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Part 2 - A meeting with Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

May 11, 2022, London

by Mary Noble


Continued from Part 1

RJW - May I ask you if there was any particular event that has motivated you on this path of work? It may not be the case...

MN - I think it is a combination of so many threads. It begins with my own journey over the years as a teacher of English as a foreign language, and I used to meet students from all over the world and I used to spend a lot of time learning about their issues and problems and difficulties and struggles. So I ended up establishing this charity 20 years ago and one of the first things that happened was we were invited to Kenya by a Kenyan lady who said, “This is great, please come to Kenya.” And I said - REALLY? You really think so? So we ended up having an extraordinary journey in Kenya. We were funded by UN Women to do a one-year forgiveness-reconciliation training programme for 25 Kenyan women - it was after the post-election violence in 2008, when hundreds of thousands of people were killed and displaced - and these were women who were desperately trying to reconcile their communities, but they didn't have the wherewithal, both as women and as leaders: How do you start a dialogue? How do you begin to bring people back together? And it was felt to be more effective if we did it through the women, because the men were much more invested in their staked-out positions and their identity was at stake, so they had a lot more to lose in a sense, but women could start the conversation on the ground.

So we spent a year working with some wonderful women in the Rift Valley, and we’ve stayed in communication ever since, and we've carried on and done a number of different projects in Kenya, and I think what motivates me is a bit like you - other people, humans. When I see that spark in other people's eyes that says, “I want to do something, I want to be useful, but I just need a little bit of help along the way”, and that little bit of help can sometime cause such an explosion in a life.

We once worked with 30 very, very traumatized young women from the slums of Nairobi, these were like 14, 15, 16, 17 year olds that had come from some horrendously violent backgrounds, and they had been scooped up by an international NGO called Global Communities, who had been giving them counseling. But they couldn't get through to the girls because of the trauma, so they asked us to come and give them our 2-week intensive process, which is not counseling. What we do, it’s more about giving them a chance to discover something about their inner life.

And I saw on day one, these 30 young women who wouldn't make eye contact, just staring at the ground, it’s like there is nobody there. And then gradually day after day, just asking a question like, “Can you describe what your qualities are?” And they look at you blankly because nobody in their life had ever reflected anything back to them other than "You're stupid, you’re no good..." And then we would do little exercises and games and activities where they begin to realize - look - you looked after your dying mother who had AIDs for 10 years, what were the qualities it took to do that? And then everybody chips in and says, “Well there’s courage and there's perseverance, and love and compassion”. And the young woman sits there going, “I never realized I had all that in me.”

So just by being able to have them tell their story, and then reflect back to them the God’s glory inside them that has enabled them to do all those things – it’s like seeing them transform before my eyes. And I always find that remarkable, that in one week you can go from somebody where the light’s almost gone out of their eyes - it’s like the soul has retreated so far away - and then 5 days later they are glowing, and they are laughing and they’ve got a vision and they’ve got hope and they are thinking about their future again and... it’s almost like it doesn't take that much. So we have developed these kinds of practical processes, workshops, exercises, those things really move me. When I see lives just suddenly light up and you just think “Ohh, thank God!”

RJW - What an achievement, what an achievement...

MN - I will tell you one little story. We were asked to do a 5 day workshop with ex-gang leaders from the slums of Nairobi, and I didn't realize that - we were told they are community elders, and I thought, oh well, community elders, they are all going to turn up in shirts and ties… and it turned out they were all ex-gang leaders.

BG – They were people with a history of cutting other people’s heads off….

MN – Yes, exactly. 2/3 of them were men, so on the first day I had to stand up and say - first of all, I hope you are ok getting this whole session from a lady this week... and they were like - yeah yeah, we are fine with that, and gradually you sort of peel off the layers. One of the first exercises was what we call the Field of Fears, where we put up all these cards in a field and they go through and identify what fears they have. One 50 year old man called Clive came out and he was shaking like a leaf. So we sat him down and asked, “Are you ok, Clive?” and he said, “I’ve just seen my greatest fear, ‘the wrath of God’. I am a Muslim, but I have done so many terrible things in my life, I am utterly convinced that I am – there is no way that God can ever forgive me… So I am devoting my life now to the youth, to doing this youth work, to helping, but me, I am beyond redemption”. And he was almost ready to rush away and go home, and we said, "No, hang in there, Clive, hang in there, it’s 5 days, don't go, it will get better, at least you've now… the first step is that you articulated that fear, you have admitted it…" So ok, we convinced him to stay. Then by about the second or third day, we start exploring their qualities, their strengths, who they are, but he was still not convinced.

Day 3, I asked him, “How are you doing Clive?” And he said, “Mary, when I look at myself in the mirror all I see is a balding, fat, middle aged loser”, and I looked at him and I said, “Clive, let me tell you what I see when I look at you - I see courage, I see compassion, I see perseverance, I see love, I see endurance, I see patience, I see humility…”. And I went on to list about 15 qualities, all of which I had observed in 3 days, because it was so obvious about this man, he was just always smiling and reaching out and helping people, and I could feel in this moment that it went in... and he cried, and he said, “Look, my story is that when I was young, my parents both died, I was the oldest sibling and I was looking after my brother, and we literally had weeks we had nothing to eat, we were eating the flies off our arms as food, that's how I got into gang life”.

