In a break-out room alongside Al-Manaar Mosque’s main hall, putty planets moulded by young hands are placed on a mat below a hovering iPad, which conjures a moving intergalactic background.
As young jaws drop, a youth leader enters. “I’m looking for a rogue parachute,” he says, rummaging. A minute later around 30 children pile in to ride the ‘spaceship,’ which comprises foil wrapped around chairs and a lot of imagination. The noise they make when ‘taking off’ overlaps with the muezzin’s call to prayer.
This is the start of the four-day Ma’un (Little Kindness) play camp for children aged four-to-12 who were affected by Grenfell, the tower whose covered remains still stand half a mile away. Jointly run by Jewish and Muslim youth leaders, it is the second such camp, the first being held in December 2017, when everything was still very raw. “We had children asking us why should they be able to play when their friends who died couldn’t,” says Ismahan Egal, a welfare coordinator at the mosque. “It almost became our job to tell them it was OK to have fun.”
The NHS offers some support, she says, but the shul and the mosque decided to fill a gap for down-time for the children. “Some of these children were in the tower, others saw it burn, others lost friends,” says Egal.
“It almost became our job to tell them it was OK to have fun.”
“Many go to the local school and their playground is literally in the tower’s shadow. In one way or another, all the children here today wear the banner of Grenfell.”
Last year, Grenfell was all the children talked about, she says. “The fire had just happened and we were still in the crisis-management phase. Children were drawing pictures of burning buildings, talking about it non stop, building towers with play-bricks then knocking them down, the same with food, piling carrots up then knocking them down, a lot of repetitive behaviour. It was all-consuming. We spoke about it as leaders.
“If you see a child traumatised by Grenfell draw a picture of a burning building, it’s tempting to step in, to protect them. But the child finds it cathartic, and by sharing it with an adult, that’s their way of inviting somebody else to share their experience. It was as if they needed this safe space.”
Helping creating that are Hannah, Ilana, Carla, Ellie, Jessica, Jo, Livia, Alon and Sofi, all young progressive Jews, most of whom have led Jewish youth programmes for Masorti, Reform or Liberal Judaism.
“Those programmes are very structured and what we’re doing here is much more akin to that,” says Sofi, a former RSY-Netzer leader and now a social worker. “Last year we had a box of toys including a fire truck. It was by far the most popular toy. We had a lot of children being firefighters, making fire engine noises. Many still have trauma responses. Different things trigger them in different ways.”
In the main hall, to one side, children are designated as bananas, apples, melons or oranges. In another area, paint and stencils are being laid out on the floor. The nine Jewish youth leaders are working with four peers from the mosque, as well as three refugees – young adults from Sudan, Albania and Syria.
….We had a lot of children being firefighters, making fire engine noises. Many still have trauma responses. Different things trigger them in different ways
Two dress up – as a tiger and as a unicorn –while Abduk (not his real name), 17, by far the quietest of the three, keeps an eye out for children who don’t want to participate. One young girl stands mournfully in the corner, refusing to join in. “The first year we saw a lot of that,” Egal says. “We would rush over, but now we know it’s just their way of getting space.” Sure enough, the youngster rejoins activities 10 minutes later, plaiting another girl’s hair.
Overseeing activities is Nic Schlagman, an outreach worker at The West London Synagogue of British Jews (WLS), who worked with Egal to set up the camp. “We were working with Al-Manaar on night shelters when the fire happened,” he says.
“Suddenly all this energy was mobilised and the mosque found itself as a local hub. Donations, volunteers, victims, all came here. It was bedlam – lots of well-meaning people but no systems.
“I drew on my experience in humanitarian aid to help and we sent about 15 volunteers. Money came into the shul but we saw people throwing money around in the early days, so we waited to let the situation settle down, to work out how we could best add value.”
…all this energy was mobilised and the mosque found itself as a local hub. Donations, volunteers, victims, all came here. It was bedlam – lots of well-meaning people but no systems.
In the weeks that followed, the opportunity became clear. “There was great stuff happening on a therapeutic level, but on another level there was this expectation that the children would be sad, behave in a certain way, hold this identity,” Schlagman says.
“They didn’t have a space to have fun, relax, be silly… be kids. That’s when we realised we could help. The Jewish community has this great skill of training young adults to be youth leaders. It was something we could bring. The mosque realised that there was a real benefit to creating a warm, comfortable play-space. That’s how the idea of the day camp was born.”
Alon, who is about to start work as a Wellbeing Practitioner at Yavneh College, calls the kids to a halt and asks if anyone wants lunch. Cue a stampede to the door, a mass of flying pigtails, bright hoodies and furry boots as Rabbi Sybil Sheridan manages to dodge the scrum.
She knows Al-Manaar was once a “radical” mosque but says mosques are unlike synagogues, which are defined by denomination. “Mosques are open to anyone, they act like an umbrella, one house for all,” she says.
“Years ago it had one or two imams coming here to promulgate extreme ideas, so it got a reputation, but about four years ago Nic made contact, as the local synagogue, to explain the concerns we faced.
…Mosques are open to anyone, they act like an umbrella, one house for all
“They were remarkably understanding and aware of the dangers of extremism. It quickly became clear that this ‘radical mosque’ idea was very old and out-dated. Instead, they take a line of tolerance and promote interfaith work.”
The Al-Manaar-WLS relationship is now very deep, she says. “Al-Manaar was the first mosque in the country to build a Sukkah outside. They work with us on the refugee drop-in and homelessness shelters. Their entire leadership team came to the shul to show solidarity after Pittsburgh. Our cheder kids come here to learn about Islam, and their kids come to us to learn about Judaism. So it’s totally changed that reputation.
“Yes, there are still some at WLS who remain wary, but we have long had a long history of interfaith, going back to Rabbi Hugo Gryn. It’s in the blood.” Why? “Partly it is location and geography, with this great ethnic mix.”
This Grenfell kids’ camp is the perfect example of that in action. “This is what Judaism is all about,” says Sheridan.
“It’s what we should be doing. It’s a mitzvah, a commandment – clothe the naked, heal the sick, feed the hungry… Nowhere in the Torah does it say ‘only for Jews’. I’m so proud of these Jewish youth leaders.
“If their Jewish education leads them to want to do this kind of thing, we’ve succeeded.”
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- News Features
- Grenfell Tower
- West London Synagogue (WLS)
- Al-Manar Mosque
- Ismahan Egal
- Masorti Judaism
- Reform Judaism
- Liberal Judaism
- progressive judaism
- Nic Schlagman
- The West London Synagogue of British Jews (WLS)
- Wellbeing Practitioner at Yavneh College
- Wellbeing Practitioner
- Yavneh College
- Rabbi Sybil Sheridan
- Rabbi Hugo Gryn
By Joe Millis