Rabbi Allison RH Conyer Kol Nidrei 2018

"The Refugee Within"
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue

Born to Stefan and Ida Mohrenwitz on the 4th of November 1920 in Bamberg, Germany, Martin along with his sister and brother had a beautiful early childhood. The Mohrenwitz family owned the only factory in town, and the second largest cotton mill in Germany. As part of an influential and affluent family, Martin spent his early years in a home frequented by intellectuals and musicians. 

In 1933, when Hitler came to power and began introducing laws segregating Jews and Germans, as well as restricting where and what Jews could do, many Jewish youths gathered together to socialise.

There was some talk about leaving Germany, but Martin’s grandfather thought it would all blow over soon. 

On the 9th of November 1938, under covert orders of the Nazi regime, an estimated 7,500 Jewish businesses were smashed and looted; 267 synagogues were burned throughout Germany and Austria; Jewish homes and cemeteries were vandalised; hundreds of Jews were beaten and injured. 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to the first concentration camps. Martin’s father, Stefan, was among those captured. Fortunately, there was an error with Martin’s birthday, so he was not on the Gestapo’s list. Martin hid under a bed not knowing his fate.

The next day, Martin left for England. He applied to go to America, but before he was accepted, the war broke out and all Germans and Jews were suddenly considered “enemy aliens” and interned. Martin was put on a boat – the Dunera – with 2,542 detainees (2000 of which were Jewish refugees) for a gruelling 57-day voyage, finally to arrive on the Australian shores on the 6th of September, 1940. 

Weak, yet not broken, the Dunera Boys were transferred to an internment camp in Hay, New South Wales, where they were given a cup of tea and treated with decency. Later, they were transferred to Tatura, Victoria, where the men set up a life for themselves…

(Stories below taken from: https://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/get-facts/stories/; https://www.dss.gov.au/settlement-services/refugee-stories)

Anisa’s Story

From her first day of school in Iran, Anisa felt like an outsider. As members of the Baha’i faith, Anisa and her family faced daily discrimination, harassment and arbitrary arrest by the government, as Baha’i’s in Iran cannot practise their religion freely, nor can they enter university, vocational colleges and certain professions.

Fuelled by anguish and disillusionment, Anisa began to write and paint everything she felt. After winning fourth place in a state poetry competition, she was forbidden to compete in the national competition because of her faith. 

Despite being told that she would never succeed because she was of the ‘wrong religion’, Anisa was the top student at her high school. However, Anisa was denied her award and entry into university.

When her father had a near-fatal accident leaving him a paraplegic. Anisa’s family was told that they would not be able to receive compensation for the damages because they were Baha’i. Anisa’s family was forced to sell their business, home and possessions to pay for her father’s medical treatment.

With their situation becoming unbearable, Anisa’s family decided to leave Iran and escape to Turkey.

Anisa put her education on hold for another 3 years as her family went through the process of applying for refugee status and resettlement. Anisa’s family arrived in Sydney, just in time to celebrate the New Year and the beginning of their new life.

Darwich’s Story

Darwich had a good life in Syria before war took everything. He had a good job as a tailor, living a normal life, surrounded by family and friends. It was a hard moment the day he woke up to find his beautiful street in Aleppo, Syria, full of soldiers.

The air force was overhead, and bombs started raining down around them, destroying houses and killing people in their neighbourhood. He realised that day that his family was not going to find happiness again until they left Syria. Life as they knew it had been destroyed, but still, it was very hard to make the decision to leave, to leave their parents behind in the middle of a war to an unknown, yet almost certain fate. They fled to Lebanon as there was nothing left for them, no future for their children.

Life was tough in Lebanon. Darwich and his wife worked as much as they could just to feed their family. When they registered with the United Nations, they were willing to go anywhere so their family could be safe…

Evelyn’s Story

Evelyn lived in a small village in Burma with her family until the Burmese soldiers came and burned it down. They destroyed everything. No one was safe. Her family was constantly moving from place to place and life was very hard. She and what was left of her family were taken to a refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border and lived there for 22 years waiting for a better life...

Martin, Anisa, Darwich, and Eveyln– all came from different countries at different times in their lives, at different times in their country’s history. All of them came from loving homes with dreams of a bright future. All of them confronted death at too early an age – death of their loved ones, death of their homes and land, death of the life they once had, death of the future they imagined for themselves, and, in many cases, death of a small part of their soul.

They saw their lives pass before their eyes and dreamt of something better. 

All of them were refugees who were given a second chance, an opportunity for a new life, a better life in Australia. 

According to the United Nations Convention of 1951, a refugee is: 

Any person who flees their country of origin "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” and where the government is unwilling or unable to protect their human rights.

Refugee camps run by United Nations were originally developed to help refugees and displaced persons, who were forced to leave their homes due to natural disasters. They were intended to be a temporary safety stop until the refugees could return home or were settled into new country.

