In a bid to get more Orthodox Jews involved in international social justice work, British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s office created an annual fellowship to educate young British Jews about poverty and the efforts to combat it around the world.
The Ben Azzai program was created, in part, from an understanding that while many British Jews were involved in social justice work around the world, the religious Jewish community had largely ceded the field to secular Jewish or non-religious organizations and programs.
The program gets its name from a famed second-century rabbi, Shimon Ben Azzai, who is quoted in the Jerusalem Talmud as saying that more important than the biblical decree to “love your neighbor has yourself” is the passage from the Book of Genesis, “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” Ben Azzai’s position is interpreted as stressing the importance of recognizing the connection between all people in the world, not only those similar to yourself.
As part of the program, in late December 2018, 15 British university students traveled to eastern India in order to learn about the region’s poverty, but not necessarily to do anything about it yet.
“They told us: You’re not coming here to save India. This is an educational trip. You’re not going to ‘help’ people on this trip,” Tamara Steuer, one of the participants from the London School of Economics, told The Times of Israel.
The chief rabbi’s office brought The Times of Israel along for the trip to India, providing airfare and lodging.
Steuer and others expressed satisfaction at the fact that this trip was not designed to have them volunteer at a school for a day or feed a meal to the homeless at a soup kitchen — what has been derisively deemed “poorism,” a portmanteau of poor and tourism.
Indeed, many of the participants expressed concerns about appearing to be “taking selfies with poor brown children,” rather than trying to actually study the issue and effect change.
The trip’s organizers stressed that Ben Azzai is a leadership program, designed to educate the participants about the issues of poverty so that they can bring that information back to their communities in order to inspire more people to take an interest in international development.
Mirvis, who did not attend the trip but did visit the area in 2016, said the Ben Azzai program has already had an effect on the British religious community, citing two Orthodox synagogues’ decisions to open refugee absorption centers on their premises.
“I don’t think that would have happened before,” Mirvis said, speaking to The Times of Israel over the phone earlier this year.
During the week-long trip last year — from December 23 to 31 — the participants visited villages in the Malda region of eastern India and the city of Kolkata in order to learn about and discuss both rural and urban poverty — something most of them, residents of London’s posher suburbs, had never before encountered.
Plumbing was a rarity. The dirt road leading to the school flooded and became impassable during the rainy season. When asked what was the most difficult thing facing their lives, the villagers cited poor weather and an unpredictable growing season for their food crops.
“We asked villagers about their biggest problems. They said, ‘Will we have enough to eat? Will it rain?’ They asked us about ours, and I thought, ‘Do we have any?'” said Sara Ellerman, another participant.
After a few days in the country, the students traveled to Kolkata, where they visited a home for boys who had either been orphaned or whose parents could not financially support them and a hospital that supplemented the state-provided medical services, which are nominally available to all citizens but in practice are often out of the reach of Indians without families or money.
The students also spent Shabbat in Kolkata, which once had a community of thousands of Jews but now cannot put together the 10-person quorum needed to hold religious services. The few remaining members of the Jewish community recently renovated one of the city’s three synagogues, but this is more for cultural preservation rather than to ensure that visitors have a place to pray. While the synagogue had been beautifully restored, it lacked such fundamental items as copies of Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, needed to read the weekly Torah portion.
A Jewish foreign policy
This was the third such trip organized by the chief rabbi’s office as part of the Ben Azzai program. For the past two years, the chief rabbi has partnered with the UK-based Tzedek organization to run the initiative.
Though it’s open to anyone in the United Kingdom, the participants this year all came from the London area, ranging in age from 18 to 23. All but one came from Orthodox backgrounds.
Dan Bacall, director of external affairs in the chief rabbi’s office, who led the trip, said the main focus of the Ben Azzai program was not the week-long trip but what the participants once they return to the United Kingdom. This was echoed by his boss, the chief rabbi.
“It is not the event that is the ikar, but the follow-up,” Mirvis said, using the Hebrew term meaning, the most important thing.
“The impact has to go beyond the participants,” the chief rabbi added. “There needs to be a change of mindset.”
Mirvis said he experienced some pushback for the Ben Azzai program, which is funded by the philanthropic Pears Foundation, as many in the British Jewish community prefer to focus their attention on helping those within the community, the UK or Israel, rather than around the world, from a viewpoint that charity starts at home.
“But this should not replace anything. It is ‘in addition to,'” Mirvis said. “But there is a shift in how people are thinking.”
The chief rabbi added that Jewish law and teachings show that Jews need to see themselves as part of the world, not disconnected from it.
“We’re not acting in a vacuum,” he said. “There needs to be a Jewish foreign policy for the 21st century.”
Three weeks after the trip, members of the previous year’s Ben Azzai program, who had visited impoverished communities in Ghana, led a UK-wide “Social Responsibility Week,” in which participants in both the 2017 and 2018 trips held events across the country in Jewish schools, synagogues, educational institutions and universities’ Jewish groups to discuss what they’d seen on their trips and how it connects to Judaism and Jewish law.
As part of the social responsibility week, Abigail Rose, who was on the 2018 Kolkata trip, spoke to London’s Hasmonean High School, where she’d previously been a student.
“I explained to them what it means to go without. We want wi-fi, and all they want is food on the table,” Rose told The Times of Israel.
“I let the [Hasmonean] students know how lucky they are.”
Rose also spoke at her local synagogue, where she delved more deeply into the religious aspects of this international social justice work.
“I really played on the chief rabbis ideals and his views on the matter. Obviously Jewish charities are important, but when there are so many other people who need our help and we can let them know who we are as Jews, that’s also important,” she said.
Rose, who has since graduated from Birmingham City University with degree in criminology, said that the trip has had a lasting impact on her.
“The India trip really instilled in me a desire to help people,” she said last month.
“I want a job where I feel like I am helping people, which is why I want to go into the social sector.”
Rose said that in addition to the effect on her considerations for future professions, the Ben Azzai program also more generally opened her eyes to her own privilege and changed the way she would travel in the future.
She recalled Indians asking to take pictures with them because they were white or letting them cut in line or directing them to cleaner bathrooms that were specially designated for foreigners.
“There’s all of this even though [British] colonial rule ended 70 years ago,” she said. “They still think that we are… I don’t know if superior is the right word, but something like that.”
Rose said that now she’d reconsider going on “fun” vacations to countries with extreme poverty, but encouraged others to visit these places in order to learn more about them.
“People need to go on trips like this and see how the other half lives,” she said.