Last night I visited the Republic of Frestonia – or at least I would have done if I had been there from 1977 to the 1980s. The Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia attempted to secede from the United Kingdom in 1977 in protest to plans to redevelop the area. They had their own stamps, which were honoured by the post office and there was plenty of cultural creativity, including an album by the Clash being in part recorded in The People’s Hall of Frestonia. Back then 94% of the residents voted in a referendum in favour of independence and 74% in favour of joining what was then the EEC (which for our younger congregants tonight was part of the structure of European cooperation which preceded the European Union – and I still remember having to learn the constituent countries at school in the early 90s).
Back then Frestonia had its own Ambassador and its Foreign Minister was the Jewish born actor David Rappaport (or David Rappaport-Bramley – as local residents all adopted the name ‘Bramley’ to force the local authority to house them as one family). These days the area is surrounded by head offices of Cath Kidston, TalkTalk Internet, Monsoon Accessorize, Stella McCartney, but in the late 70s and early 80s it was a heart of counter cultural radical activity and protest against redevelopment.
Of course David Rappaport’s role was not the first, or the last, time that Jews have been involved in campaigning and protesting about housing policies. David Madden (Associate Professor at LSE) and Professor Peter Marcuse write in their book “In Defense of Housing”:
“The first documented direct action by organized tenants occurred in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1904.The neighborhood, largely home to working-class Eastern European Jewish garment workers, was expensive. According to one resident, the tenants of Lower East Side “lived and worked for the landlord.” And it was crowded; the area was said to be the most densely populated place on the planet. Rents had been increasing steadily for years, and many families had already been displaced to neighborhoods farther afield. That year, landlords decided to take advantage of the housing shortage by raising rents by an extra 20 to 30 percent.
“Every year on May 1, leases expired and landlords announced rent increases, a much-feared ritual known as “moving day.” But that April, hundreds of families refused to pay the increased rent. They picketed their landlords’ homes and took to the streets in protest marches. The strikers spread the word that no new tenants should move into buildings owned by landlords who refused to negotiate.”
But last night, I was in Freston Road for a different reason. Under the remit of my work leading the Lyons Learning Project, a group of Jewish activists have been meeting for the last three months to study our sources and understand how Judaism offers a vocabulary to articulate a Jewish view on issues of justice. And Freston Road is literally in the shadow of the Grenfell Tower where 72 people died a year ago. We sat in the Harrow Club – an organisation with 19th century origins in the Harrow Mission intended to improve the lives of people in the local area and now acts as a youth club and community centre. They generously allowed us to rent a room last night for our learning, even whilst we were surrounded by the community dressed in green, remembering the tragedy that occurred exactly one year ago. The Harrow Club had been a key part of the local community response to Grenfell.
So it was that last night I sat with a group of Jews reflecting on the obligation found in our Jewish sources to create a just world in which everyone is able to access and live in safe and fit for purpose housing.
Through the wonderful facilitation and shared wisdom, we discovered that in Judaism there is both a responsibility to protect people living in homes from greedy landlords and to obligate someone who lives in a ‘home’ in a neighbourhood to contribute to the good of that neighbourhood. In our sources, we find the command to invite the hungry into our ‘home’. In our sources I learnt that we hear a magnificent, towering vision of justice – which, unless conscious of the risk, we jeopardise when we reduce human life to transactions in legalistic and policy frameworks. In our sources we find the surprising demand for dignity for a recipient of charity as a paramount concern above any donor’s concerns. In our sources we find attempts to codify our responsibility – so that regardless of intent or desire Judaism enforces a system of welfare, protection and collective obligation. And in our sources we read that a home is a place of safety and security. For those of you interested I highly recommend the writing of Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Rabbi Professor Aryeh Cohen on these subjects.
The walls of the home are the nexus between the public and the private space. In other words they create a boundary between what is private and what is public.
In Judaism we recognise that a home is not a solid structured edifice that entirely prohibits the outside to permeate inside. In fact, we create a mythical structure that extends the boundaries of our home to include whole neighbourhoods on Shabbat – in the guise of the Eruv. We move into flimsy homes once a year in Sukkot to be exposed, vulnerable and a little less ‘private’.
The reality is that the world beyond the border lays claim to my private world. And ideas, people and all of life transitions between the boundaries. The liminal space – as anthropologists might call it – the space between worlds – is always grey, permeable and often dangerous. We dance between the privacy of our home and the claim that our society has on it and us. Ultimately, being a resident somewhere places an obligation on us no matter how thick the wall or how much we try and shut out the rest of the world. We learnt that Grenfell Tower lays claim to us all in our homes wherever we are as fellow residents in this city.
Our sources teach us that we have no excuse to ignore the plight of the needy and we have no right to sit comfortably in our ‘home’ whilst there are so many who have insecurity around their housing or have literally been forced to flee their home. We have no right to dwell comfortably.
After delivering this sermon in synagogue many congregants came to tell me how they either lived or worked in the area that was Frestonia and knew the history, or they lived nearby and had no idea about the history.