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Praying with Our Feet

Sir Trevor PearsFilmed at JHub's 10th Anniversary

In this talk, Sir Trevor Pears explores the Jewish values that underpin his philanthropy and the work of Pears Foundation. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that when he marched with Martin Luther King at Selma he felt his legs were praying. He understood his faith as an imperative to be a force for good in the world. Similarly, Trevor talks about his own journey and the importance of social activism as an expression of Jewish identity.        

Sir Trevor Pears CMG is a philanthropist and committed social activist who has dedicated substantial support to UK and Israeli social and civil society as Executive Chair of the Pears Foundation, the family’s charitable trust established in 1992 by Sir Trevor and his brothers, Mark and David.  In setting up the Foundation, their purpose was to apply some of the resources of their family’s property company, the William Pears Group, to fund organisations and projects working to deliver progress on key issues affecting the wellbeing of people in the UK and all over the world. Pears Foundation is now one of the largest family foundations in the UK with a broad focus that ranges from youth social action in the UK, to Holocaust education and special educational needs.

Amongst the many philanthropic areas where Sir Trevor has focused his energy, he is a passionate advocate of international development and has been instrumental in building Israel’s capacity to make a contribution in this field. In addition to the Pears Scholarships at Hebrew University, the foundation established the Israeli chapter of the Society for International Development, the Pears Program for International Development and OLAM, a collaborative venture to promote global Jewish service and international development.

Sir Trevor Pears was also the initiator of JDOV itself.

25 years ago, I was at a Hebrew University dinner. The guest speaker was Vidal Sassoon. During his speech, he remarked, that ‘the problem with the Jews is that they allow themselves to be defined by others’. That observation resonated with me, but I couldn’t express why. I took his statement as a personal challenge.

I have always been interested in identity, and how it’s formed. I also felt that identity was not a passive thing, just given to you at birth. But that for identity to have meaning it had to be lived. So it wasn’t enough for me to simply say that I am Jewish. I wanted to be able to express what it meant to be Jewish.

2,000 years ago, Rabbi Hillel authored the famous identity axiom:

– If I am not myself, who will be for me?
– If I am only for myself, what am I?
– If not now, when?

Clearly, searching for identity and meaning isn’t something new. Hillel’s axiom helped me to understand that sometimes it isn’t about finding the right answers, but the right questions.

Over the years, I have asked a lot of identity questions to a multiple of rabbis and Lay Leaders from across the Jewish world. I would ask: ‘Why be Jewish’? Often, rather than deep engagement with this question, I would be asked a question in return (which is pretty Jewish!):…‘What do you mean, Why be Jewish? I was born a Jew. Or simply, I am Jewish.

So I would phrase the question slightly differently and ask what they felt the purpose of being Jewish was? From Rabbis, I found the most popular answer to Jewish purpose was to keep Halacha, the laws. Having heard this answer on several occasions, I developed a supplemental question: ‘Is the purpose of being Jewish to keep Halacha, or do we keep Halacha for a purpose?’ Only the latter made sense to me.

From Lay Leaders, the most popular answer I got regarding Jewish purpose was a somewhat ironic one: ‘To ensure that we don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory’. I could hear the echo of Vidal Sassoon’s warning …… not to be defined by others…….let alone by your enemies! I would argue that defining oneself by referencing Hitler meant that this was precisely what you were doing. Such a negative self-definition made absolutely no sense to me.

As I said, I feel that identity has to be lived. And of course life isn’t static. So I see being Jewish as a journey rather than a destination, and that you are what you do. Or to misquote Forrest Gump: Jewish is, as Jewish does!

Over the past 20 years, I have explored a lot of Jewish text, and again found that all of this is not new thinking (apart, perhaps, from the Forrest Gump reference!).

Going back again 2,000 years, to the Ethics of The Fathers, Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa said that if a person’s good deeds exceeded their wisdom, their wisdom will endure. But if their wisdom exceeded their good deeds, their wisdom would not endure.

And a somewhat more up to date Jewish exemplar of this would be Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel marched with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement and was at Selma in 1965. When asked why he marched with and for this movement, his answer was a simple one: ‘I felt that I was praying with my feet!’ Rabbi Heschel’s wisdom, like Chanina Ben Dosa’s, has endured.

So, like many others before me, I believe that we are a people who are at our best when we are praying with our feet. But if doers is who we are, what exactly should we be doing?

Rabbi Akiva’s answer was to love the neighbour. Now there is a doing challenge for us all! Isaiah’s answer was to be a Light unto the Nations.

Now I’ve been told that ‘exciting’ is not a word that comes up frequently when describing being Jewish! But how can it not be exciting to be a part of a people with such a calling and mission?

Now on my journey I have become acutely aware of how much debate and division surrounds definitions of Jewish identity. And how phrases like, for example, Particular and Universal can sometimes be used in unhelpful ways. And I know that, for some, I am very quickly compartmentalised as a ‘Universal Jew’. And this makes me smile, as I feel that if anything, I spend far too much time focussed on the particular!

