Friday, May 2, 2014

Together For Humanity growing up, our 12th birthday and being “unfunded”

Messages from students from many backgrounds and faiths,
sewn together to make the words "Goodness and Kindness"
Cover the NSW State Parliament in March 2004, with students
from state, Christian, Jewish and Muslim schools seated on
Macquarie street following proceedings.
Australians are preparing for the first budget of a government “of grown-ups”. Leaders of not for profit organisations such as one I spoke to this week who runs a domestic violence shelter for migrant women cannot tell her staff if she can continue to employ them much longer.  I am very concerned about the people who need these services. I am less concerned about the fact that the diversity education service that I run which does not address such acute problems has been formally advised it will not be funded again by the commonwealth. This is a good time for such news. Because today is the 12th birthday for our work, our first program with a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim at St Ives North took place 2 May 2002. The age of 12, or the 13th year (1) are the ages of maturity in Judaism. Together For Humanity is ready to be a “grown up”.

Being responsible can sometimes be difficult. We will invariably fail to realise our potential and unless we aim too low, will not always achieve our goals. Yet, I am reassured by the assertion by our president, Madenia Abdurahman, that our intentions and sincerity are important strengths. There are organisations that have better PR, fundraising and other valuable capacities that enable them to shine.  TFH’s capacity to contribute has been based on the authenticity or our people, their decency, honesty and humanity and a cause based on the truth of our common humanity, our right to dignity and respect and opportunity for delighting in engaging with those who seem different.

I was deeply moved by the reflection of Raf F., a student who attended that first session in 2002.
“I was just thinking how it was such an honour to have been there at the very beginning! 

I don't remember much from what was actually said but I remember being amazed and appreciative.

While being at a particular multicultural school, exposure to other faiths and cultures was far from a novel experience, the focus had leant towards why we were all different (yet special of course) but not the ways in which we were the same. I think it really shaped how I defined the community in which I belonged and how I approached interfaith/cross-cultural dialogue as I grew up (as hard as it is to discern my 11-year-old self's perspective!)! I'm so glad this vital cause has continued to grow over the past 12 years!
” Moving comments have also been posted by the teacher, Di Barnes, who invited us to St Ives North and one of our current presenters (2).

At a Bar or Bat Mitzvah we draw inspiration from the weeks’ Torah reading. Not always an easy task because the Torah, like the world, challenges us with the prominence of difference.  It tells us about the “Cohen” clan that was extra holy. A male Cohen is forbidden to marry a divorcee and others “because he his holy to his God”. “Marrying these women would disgrace his honour and seed/offspring (3).” I have not yet found any satisfying explanation about how the fact that a woman was previously married might be a problem for someone holy. Surely every human being is compatible with holiness, provided their actions and heart are in the right place. It would be tempted to pretend these laws don’t exist, but we need not fear the truth about the texts, our own or those of others.

Reading such laws challenges me. I wonder what my Christian, Atheist or Muslim readers think when they read this. I know that many people get stuck on texts or practices like these. I don’t think we need to get stuck on these. This is not necessarily because there is always an explanation that justifies all of this and makes it all ok. Rather it is because alongside these realities are others.

In the case of the Torah here is another set of laws. The chief Cohen was forbidden to attend even his own parents’ funeral because of a prohibition against coming into contact with the dead (4).  Despite this, if he finds an unattended corpse, it doesn’t need to enquire whether the person who died was a saint or a prostitute, a fellow Cohen or a bastard, he must attend to the burial and dignity of that person (5). We can all connect with that.

We later read about the obligation to set aside a corner of the harvest for the poor (6), even if the harvest is for the purpose of fulfilling other religious obligations, the poor must be attended to (7). Indeed they should even when our country attends to deficits and defence spending in the budget process. Laws like these draw many of us together even as others, if we focused on them exclusively, alienate people from each other or from the text as a whole.

And so Together For Humanity goes ahead with the support of others, including the Community Relations Commission/NSW Government, Andrew and Nicola Forrest of the Minderoo Foundation of, our patron Janet Holmes a Court, the Becher Foundation, long-time supporter Talal Yassine, the Magid family, and many others who give time, heart and money.  We will continue to add value with the help of our amazing volunteers, including our chairman John McGrath and our board, our current intern Malin Wiander, our webmaster Gary Hoggard, designer Paul Bennet and Professor Di Yerbury. We are grateful for support from our long time educational leader Donna Jacobs Sife, Uncle Lex Dadd and all our presenters from many faiths and so many others.  A double thank you to the man who sparked it all: the late Joseph Sheridan, to his mate and a key presenter/organiser 2002-2006 Ray Corbin and to the teachers and students who engaged with our message. Kathleen Gordon, Ronit Baras and Sheikh Ahmad, thank you for TFH QLD. Sheikh Haisam, your contribution is unforgettable. The late Sabina Van Der Linden, and Costa Vrisakis, and Rabbi Nochum Schapiro of Chabad House, we would not be here without you.

We will be ok and continue to have a meaningful impact, but our Government, just as we ourselves as citizens and communities, must do the responsible thing for the most vulnerable people in our society. That is a principle we can all come together for, it reflects our humanity.

1)    The age of 12 is the age of maturity and obligation for keeping commandments for females, and the age of 13 for males is when they are obligated to observe commandments. This is referred to as Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah
3)    Leviticus 21:7
4)    Seforno
5)    Leviticus 21:11
6)    Talmud Nazir 47
7)    Leviticus 23:22
8)    Midrash Chefetz, from a manuscript, cited in Torah Shlaima, Emor 206, note 156