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Reform Magazine | June 14, 2024

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Stand together, kneel together - Reform Magazine

Stand together, kneel together

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the leader of Masorti Judaism. This combines traditional ritual with a reinterpretation of Torah for the modern world. In these troubled times he is a voice of comfort and reconciliation. His latest book, Listening for God in Torah and Creation, is an exploration of our shared scriptures for both Jews and Christians.

Rabbi Wittenberg was awarded an OBE in January. The interview took place in December 2023.

I was struck by the story you tell about your response to the abuse of Marcus Rashford after the penalty shoot-out in 2020.
I’m not a great football watcher, but I saw that cup final, and was horrified by the racism he faced, after the good he had done with free school meals in holidays. He is a powerful moral voice in our society. To hear that, on racist grounds, his mural had been defaced really struck a chord. I thought, I have to go and pay my respects. I just have to go, in the name of human decency, but also in the name of Judaism, because everybody is created in the image of God and I have to stand up for this. Also as a descendant of refugees’ – both my parents were refugees from Nazi Germany.

I put the dog in the car, a sleeping bag and a bit of food, and set off [from London], not sure whether I’d make it with an electric car, which I had to recharge twice. But I got to Manchester at about two in the morning, and there was a young man there, who also said ‘I have to pay my respects.’ I put up a note from my community, and saw that there were many notes of support from different people, including from the local Jewish community. I took a couple of pictures and headed back. On the way, I called the leadership of my community because there’d been a meeting I was supposed to be at, but I said, ‘I’m doing this in the name of our community.’ And they said, ‘Yes, you need to do that.’

You mentioned your parents escaping Nazi Germany. Other members of your family did not escape. For me, the Holocaust seems a distant, almost mythological, event but it’s entangled with everything about your life.
It’s true. A couple of my books have been about the Holocaust, one about walking from my grandfather’s synagogue in Frankfurt, carrying symbolically the light back to the synagogue my community has built here in London. And another after my father died and I found a lot of papers from the late 30s and the 40s, through which I was able to trace the fate of his family, a rabbinic family, some of whom survived and some of whom perished, and weave that around the political events of the Nazi Holocaust. So it has been very important to me. What can I say?

It shapes quite profoundly my sense of belonging and values. I remember being in New York at the time of the inauguration of President Obama. When he said, ‘My father may or may not have been served at a café along this avenue’, I remember weeping and thinking it was to see a world like this that my grandfather got out of Dachau. The huge importance of working for a world in which there isn’t race hate, in which there isn’t antisemitism (antisemitism is a form of racism), and in which we consciously cultivate relationships and work together for the sake of humanity – and creation – in ways that transcend these differences.

Of course now this terrible war in the Middle East… Yesterday I was at Together for Humanity, and before that with Archbishop Welby and Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, to say we won’t bring this conflict here. The Jews and Muslims are not enemies. It is so painful to witness the harm we do each other…


This is an extract from an article published in the February 2024 edition of Reform

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