And I said, “Look - don't you think God would understand that? I’m not an authority, I can’t speak for God, but quite honestly if I was God, I wouldn't judge that…” And then on the 5th day he kind of went quiet and at the very end of the workshop, he stood up and read this extraordinary poem to us, it was utterly profound. The very last couple of sentences said, “I may not be forgiven, but I have forgiven, I will forgive, I can let go, I am a clean slate - it’s a fresh start.” And there was that kind of sense in him of he'd been on an incredible journey just in those 5 days of realizing he was still worthy, he was still worth something, he was worthy of God’s love and God’s compassion. And it was extraordinary. I will send you the poem…

RJW – Please, please do, I would be really grateful.

MN - So those are the kind of things that matter for me.

RJW - Profoundly motivating...

MN – It’s like people have given me back to myself over the years, and all I really want to do is pass that on…

RJW - I appreciate that - it makes sense to me. I am really grateful to meet you and that you have been kind enough to come here.

MN – It’s been smashing to meet you.


Two days later, I received the letter from Rabbi Wittenberg, thanking me for the meeting, and enclosing the letter he had written to his community that week. It touches on much of what we spoke about, so it is reproduced here in full:

Shalom New North London

Erev Shabbat, parashat Emor, 12 Iyar 5782

Friday, 13 May 2022

Dear Community,

I was given a poem this week, an entirely unexpected, wonderful gift. It’s called ‘The Ballad of the Shot Heart.’ It relates to much I care about; let me explain why.

It was written by the Russian poet Nikolai Panchenko who served on the Voronezh front and was wounded twice in the Second World War:

At walking pace, my horseshoes ringing,

I know: my heart is getting smaller,

And suddenly – I have no heart!

With each burst of fire, he ‘donates’ a piece of his heart, losing it ‘bit by bit’ until there’s nothing of it left, because there’s an order ‘Don’t have a heart at war!’

He grows ever stronger; he helps save his country; he survives. But he’s lost his heart. Since then, he goes about trying to reassemble it:

“Give me a heart!” I shall knock at entrance halls.

“Give me a heart!” I shall cry through the door.

“Don’t you know, a man without a heart

Is more terrible by far than a beast who has one.”

These lines at once reminded of another poem, by Avraham Sutzkever, about the lead plates of the Rom Printing Press, the best Jewish press in the world. The Rom Talmud serves to this day as the prototype for further editions. I’m lucky enough to have a set from the 1870’s, complete with the stamp of the Tzarist censorship. When I use a volume, I feel generations speaking from its pages, rich with the indentations of the letters. Sutzkever describes, in Yiddish, how he and other resistance fighters steal out of the Vilna Ghetto to seize the lead plates at the Rom printing works.

We were dreamers, we had to be soldiers,

And melt down, for our bullets, the spirit of the lead.

One can turn a heart into heartlessness, and generations of culture into ammunition. But how does one turn them back?

Mercifully I’ve not been in the front lines. But I’ve met many whose souls carry the wounds of war, and of other forms of life’s many conflicts. I’ve learnt that repairing the heart and restoring the soul is the core of what religion is about.

Tikkun is an overused word, especially in the phrase tikkun olam, ‘repairing the world.’ But its true kabbalistic context remains closely relevant: it’s about reconnection, the part with the whole, the exhausted mind with the flow of life’s spirit. In the language of the mystics, it’s about restoring the spark of holiness, lost within us even to ourselves, to the healing divine radiance.

People don’t knock on my door, or on the gates of synagogues and churches, saying ‘Give me a heart.’ But that’s not because this isn’t what we want. It’s because we’re shy of such words, because we haven’t phrased our concerns in such language, even to ourselves. Or perhaps it’s because we aren’t consciously aware that it’s just this that we most need.

If, or rather when, we’re asked, what do we say? If we ourselves were asking, ‘Give me back my heart; restore me my soul!’ what would we do?

The Psalmist has an answer which speaks to me: ad avo el mikdeshei El, ‘until I come to God’s sacred spaces.’ (73:17) I appreciate the plural because there are many such places: the quiet of prayer, which isn’t really about asking for things, but about re-finding ourselves in the presence of God; the welcome of a kind community; the affirmation which comes from being listened to with solicitude; the solitude and companionship of nature. All these are God’s sacred spaces.

We all need our hearts back. The world needs its heart back.

Shabbat Shalom

Jonathan Wittenberg

[i] From: Ballad of the Shot Heart by Nikolai Panchenko (1924 -2005) At walking pace, my horseshoes ringing, I know: my heart is growing smaller, And suddenly - I have no heart! And bullets, seeking my heart, Whistle vainly, like fools, these bullets… And there is no heart, There’s an order in me: Don’t have a heart at war. And where shall I find it afterward, Once my military oath has been fulfilled? In my cartridge pouches and knapsacks There is not even room for a heart. You donated a piece of your heart With each burst of fire, to the whistling of your bullets! You lost it bit by bit soldier. You shot it bit by bit, soldier. And such was your mastery of this miracle That, overcoming your enemies, you grew stronger! For a long time it will seem odd to me To go about, assembling a heart. “A heart for this poor invalid! I saved the country, kept disaster at bay!” With this entreaty on my lips, like a prayer, I shall walk, a living crucifixion. “Give me a heart!” I shall knock at entrance halls. “Give me a heart!” I shall cry through the door. “Don’t you know, a man without a heart Is more terrible by far than a beast who has one.” This poem was written by a Russian poet who was a young front-line soldier in World War 2.

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