‘A smile costs nothing, but gives much. It enriches those who give it.
None is so rich or mighty that they can get along without it, and none is so poor they cannot be made richer by it.’
These are the words which encapsulate my experience of Judaism, a deeply misunderstood and frequently targeted religion. In the first few months of this year anti-semitic incidents, assaults, vandalism and harassment of Jewish people and groups increased by 86% in the USA. Things in the UK are little better with a total of 767 incidents reported between January and June, a rise of almost a third on the same time period in 2016. The media has held Trump’s presidency, the resurgence of white supremacists and Post-Brexit racial tensions responsible. Whilst these all play a part, I believe the ultimate cause is the systemic lack of understanding of religion in modern society.
This summer I flew across the globe to spend a few months in an all-girls Jewish camp and I was terrified. What would I encounter? A strict and backwards society? An out dated and exclusive group of women? Countless possibilities ran through my mind as I sat on the plane. I was entering the unknown and that scared me.
Anyone who has been to camp will tell you what a welcoming place it is, somewhere you can be yourself without fear of judgement. Whilst this is true, I would argue that it is the Jewish element of my Camp that made it such a special and powerful environment. The values I learnt and the way the children were taught was simple; be good, be nice, be kind. A friend of mine works at an entirely different Jewish Camp in an entirely different part of the States. I asked about his experience and he simply said ‘I think their morals are just to be a better person and be nice, they’re very forgiving and they’re very kind and incredibly respectful and they just want to help each other because why be an arsehole?’
I will not pretend to have an in depth knowledge of Judaism nor to have a true understanding of the faith, but the people I met were forward thinking, open minded and down to earth. The prayers we spoke were often applicable to anyone, religious or not. They were about being a good sportsman, being humble, being grateful and about the importance of community and coming together as a family. We sang songs which called for peace across the globe, songs which emphasised the importance of equality, songs which were fun and which somehow resonated with me, a vaguely Christian girl from England. On Shabbat we wore white, symbolising a fresh start, a clean page for a new week, something I think we all need from time to time. The girls strove to achieve the ‘Middah’ of the week, a value such as friendship, leadership or kindness for which they were recognised and rewarded. These children were simply learning how to be a decent human being, in an increasingly hate filled world.
I’m not suggesting we all convert, nor do I believe it is only Judaism which can be so open. In the world of terror we now live in a stigma has been attached to religion. The number of victims of religious and racist hate crime has risen almost 20 per cent, from 14,004 in 2015-16 to 16,618 in 2016-17. It is not that I ever assumed that Judaism was in anyway negative, I just did not comprehend quite how positive faith could be. I hadn’t ever really given religion much serious thought, obviously I knew it existed, and obviously I never thought it was a bad thing, but I hadn’t really ever seen such a clear example of its positive effects in action.
To any religious readers this epiphany may seem self evident, and for that I apologise, but for those readers raised atheist, agnostic or even those who tick ‘Church of England’ on the census without really knowing what it means, religion is not something we really stop and think about. In a world filled with such hate for and ignorance of religion, it was enlightening to see the simple positive effects it could have on these young girls’ lives. To generalise any religion is dangerous, rather than fearing what we do not understand we should strive to learn, to teach and to empathise. If hate crime is driven by fear of the unknown let us make it known.