When the early Zionists considered the offer of Uganda as a Jewish homeland, there was decent support for a Jewish refuge, a safety stop for Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe. There was a debate as to whether or not it would be a temporary or permanent place to call home, as the Jewish refugees were not just fleeing from a single country of origin, but were universally “persecuted for reasons of race, religion, and Jewish nationality.” We, Jews, are no strangers to the refugee experience.

According to the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, our world is currently experiencing a global refugee crisis with the largest number of displaced people in history with their home countries unable or unwilling to help them. There are currently 68.5 million people displaced worldwide (http://www.unhcr.org/en-au/figures-at-a-glance.html). Displaced people include those who are internally displaced, meaning they are force to leave their homes but remain within their country; refugees, those who have found refuge in other countries; and asylum seekers, those who have fled their countries of origin due to fear of death or loss of livelihood, who did not have time to go through the proper channels to await a visa, and are still awaiting recognition of their refugee status.

Ten million people are considered “stateless,” meaning they don’t have a country, or don’t recognise the country to which they are supposedly connected; and a record number of 44,000 people a day are forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution. (http://www.unhcr.org/en-au/figures-at-a-glance.html

Some of you might be asking ‘why talk about refugees on the holiest night of our Jewish year?’ I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about homelessness, the impact on the individual and on society. The refugee crisis is a global homelessness problem. And just like homelessness, the refugee situation is fraught with complexities and divisiveness far too great to address here. So, although tempting, my reasons for discussing refugees are not political, but, rather, spiritual. 

1) Tonight, and throughout Yom Kippur, we are all metaphorically like displaced persons. We afflict our souls through acts such as fasting, so that our souls become uncomfortable in our bodies, wandering stateless in search of a better home, which, ideally, after our introspective spiritual clean out, we will be able to find. 

The yamim noraim, are not only defined as the High Holy Days, or the Days of Awe, but also the Days of Dread.

We are encouraged to confront those elements within ourselves and our world which threaten us, so that we can find a welcoming space within ourselves and with others where our souls can eventually rest. 

Yom Kippur recognises that our relationship to our external world is only a mirror of our internal one, and vice versa. A person who is angry with themselves, will be angry with the world around them. A person totally in love with themselves, will not have space to love those around them. A person who feels guilty within, is unable to fully trust the motives of the world around them. This Yom Kippur, by looking at this global crisis, we gain insight into our inner worlds. By reflecting on our inner world, we hope to gain new perspectives on the world outside of us. Yom Kippur is ultimately about finding the G-dliness that dwells within, so that we can experience G-d beyond. 

However, unlike today’s refugees, we have the choice to put ourselves in this situation on Yom Kippur. We go to G-d to seek refuge while we take 25 hours of our lives to consider how to reshape those uncomfortable elements in our lives, to create a safe space within ourselves so that we can feel safe amongst those around us.

In the quiet of this day we aim to find peace and clarity and strength to determine which parts of the past year we would like to bring into the year ahead and which parts we prefer to discard. We now have 23 hours to go. For today’s refugees, their situation is not of their making, and their countdown to finding their peace and clarity has no fixed end point. 

2) Yom Kippur is also known as Yom Ha’Din – Day of Judgement. We sit here today, on this day of judgement, wanting to be seen and judged as we see ourselves, as we really are, rather than by what others expect us to be or project upon us. We are challenged to do the same for others. We know that when others impose unfair judgement upon us, we feel slighted, disempowered or even depersonalised. This judgement demeans and diminishes the humanity each of us contains deep within. We deserve to be treated better. 

Every Yom Kippur, we are to ask ourselves about the judgements we impose on others, truly questioning whether these judgements are more a reflection of who we are and how we are feeling, or whether they are honestly based on the character of the person we are judging.

I could remind us all that the Mishna teaches: “Do not judge another person until we are standing in their shoes (Pirkei Avot 2:4),” but I am realistic, and understand human nature. So, since we do judge people, we must take care to ensure that our judgements are based on their actions not on our state of mind or our pre-conceptions of them or of what we think is the only correct way to behave.

We are to challenge ourselves to look beyond these judgements towards the deeper humanity that sits within each person; for, within each person, a greater good exists. On Yom Kippur, we commit ourselves to rediscover that piece of good within each person. This is a process that humanises our community and allows the image of G-d within each of us to shine.

When I listen to conversations relating to today’s refugee crisis, I often hear refugees being collectively pre-judged to be untrustworthy, unskilled, simple-minded, bottom-feeders, and potential terrorists. So many refugees, after fleeing a struggle not of their own making, again have to struggle to be accepted and acknowledged for the skills, experience and potential they bring with them from their previous lives.

