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Sermons and Thoughts

Let those who live under oppressive rule soon be freed

25 September 2023
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
Yom Kippur Morning Service (High Holy Days 5784)

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.


Kol Yisrael arevim zei b’zeh

All Israel are responsible for each other.

Shavuot 39a

Throughout most of my rabbinate, I had found a phrase we use every Shabbat morning somewhat redundant. Sandwiched by the Loyal Blessings for the country we live in, its Royal Family, its Government and Citizens, and that for the State of Israel, is the prayer for blessing upon our community and all Jewish communities. It includes, “Bless all congregations of the House of Israel throughout the world; let those who live under oppressive rule soon be freed…”

Published in 1995, perhaps it was there out of loyalty to those who for decades had suffered persecution in the former Soviet Union and our congregant activists who had tirelessly campaigned for their liberty and rights. This is more likely because of the Ashkenazi roots of Liberal Judaism, than recalling the expulsion of the Jews from and continued oppression of the tiny remnant in the Arab lands; or of evils that befell Jews elsewhere because they were less known to us.

In the previous generation of liturgy of the late sixties and early seventies, whilst understated, as is the more of British Liberal Judaism, one could feel the veracity of the wording: “Be with those our brothers and sisters whose lives are made hard because they are Jews, and give them strength to endure.”

Eight years on from Siddur Lev Chadash, we find ourselves in 2003 when our Machzor Ruach Chadashah was printed. The phrase, “let those who live under oppressive rule soon be freed…” remained in the Rosh Hashanah Morning Service but had evolved for Yom Kippur Morning into, “Bless all our brothers and sisters of the House of Israel; preserve us from oppression…”

The emphasis was much more on the power we had to work towards a better world as we lived in a better world, “keep us from uncharitableness to one another and towards our fellow men and women; and grant that dwelling in safety, and walking uprightly, we may enjoy the fruit of our labour.” A very different feel to the more messianic dream of, “may we all unite to witness Your truth and do Your will,” in Siddur Lev Chadash.

That better world is reflected in the editors of the Machzor feeling that the world had come to terms with Jews. All was good in the world and we did not need to pray for freedom from oppression but to be “preserved from oppression.” Had the messianic age arrived?

We continued for almost two decades in such a vein, so that I regularly called contemporary Judaism a ‘Golden Age;’ evoking the era so named in medieval Spain.

We know that while the Golden Age of Spain was horrifically terminated with the Spanish Inquisition in 1492; and while we see an increasingly corrupt and chaotic world around, our UK Golden Age of Judaism bubble continues.

Yet that is not so everywhere in the world and it has become increasingly relevant and poignant once more to pray on a Shabbat morning, “Bless all congregations of the House of Israel throughout the world; let those who live under oppressive rule soon be freed…”

On a day when we have time to think, let us think of our own People, those of the House of Israel, who need our prayers, thought and practical support.

It is easy for me to speak of the Jews of Ukraine because their plight and their oppression is that of all their neighbours and fellow citizens. We are too painfully aware of what that means. Our Synagogue has had the privilege to be twinned with the communities that our then Student Rabbi, Misha Kapustin, served on receiving smicha – ordination from Leo Baeck College. Following the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014 and Rabbi Misha’s flight from Simferopol, we did not have a Ukrainian twin. If only we, like the rest of Europe, had woken up to the significance of that invasion.

Since 2017, we found our new twins, the Teiva (coincidentally meaning Ark) Congregation in Lviv, and the Hesed Besht community in Lutsk. This Yom Kippur, Teiva’s chair, Ada Dianova will be wrapped in the tallit gifted on our behalf by my parents and both communities, with mezuzot, symbols, prayers for shelter, passed to them by Paul Hyams and I as we visited a few months ago.

In these communities, we found regular Jews just like you and I. Yet whilst we celebrated our being together it was clear that we did so with those who were traumatised, those defiant, and those who were scarred. A people living in a country with an uninvited war in their own land, whose stories you know well, for they are now swelled by those who escaped Mariupol, villages and towns in Luhansk and Donetsk. Those who survived weeks in freezing cold basements, risking snipers for water and firewood. Those who passed a theatre with the word ‘children’ written clearly upon its roof and playground before it was obliterated along with those seeking shelter within. Those who passed tens of checkpoints at gunpoint, at each one not knowing if they would be shot dead. Those who fled with nothing. This is the plight of those seeking to celebrate Ashkenazi Judaism in all its finest Yiddishkeit.

“Bless all congregations of the House of Israel throughout the world; let those who live under oppressive rule soon be freed…”

Yet we know less or not at all, of Jews who face oppression in Ethiopia and India.

