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A Fire that Destroys; a Fire that Builds

A Fire that Destroys; a Fire that Builds

An arson attack on Aish UK should spur us to stand up for Jewish education.


On Friday evening, June 18, 2004, there was a serious arson attack at Aish UK's Hendon center. Fortunately no one was in the building at the time. Three fire engines were required to get the blaze under control.

Two Torah scrolls were torn and desecrated in the attack. Much of the administrative offices have been destroyed and the entire function of the outreach center has been badly damaged. Initial estimates put damage in excess of $400,000.

The following is a speech Rabbi Naftali Schiff, the executive director of Aish UK, gave at a Show of Solidarity at Aish UK Headquarters.

The first I heard of the fire was when I arrived for Shabbat morning prayers at 9 am to be met by a police cordon. I was allowed into the building in order to lift the Torah scrolls from the floor where they were lying, having been thrown out of the Ark, undressed and there they lay torn on the floor.

The initial thoughts, through tears and trembling, were of my grandmother who escaped from Germany in the 1930's and of my other grandmothers family who perished in the fiery hell of Auschwitz. Then I literally got up from the floor, with the Torah scroll still in my hands, and was filled with a very different sensation. A feeling of strength, of determination, of pride, of resolution surged through me. Perhaps what these evil people did not know about us is that the Jewish response to adversity is to grow from it. To emerge stronger as a result. To stand taller and prouder than ever.

Aish UK Fire That Torah scroll I was holding was ripped on next week's portion. The tear was right next to the curses of Bilaam, a man who came 2,500 years ago to curse the Jewish people, but from his curse there came only blessing. "Ma tovu ohalecha yaakov mishkenotecha Yisrael -- How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel" (Numbers 24:5). The buildings of our people are dedicated to goodness, to kindness, to tolerance, to charity, to family, to understanding, to knowledge, to the building of a better world. That is what our building was and is dedicated to achieving.

The exact same column of the Torah scroll also contains the verse: "A people that dwells alone" (Numbers 23:9). The only way to tackle anti-Semitism at its root is to remind ourselves what we stand for as individuals and as a people, inculcate it and teach it to the world. We gave the world monotheism, love your neighbour, charity, equality before the law and being happy with your lot. We live in a world in which many of our own community are ignorant of and apathetic towards any of these or any other Jewish values.

Let us today make a commitment to learn these lessons ourselves, teach them to our children, and transform the Jewish people into what it can be for us and for all of mankind. Until we do this, there will be hatred, malice and selfishness both in our community and beyond.

Our generation of Jews faces two battlefronts. One is the physical and one is the battle of morality, for building a world of decency and goodness. Both need to be fought to the full. No longer will Jews sit by and let themselves be attacked with equanimity. However, no less important is tackling the underlying stress fractures of society via education and example. Physical defense and security deal with the symptoms; education tackles the root and source of the problem. Let us make a commitment today to work together to apply solutions to both.

By living and educating our children as Jews, we personify the very opposite of what the anti-Semites were out to achieve.

The messages of support and offers for assistance are overwhelming; the greatest help we can receive at Aish is the greatest answer our people have always given to every anti-Semite in history. They have wanted to destroy us and everything we stand for. By living and educating our children as Jews, by standing up for justice, goodness, knowledge and decency as Jews, we personify the very opposite of what they were out to achieve.

There is fire that destroys and there is fire that forges strength, unity and resolve. Our response is to be all the more resolute and committed to educating young Jews with a pride and knowledge in their heritage and a commitment to shoulder responsibility in the community. Help us to continue with our work. We are just coming to terms with the situation and working out the way forward. Of course we need financial help to continue. There are other ways people can help too. At this stage we are taking stock and strategizing. We will get back to people with other suggestions.

May I close with the verse that stared me in the face most powerfully on Shabbat morning. The image is of a lion cub that can only be held back for so long, however as the verse says, this "people will arise like a lion cub and raise itself like a lion" (Numbers 23:24). The Jewish psyche is no stranger to adversary and challenge. However we refuse to succumb. We are Am Yisrael, a people blessed with the privilege of being engaged in the struggle to build a better world.

Like a phoenix from the ashes, Aish UK will rise "ki b'aish hitzata, ub'aish ata atid livnota" -- for the destruction came about through fire and through fire -- through "aish" which means fire in Hebrew -- it will be rebuilt.

June 23, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 26

(26) Anonymous, July 4, 2004 12:00 AM

My heart weeps with you

I think what has happened is a sign again that the evil in this world is daily increasing. I am so sorry for this terrible attack and will pray that HaShem gives you back 100 fold what the enemy has tried to take. Yes, our tragedies HaShem can turn them around to strengthen and teach us life's lessons. You are such a blessing and I so much enjoy reading your truths from the Torah. Keep up the good work. Let us pray that these sick individuals will be caught and receive their just reward. Shalom, Miriam

(25) Howard Prager, July 2, 2004 12:00 AM

We must grow from adversity

I am saddened by this senseless, horrible attack. I just returned from a 10 day trip to Paris and Brussels and here's what I learned. The Muslim population in Europe is really growing (10 percent in those countries), and the politicians are pandering to them. Hopefully they will come to the realization that they need to support all people, and we will see this senseless violence cease. Congratulations on rebuilding, for we must show we cannot be defeated nor will not go away.

(24) Bonnie, Texas Grandmother, July 2, 2004 12:00 AM

Return to Israel

Rabbi you are a very courageous strong person to stand up to such a heart breaking attack with determination to rebuild. But, please, please, listen to the distant german drum beating in England and Europe instead. Could this be a warning? England has changed. It is not safe to rebuild. Keep in mind the highway, the road that you traveled, return Maiden Israel, return to these cities of yours in Israel where the Torah was written.

(23) Lorraine Uveges, July 1, 2004 12:00 AM

On All Fronts....

We as a people are seeing a rise in anti-semitism "on all fronts". Here in Canada there have been recent attacks on our schools, Temples and our graveyards have been desicrated...society still treats us "Jews" as sub-human, will they never learn by their past mistakes??? It makes us fearful in all countries...not just in Europe....

(22) Don, July 1, 2004 12:00 AM

Maybe this is a call home

The prophets tell us G-d will call His people home just prior to the time called Jacob's trouble. (Jeremiah 30) What has come to pass at this point does not compare with what is yet to come. The vine must be pruned and made ready for the Lord of the vineyard.
It is time to go home and possess the Land which the LORD hath given to your fathers.

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