I am writing this article in an atmosphere of sadness.
My community of Hampstead Garden Suburb suffered a deep tragedy on 12 December when our friend Stuart Epstein suddenly passed away, aged just 44, leaving his wife and three young children, parents and siblings. Stuart’s sudden passing has led to an outpouring of sadness and grief within the community. He was a deservedly popular man, who always had a kind or funny word for everybody, was friendly, charitable, inspiring and a pleasure to know. He lived to meet his own aspiration, which was to always be a mensch.
It has been only since he passed away, as his many friends and dear family have begun to recall their stories about what type of person he was, that we have realised what a special person we had in our midst. Whether we realised it or appreciated it while he was alive or not, I do not know, but it is tragic that it has taken his untimely death for the community to realise what an immense contribution he made to our community in terms of charitable giving, religious learning and by simply being a wonderful person.
But there was something particular that I noticed in the hours and days immediately following Stuart’s passing. What I noticed was how quickly and how instinctively the community rallied together in the hours after we learned of his death. Rotas were put together to watch over his body before the funeral, and the community rushed to envelop his family with care love and practical support. Hundreds of people came together in prayer spontaneously, and have been gathering in huge numbers to comfort all of the mourners.
Our community is at its best when it cares for those who need help. Whilst I may professionally worry about anti-Semitism, criticism of Israel and conditions for Jewish students on campus and all of the political issues that engage me and my colleagues and others in the community from day-to-day, it is the deep and caring nature of our community that shines out more than anything else.
As we head towards the Festival of Chanukah, where we aim to spread the light of the miracle through our candles, it is the light of the care in our community that endures not just at this time of year but all year. There is a huge amount in the national newspapers currently about the crisis in social care around the country, with poor conditions for the elderly and those with special needs.
But let us consider how fortunate we are to have such a richness and depth of welfare and social care provision within our own community. We should not take for granted the high quality care provided by our many social care organisations, which, despite challenges in terms of statutory and philanthropic funding, remain of outstanding excellence, and applying the best of our Jewish values of care for others.
It is not just the Jewish charities who provide care for the elderly and the infirm, for those suffering illness, for the families of those suffering illness, for those with special educational needs, or learning difficulties or who require social care support, or who are suffering from mental illness, or are the victims of domestic violence and other abuse. Think of all the many dedicated community volunteers who are Trustees of those organisations, who raise funds for them, who give their time, expertise and energy to ensure that our social care and welfare organisations are continually providing outstanding service. Think of all those within the community who donate both large and small amounts to care for others. Think of all the countless volunteers who help to provide that personal care service to those who need it.
I see at first hand how the natural instinct of our community is to care for others and to do what we can to alleviate the pain of those who are less fortunate than ourselves for whatever reason.
It is something we as a community can continue to be very proud of. And we at the JLC in 2017 intend to focus our work on ensuring that our social care and welfare provision is robust enough to be sustainable for the next 15 to 20 years so that the community can continue to care for its own.
And although my own community is wrestling with its own sadness, I want to take this opportunity to wish that at this time of the Festival of Chanukah, we take inspiration from the lights of the Chanukiah to be able to spread our own light to those who need it.