On Tuesday evening, I participated in the pre-launch Assembly of Brighton and Hove Citizens UK. Over the past couple of years, Peter Brierley, the community organiser of Citizens UK, based in London, has made regular trips to Brighton forging contacts with local organisations, including local churches as well as our synagogue, with a view to bringing Citizens UK to the city. In February, Peter led a two-day Citizens UK training workshop at the shul with representatives from a number of local organisations, including two BHPS congregants – one, wearing two hats – and me. But Peter stayed in the background at the Assembly. Held at Brighton Table Tennis Club, which is one of the organisations that has taken up the challenge of establishing Citizens UK in Brighton and Hove, the event was skilfully hosted by two young people – a student from Sussex University and a Syrian refugee, who has found his voice as a result of getting involved in the Brighton Table Tennis Club. More of that young Syrian refugee in a moment.

Citizens UK is about bringing power back to the people. As we read on their website:[1]

Citizens UK organises communities to act together for power, social justice and the common good. We are the home of community organising in the UK, with diverse civil society alliances in London, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Birmingham, Wales and Leeds. We develop the leadership capacity of our members so they can hold politicians and other decision-makers to account on the issues that matter to them. Community organising is democracy in action: winning victories that change lives and transform communities.

Up and down the country, local people do not have an effective voice. The plan for Brighton and Hove Citizens is that the funds pledged by local organisations will make it possible to employ a local community organiser in September, who will then engage in a listening exercise, so that the concerns of local people are brought before the candidates of all the political parties at the local elections next May.

One of the people who has helped to get the initiative off the ground is Saul Becker, the new deputy Vice Chancellor at Sussex University. In his previous university posts, Saul has combined his university role with establishing Citizens UK in two cities, Nottingham and Birmingham. How fortunate we are that Saul Becker has moved to Brighton! And he has already achieved key results: Sussex University has pledged £10,000 a year to the fund to pay the salary of the local community organiser and Sussex Student Union has pledged £1500 per year. The target is £30,000. So far, £24,000 has been pledged, and the synagogue council has made the decision to devote one third of this year’s High Holy Day Appeal to Citizens UK, as a first step towards demonstrating our commitment to establishing the initiative in Brighton and Hove.

Judging by what local voices have had the opportunity to say as a result of Citizens UK’s work elsewhere, the issues that are likely to emerge in Brighton and Hove encompass the need for a rent-cap on privately rented properties and other housing issues, issues of employment and financial hardship, including the cost of credit, social care, and safe passage for unaccompanied children and vulnerable adults.[2]

You could say that since we can probably guess the priority issues for local people in our city, why do we need to go to the expense of employing a community organiser to listen to them and identify their concerns? One of the main factors in the success of Citizens UK so far – which has included the stunning Living Wage campaign – has been, precisely, that it is centred on local people getting the chance to be citizens, to articulate their concerns to those with the power to make decisions – principally, local councillors – and so, have a central role in shaping policy on a local level.

There is no doubt that there are a lot of social justice and community organisations doing good work in Brighton and Hove. However, the dimension of coming together to galvanise local people in order to have an impact on the policymakers has been missing. Hopefully, these diverse groups will get on board with the initiative to establish Citizens UK in order to tackle some of the intractable problems in our city. After all, Brighton is not just a trendy, progressive heartland; an oasis of ‘Labour’ and ‘Remain’ voters on the south coast and an attractive tourist destination. One of the items in the programme on Tuesday evening involved another Sussex University student doing a mini multiple-choice quiz with us. One particular fact, struck me very powerfully. The question concerned where Brighton is on the list of cities when it comes to the suicide rate. Is it 10th or, perhaps, 30th? It turns out that our city is third – after Blackpool and Durham. Yes: the third highest suicide rate in Britain is here in Brighton and Hove.

There is no doubt that we need Citizens UK in our city. As I said a few months ago, the first task of the local community organiser will be to listen to local people. I’ve just quoted a statistic – one among many. Statistics, by definition, are abstract. To give another example: We are aware that homelessness continues to be significant phenomenon nationwide, but all we hear and see are statistics. When it comes to the local terrain, however, we can see the reality of homelessness on the streets of our city. We can see people and the bundles of their belongings in doorways. In recent weeks, a homeless man has been sleeping on our doorway – here at the synagogue. Thankfully, with the help of Street link,[3] a local organisation that the shul council has chosen as another one of the recipients of this year’s High Holy Day Appeal, he is now receiving help. One of the speakers on Tuesday evening was Craig, who had been on the street for many years. He told us that what kept him going during that terrible time was his creativity, mostly expressed in the poems he composed. He recited one of his poems to us. To hear Craig’s poetic account of his decidedly un-poetic experience was very moving.

