.

While this may border on the political, it is certainly not the starting point and it is as authentic in terms of rabbinic work as leading services or teaching texts.