This Particular/Universal Jewish descriptor, or dilemma, comes up pretty often in my world, usually in the form of being asked: “So tell me Trevor, what percentage of your family foundation’s expenditure goes to Jewish causes?”

My answer is always a very candid one……. “Every penny!”

I usually get a quizzical look followed by a supplemental question: “You’re supporting projects all over the UK, and in places like Nepal, Ghana and Rwanda?”

My reply is “Yes, these are all Jewish Causes!” And I don’t consider this to be deliberate word-play, nor an expression of my ‘Universal’ Jewish credentials or leanings. I consider this definition of Jewish Causes to be about as Particular as you can get. And I hope very much that if Rabbi Akiva were here today that he would nod in agreement!

So much Jewish text and thinking simply screams at us that this ‘Loving the neighbour, welcoming the stranger, pursuing Justice, helping the most vulnerable’ is fundamental Jewish purpose.

However, I would argue that not only does much of the world not fully know or appreciate this, but that there seem to be many Jews who are unaware, or have forgotten our deeply rooted heritage and commitment to social Justice and action.

Borrowing Rabbi Heschel’s words, I also feel that I have been praying with my feet. And my feet have taken me on quite a journey, and brought me into contact with many inspirational people. In the field of international development, I have been fortunate to meet a lot of committed people, professionals whose abilities are only matched by their personal dedication to truly making a positive difference to millions of others’ lives.

In my interaction with them I don’t hide my Jewish identity, because it is central to who I am. And my experience has been that often, not the first time, not the second time, but perhaps the third or fourth time that I meet a number of these people, they take me to one side and whisper “Oh, by the way Trevor, I’m Jewish too!” Now it’s always inspiring to me to meet someone who is Jewish and doing such fantastic work, however I feel it is a terrible shame that they seem to be doing this work despite, not because they are Jews. How fantastic would it be if their answer to why they were so stuck in, so involved, was because they were Jewish, and this is what Jews do!

And what about Israel? Israel’s commitment and efforts to helping repair the world are also often forgotten. But this amnesia is not shared by all. Some 15 years ago, I visited a hospital in Kumasi, the second largest city of Ghana. On arrival, a tall Ghanian Doctor, white coat blowing in the wind, came out to greet us. He grinned, opened up his arms and bellows, ‘Boker Tov’!

It transpired that the hospital’s Accident and Emergency unit, had received equipment and staff training from MASHAV, and MASHAV is the International Development and Co-operation division of the Foreign Ministry of Israel.

In her autobiography, Golda Meir singled out the work that Israel did in Africa in the 1950s and onwards as the work she was most proud of when she was serving as Foreign Minister of Israel. Yet when I met Haim Divan, MASHAV’s then serving Director some 10 years ago, he described his organisation as “in a country that can’t keep a secret, MASHAV is Israel’s best kept secret.” It seems that very few Israelis have heard of MASHAV, let alone have any memory of Israel’s impressive history of development efforts in Africa. But the Ghanaian doctor and his team in Kumasi, remember, and remember with pride.

I’m truly delighted to say that in recent years there has been a marked positive change, in Jewish awareness, activity ….. and pride in such efforts. The number and scale of new organisations and initiatives with broad social responsibility at their heart have greatly increased.

In the UK, for example, the organisation Tzedek has grown substantially, and the Chief Rabbi has launched his ground-breaking Ben Azzai Programme, with study trips to Mumbai and Ghana.

And I believe that JHub, and its wonderful residents and team deserve a mention here too!

Internationally, there are also many examples, from American Jewish World Service, to Sundara, to the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda.

And in Israel, it is perhaps even more exciting: so many new and growing Israeli NGO’s. The Gabriel Project working in Mumbai, Tevel B’tzedek in Nepal, NALA in Ethiopia, Innovation Africa, IsraAid and literally dozens of others. The Israeli Society for International Development now has over 80 organisational members. All of these are in addition to the very long established programmes, such as the continuing work of MASHAV, and the Hebrew University’s brilliant Masters courses in Medicine, agriculture and community development. Today there are thousands of Hebrew University alumni assisting millions of their Countrymen and women around the developing world.

Israelis are also starting to lead the way in innovation and technology for developing nations, rather than developed ones. Grand Challenges Israel, the India-Israel innovation bridge, and the plethora of start-ups like Kahealer, Soapy and Living Box.

All of theses activities stay true to Maimonides highest level of giving: working with and helping others towards self-sufficiency. In other words: rather than giving a hand out, giving a hand up. And Israel could soon be known, not only as the Start-Up Nation, but also the Hand-Up Nation.

I hope that I, and our family foundation have helped contribute towards these changes.

So, 25 years on, do I feel that I have personally risen to Vidal Sasson’s challenge? Am I defining myself? I hope so. Am I living it? Praying with my feet? Again I hope so. For me, being Jewish is a call to action to make the world a better place. And I believe this is our collective calling, and always has been.

Thank you.

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