We need to hear the individual voices of the homeless. We also need to hear the individual voices of refugees. In recent years, the refugee crisis has dominated the headlines, and we have been particularly aware of the conflict in Syria. The news is so overwhelming. How do we make sense of it? Brighton and Hove has been designated as a ‘City of Sanctuary’.[4] This means that ‘refugees are welcome’ here.[5] For the past couple of years ,we have collected weekly donations of non-perishable foods and toiletries for the refugees supported by Brighton Voices in Exile.[6] More recently, we held an all-night study marathon at Shavuot in aid of Thousand 4 1000,[7] another local refugees’ charity – in this case, raising money to house refugees. The thinking behind the name is that for every 1000 people who donate just £1 per month a refugee can be given a home. You can work out for yourselves how many refugees might be housed if 10,000 people donated £2 per month.

But still, giving donations to needy refugees however essential, is not the same as listening to their stories and finding out about their lives. Speaking articulately, having learnt English since he arrived in Britain, Wassim, the young Syrian co-host of the evening I mentioned earlier, brought the reality of being a refugee home to us. Wassim began by saying, “I have seen the best of the world and the worst of the world.” Then he spoke briefly about having grown up with a certain amount of privilege, including, attending a private school, and then having his world turned upside down. Wassim experienced the horrors of the conflict in his home country before finding himself in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Let me share with you what he said next:

If anyone has an excuse to give up to say what’s the point, or change isn’t possible it’s me but that’s not what I’m going to do. Maybe when you see me you see a refugee but I ask you please don’t label me. I’m a citizen of Brighton, a member of Brighton Table Tennis Club and a student of Bhasvic.[8] I believe change is possible and change starts with me. What can I do, what can Brighton and Hove Table Tennis Club do and how can I be a part of that. Don’t get me wrong I see what’s wrong with the world, it makes me angry but it moves me to want to act. I’m inspired by the best of the world to believe that we can work towards a better world, a better Syria, a better Lebanon and a better Brighton.

Listening to Wassim was very inspiring. After hearing his testimony, we were then invited to take a few minutes to speak with the person sitting next to us to share the issues that resonate with us, and a particular change we would like to make. ‘1-2-1s’ as Citizens UK calls them, are a central feature of the work of galvanising people. The goal of becoming active citizens engaging with and transforming our communities and the society in which we live begins with individuals speaking and listening to one another.

In other words, it begins with our stories. A strong community is built out of our lives as individuals, our experiences. So, what happens when the stories of individuals are not told? The story of the community vanishes. Which brings me to this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat. When the narrative resumes at Numbers, chapter 20, thirty-eight years have elapsed and not one word about them. Let’s be clear about this: last week’s parashah, Korach, continuing on from the previous portion, Sh’lach L’cha, narrates events in the second year of our ancestors’ journey in the wilderness. When the narrative picks up again in this week’s parashah, it is the first month of the fortieth year (Numbers 20:1). What happened during those lost years? We will never know. Where are the stories? Were they ever written down? And if they were scribed, why hasn’t an account of that time survived? I suspect that the stories that people told during those years of wandering were deliberately not written down. Why might one reach that conclusion? It is in Sh’lach L’cha, the portion of two weeks ago that we learn that following the ‘evil report’ of ten of the twelve tribal leaders concerning the reconnoitre of the land (Numbers 13:32ff.), the people were condemned to wander in the wilderness for a total of forty years. One verse states the matter very boldly (Numbers 14:33):

Your children shall be wanderers in the wilderness forty years, and shall bear your strayings, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness.

Now that’s an image! In a sense that fainthearted generation suffered a double punishment: condemned to die in the wilderness, they were also condemned to disappear without trace, their experiences excised from the record, just as their bodies were utterly consumed in that forbidding terrain, as if they had never lived.

We cannot relate and transmit the stories of that wilderness-wandering generation during those lost years. But we can and we must tell our own stories and listen to the stories of those who have hitherto been voiceless in Brighton and Hove. Again: Wassim said: “I believe change is possible and change begins with me.” Change begins with each one of us. By working together as citizens of Brighton and Hove, we can ensure that all the diverse voices of those living across our city are expressed – and translated into demands for change. Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be our will. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom v’Rei’ut (‘Congregation of Peace and Friendship’)

23rd June 2018 – 9th Tammuz 5778

  1. http://www.citizensuk.org/about_us
  2. http://www.citizensuk.org/about_us
  3. www.streetlink.org.uk
  4. https://cityofsanctuary.org/
  5. For the national ‘Refugees are welcome’ campaign, see: http://www.refugeesarewelcome.org/
  6. https://en-gb.facebook.com/brightonvoicesinexile/
  7. https://thousandfor1000.wordpress.com/
  8. ‘Bhasvic’ is Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College.