Judaism and charity

In the third of our series on faith and charity, the chief executive of <em><a href="http://www.wjr.

As the years pass and I see my children become increasingly independent, I often marvel at how different their world is compared to when I was a child; from the tsunami to twitter, iPhones to IVF and GM foods to global warming. It is comforting though that some things remain the same. My children attend Cheder – Sunday school for young Jews. There they learn of Jewish history, culture and traditions; they are encouraged to interact with their peers and gain an understanding of the British Jewish community. While their learning methods may be computer-centric rather than under a cloud of chalk boards, the messages are the same. Each week, my children are encouraged to give a percentage of their pocket money to a worthy cause, via the Tzedakah (charity) box that circulates the classrooms. Traditionally, all Jews are obliged to give 10 per cent of their earnings to a charity or organisation that helps those more vulnerable than themselves.

Thus, the concept of charity is ingrained in the Jewish tradition from a very young age. Looking after our old, educating our children and providing for the vulnerable are all cornerstones of Judaism, the culture and the community. The fundamental value of being a "good Jew" lies in helping those less fortunate, along with the importance of family life and the continuation of Jewish traditions.

I am proud of my faith though honest enough to admit that my work for World Jewish Relief (WJR) is how I feel I can best express my Judaism. WJR's work is targeted at assisting the most vulnerable – saving lives and building livelihoods based on our own Jewish values. Our work seeks to provide sustenance and opportunity to those in desperate need who are unable to fend for themselves.

The vast majority of WJR’s work seeks to support the hidden Jewish communities of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that were ravaged first by the Holocaust and then under Soviet rule. There are over 1.2 million Jews in the region, including survivors of those who have faced decades of hardship in the Nazi and Communist eras. A huge percentage of these people also live far below the poverty line, struggling daily to feed their children and protect their elderly. In Ukraine alone, more than 100,000 Jewish people face the anguish of choosing between clothing their children, keeping their homes warm and buying medication. They are deprived of even the simple necessities of running water or appropriate footwear for the harsh winter months. As a son and a father, I cannot bear to imagine my family living in these conditions and I am therefore driven daily to better the lives of such families, in any small way that I can.

I travel to WJR’s recipient communities every few months and never cease to be at once saddened and inspired by what I see and those I speak to. Families who have to travel hundreds of miles to find work, who have been abandoned by relatives and live in what can only be described as hovels maintain a level of positivity and hope. Further, they are proud to be Jewish.

The Jewish faith promotes the Talmudic concept of ‘Tikkun Olam’ – healing the world. In this light, WJR looks beyond Jewish communities and the charity is proud of its global perspective, working both in the former Soviet Union and east and southern Africa to support non-Jewish communities. We recognise that particularity must lead to universality, not to inwardness and exclusion. Because as a community we recall our own historical pain, we become sensitised to other people's pain. We cannot eat in comfort while others go hungry. We cannot celebrate our riches while so many live in poverty. This is why, historically, those who follow Judaism have been among the leaders in the fight against injustice, poverty, homelessness and oppression. To be a Jew involves being true to your faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith.

Paul Anticoni is the Chief Executive of World Jewish Relief

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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