How charity pulled off Chief Rabbi’s visit
THE SLEEPLESS nights are over. The Chief Rabbi and his delegation of United Synagogue rabbis are safely back in the UK.
Taking the highest-profile Jewish leader in the country to a refugee camp was one of the most challenging and rewarding things we have ever done.
World Jewish Relief has decades of experience operating in some of the world’s most daunting environments. Within the past year, we have worked in Nepal after the devastating earthquake and in war-torn Ukraine.
Yet this threw up unique security and logistical challenges that we had to overcome in the two weeks we had to plan the trip.
The delegation adopted a casual look to appear non-threatening
The idea came from the Chief Rabbi himself. He was keen to see how the money raised by the community in response to the WJR refugee appeal was being spent.
Already due to go to Athens to attend the Conference of European Rabbis, he seized the chance to take an extra couple of days to travel to the camp on the Macedonian border.
Plans were made in total secrecy. Security was a big issue, and making sure the delegation was safe was our primary responsibility. Even now, the details cannot be revealed to ensure future visits are not compromised.
Once in the camp we urged the rabbis to wait to tweet about where they were until we were all safely on the bus back.
A large group of men in suits suddenly arriving in the camp, asking questions, would have aroused suspicion among the refugees. Were we spies or secret police? That’s why the rabbis dressed down in open-necked shirts and baseball caps — not hiding the fact they were Jewish, but showing sensitivity to the refugees they wanted to engage with.
A general strike coincided with the trip, which made arranging transport from Athens to the remote border region even more complicated. Kosher food had to be provided, which we managed thanks to the Athens and Thessaloniki Jewish communities.
But to see the Chief Rabbi sit with refugees, listening to their tragic stories was worth all the planning. Richard Verber is campaigns and communications manager of World Jewish Relief