When we treat any person in a lesser way, we displace their soul, and then their soul becomes like a walking refugee. When we participate in a conversation about “them”, that in any way diminishes their essential humanity, we not only dehumanise them, we also diminish our national character, and, in turn, ourselves. For on Yom Kippur, we are reminded that all humans are made in G-d’s image, those with whom we might disagree, and those we love; those who we perceive as strangers and those who are our friends.

On this Day of Judgement, as we delve inside ourselves, some of us hiding, others screaming out to be authentically recognised, we can better understand, or at least be more sensitive to all others.

For our souls to feel truly at home in our bodies, we need to recognise our essential selves, that which is authentically us, and to have those closest to us recognise that person too. How often have we felt misunderstood, misrepresented, or overlooked? How did that make us feel? Without the support of people around us, we can feel displaced and homeless, with no place to belong.

After 18 months in the Australian refugee camp, Martin was contacted by a Jewish boy his family billeted years earlier in Germany. As they were catching up, Martin heard a horrible sound in the other room which happened to be John’s little sister, Ellinor, practicing the violin.

Meanwhile, Martin learned that his parents and brother escaped to Shanghai and his sister, an ardent Zionist, moved to what was then Palestine to begin her life anew and be part of the establishment of the Jewish state.

Because Martin had joined the Australian army, he was able to sponsor his parents and brother to come to Australia.

After the army, Martin began working in a factory, then landed a job working as a radio serviceman. He later married the girl behind the squeaky violin, Ellinor, and had 4 beautiful children, one of whom is here today. Frank Moore, has not only been an Etz Chayim President for 10 years, but District Leader in Scouts and a recipient of the Glen Eira Council Citizen of the Year award.

Isaac, a refugee from Uganda, knew he was different. He asked his dad, “why are we blacker than everyone else?” He was a quiet boy who was bullied at school.

He didn’t have many friends but, at the age of 14, he joined a footy club set up for refugee children. When he got to the football field, everything changed. The team accepted his culture and gave him a place, a sense of belonging. His parents also became more integrated into the community because of his involvement in the club.

Evelyn, a Burmese refugee, was a midwife in the refugee camp and would have been happy to continue midwifery, but her English was not strong enough. So, she studied healthcare and horticulture, meeting people from different countries bringing every level of experience with them. She began doing gardening for Werribee Park, then began working with refugee volunteers who were having difficulties finding work. There, they made friends, learned valuable skills, ate vegetables, and were able to give back to the community.

Evelyn reminds us that if we support refugees, they support us. It’s a win-win situation.

Darwich, a Syrian refugee, gives a message to the Australian people: “If you want to know how you can help refugees, just be patient and give them a smile. If you help us today, one day we will help you.”

On Yom Kippur, we are called to examine our deeds in relation to our loved ones, ourselves, and the world around us. There is a beautiful Chasidic teaching of a person wearing a coat with two pockets. In one pocket, there is a message with the written words “the whole world was created just for me.” In the other pocket, there is a message with the written words “I am but dust and ashes.”

Our role, our place in the world, according to this Jewish teaching, is to find that balance, taking the most out of life, learning, growing, giving, but also retaining a sense of humility and recognition that not everything is about us. On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the homeless; and tonight, I am speaking about world homelessness, otherwise called the refugee crisis. Both are real problems affecting our world today. Both are contentious issues with many different sides to the story and no simple solution. Both issues “out there” can also be reflected “in here” (point to heart).

What does it mean to have a home and then to lose it? What does it mean to have a sense of self and then to lose it?

What does it mean to flee for our lives looking for a safe place of refuge?

What does it mean to escape our life circumstances that are suffocating us as we look for an alternative way forward?

What does it mean to be pre-judged, under-valued, over-looked, to regularly face ridicule, be misunderstood and lack familiar support as we attempt to integrate into a new culture?

What does it mean to be pre-judged, under-valued, over-looked, to regularly face ridicule, be misunderstood and lack support within our own communities and families?

So, this Kol Nidrei night, as we commence our Day of Dread and Day of Judgement, I invite us all to reflect back upon our life and take refuge in G-d. As we temporarily and by choice displace our souls from our bodies, I encourage each of us to consider what we are fleeing and what we would like to build for ourselves; how we are different and unique; what skills and experiences we offer; how we would like to be seen; how we feel we are seen or judged. I invite us to consider who and what in our lives offer us stability and support; and who and what shakes our foundations.

And finally, I invite us to take the advice of the refugees, be patient with ourselves; give ourselves a smile, don’t be too hard on ourselves, or on others. Be supportive and we will be supported. Remember to see the humanity in each person, friend and stranger alike, as seeing the humanity in others helps us to see the humanity in ourselves.

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ

Love your neighbour as yourself (Lev. 19:16)

Ken y’hi ratzon – may this be G-d’s will.


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