In many ways I am ashamed that I did not bring their plight to your attention sooner. This is a day to seek atonement.

Due to The Ark Synagogue becoming a hybrid community, we have a number of congregants from India. I was therefore more interested than usual when I saw reports in May from the states of Manipur and Mizoram of tribal violence between the majority Meitei (majority Hindu community) and minority Kuki (majority Christian community). Mixed into the Kuki are the Bnei Menashe, a Jewish community.

Read more at but according to the Times of Israel, “The Bnei Menashe identify as descendants of a “lost tribe” group, tracing their origins to the Israelite tribe of Menasseh. In 2005, a (Sephardi) chief rabbi of Israel affirmed their identity as a “lost tribe” group with historic Jewish ties.” Research is unsurprisingly inconclusive but their foundational narrative is vital to them, and very Jewish. “Bnei Menashe Jews began immigrating to Israel in the 1990s, and because of their “lost tribe” status, they all undergo formal Orthodox conversions upon arrival. Around 5,000 remain in the states of Manipur and Mizoram today, and about 5,000 have already immigrated to Israel.”

Because the Bnei Menashe are non-halachic Jews and because of the Israeli Government’s ties to the Indian Prime Minister, those who remain in Manipur and Mizoram are struggling to make Aliyah and to protect themselves from attack. A community leader was shot dead and another dreadfully wounded. At least one synagogue has been burned down and a Torah scroll desecrated. Around a fifth of the Bnei Menashe are now homeless and in relief camps.

The Bnei Menashe are attacked as Kukis, not necessarily as Jews. Yet they are Jews who live under oppression with an Israeli bureaucracy unwilling to provide the solution they have historically offered others.

I spoke to one of the Manipur Community leaders, her name is Jessica Thanjgom. Through Degel Menashe (literally The Flag of Menashe) she handles the food, clothes, and other distribution to their relief camp in Mizoram. I am finding out more and will provide ways for us to try to ease the burden of their oppression.

“Bless all congregations of the House of Israel throughout the world; let those who live under oppressive rule soon be freed…”

The experience of the Bnei Menashe Jews, is similar to that of the Zera Israel of Gondar province, Ethiopia. You will know about the Beta Israel community, who contemporary scholars believe emerged between the 14th and 16th centuries, whilst oral traditions variously relate them to the sons of Moses, or Menelik the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, or to the exiled Tribe of Dan.

Romantically seen as lost tribes when in the 20th century, Beta Israel began connecting with Jews outside of Ethiopia and with famine, war and other oppression facing them, The State of Israel made the decision in 1977 to offer them the Right of Return. Famous operations took place by land, sea and air so that over 125,000 Beta Israel now reside in Israel.

The remaining practising Jews, who live for the most part in Gondar, are descendants of the Zera Israel whose ancestors converted to Christianity under duress but who have since returned to Judaism. Many of them are closely related to Beta Israel families. A number of these families were taken to Israel in the two main airlifts: 1984 (Operation Moses) and 1991 (Operation Solomon).

The majority of the over 5,000 Zera Israel now living in Gondar Town moved there from outlying villages, many skilled in farming and agricultural practices. They have found it difficult to find good work and are generally living below the poverty line. They are currently supported by the wonderful charity,, that aims to upskill the community to be self-sufficient and pick up the gaps when that occurs. Most recently, war in neighbouring provinces has heightened the plight of the Zera Israel, whilst the Jewish Agency drags its feet on Aliyah, immigration to Israel because they are not halachically Jewish.

This summer Gondar was taken by rebels with fighting in the streets, much bloodshed and many deaths. The Government has now taken back control with a State of Emergency declared, a strict curfew, and summary arrests and detentions. Fighting continues outside the town and in rural areas throughout Amhara.

In Gondar itself, the Zera Israel community has returned to work, the children attended Meketa’s summer camp and will be registering for a new year in the after school club. But prices for food and basic commodities have rocketed, transportation out of the area is limited, water supplies are erratic, and there is no internet. Food supplies are disrupted by the fighting, and there is still a fear that the most vulnerable could be victims of starvation.

“Bless all congregations of the House of Israel throughout the world; let those who live under oppressive rule soon be freed…”

As we pray with sincerity on this Yom Kippur Morning, that we might be “preserved from oppression;” let us not be ignorant to the oppression of Jews around the world.

Kol Yisrael arevim zei b’zeh

All Israel are responsible for each other.

Shavuot 39a

Architect of the world

Author of her story,

Grant me the courage to participate

In the world’s design

To join in the unfolding of her story.

How I want to share in the

Responsibility of this world –

To pray for her welfare

To care for her needs

To safeguard her treasures

To work for her rectification

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov