Last Saturday night, we had a unique and important experience. After spending Shabbat at home and in our respective communities, we travelled to Trafalgar Square to take part in the World’s Big Sleep Out. We slept out in the cold and the rain as part of a global campaign, which went to 52 cities, to highlight the importance of tackling homelessness and to raise money for relevant charities.
It was a very powerful experience, wrapped up with a sleeping bag and an orange survivor bag which theoretically protected us from the rain. We realised that we were fortunate to have warm homes to go to the next morning. Homeless people have to face the vagaries of the weather night after night, which has a debilitating impact, mentally and physically. At the event in Trafalgar Square, attended by 2,000 people, we were able to meet people who had slept rough for long periods and were now turning their lives round.
We found out about the scale of the homelessness problem. All of us have walked past homeless people, near where we live and work. Certain parts of central London are infamous for it. It’s a matter of shame that there are so many homeless and hungry people in the UK, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. In total, there are thought to be 320,000 homeless people across the country, and several thousand people sleep rough every night. Official statistics show that 726 homeless people died in England and Wales last year. Homeless people are often isolated with few family and friends. They often suffer from mental breakdown, and being out of work compounds the problems.
For us, from the United Synagogue family of communities, we felt it really important to take part. Our faith tells us that we have to care for all of humanity. Home is central to the Jewish way of life, and provides us with shelter, identity, belonging and a pivot to the outside world. Without this, people can’t function in society.
Often the Orthodox world has been accused of being too introspective. We believe passionately that Judaism and our community needs to be outward-facing, addressing the big social challenges from homelessness and unemployment to mental health and obesity. The Chief Rabbi had expressed his support for the World’s Big Sleep Out, alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury and other faith leaders, which encouraged us to participate.
The Jewish community can take a moral lead on these issues and can help in practical ways too, providing shelter and resources to those in need. At Muswell Hill Synagogue, we participate in a local charity’s project to provide shelter for the homeless during winter months. Engagement on social issues particularly appeals to the younger generation of Millennials, imbued with a sense of wider communal responsibility.
At the Big Sleep Out in Trafalgar Square, we were part of a multi-faith group. This included a Canon of Westminster Abbey and an Imam running a charity dealing with domestic abuse. We can certainly learn from each other, and it makes sense to work together to tackle social problems. There is much focus on division between faiths, so it’s important to show that we can work together constructively for the common good.
Returning home on Sunday morning, bleary eyed, we felt proud to have been part of this symbolic event and were reminded how blessed we are in our own lives. Our local communities and friends have responded positively to our fund-raising efforts. Of course, the problem of homelessness is complicated and can’t be solved overnight. Nor do we claim to know what it feels like. The sleep out only gave us a glimpse into the discomfort for one night only. But by showing alertness to the suffering of others, we showed that Judaism can be part of the solution to this horrible problem. Next time you pass a homeless person, remember they are human too and our religion sees homelessness as a social injustice we must all strive to correct.
- To donate to the World’s Big Sleep Out, please visit: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?userUrl=MultiFaithLeadersGroup&isTeam=true
- Rabbi David Mason and Zaki Cooper are both Trustees of the Council of Christians and Jews. In addition, Rabbi Mason is Rabbi of Muswell Hill Synagogue and executive member, Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue
- Zaki Cooper
- Harriet Morris Sloane
- Veronica Wetten
- London Fo Guang Shan Temple
- Rabbi David Mason
- Muswell Hill Synagogue
- Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue
- M Yazdani Raza Misbahi
- London Fatwa Council
- Rabbi Herschel Gluck
- Ohr Avrohom
- Light of Abraham
- Mustafa Field - Director
- Faiths Forum for London
- Big Sleep Out
- World's Big Sleep Out