This interview was conducted early in 2017 in the West London Synagogue
KP Could I begin by asking how this question has animated and influenced you over the years?
JN I think I need to go back and say that I grew up in a family surrounded by different forms of activism. My grandmother was responsible for getting quite a lot of refugees – Jewish refugees and other refugees – from Germany and Austria into Britain. One of the things she always said was that you haven’t got long on this earth, and so you have got to make the best use of it. Of course, that’s a very Jewish way of thinking because we’re not terribly good on the afterlife, in fact we’re pretty rubbish. Certainly we don’t have a well-developed sense of the afterlife – contemplation of it is not a major part of Judaism. Judaism focuses on this world, with sayings like ‘if you save a single life it is as if you have saved the whole world’ – that kind of thing is very strong within Judaism…So I suppose before I knew where the thinking lay, it was almost as if it was part of my DNA because that’s just what I grew up with.
I think I always felt that just doing what you absolutely must do, isn’t enough. Even as a kid I used to volunteer. I volunteered for an organisation where I was visiting isolated elderly people, and I got very involved in issues about poverty and hunger and so on while I was still at school. It was a sense of, you can’t just do your homework – that’s just not enough! I have an interest in music and I play the violin extremely badly – I mean really, really, really, badly. But from quite an early age at school I was encouraged to go to concerts, and I remember battling with my dad about whether I could go to concerts instead of synagogue on Saturday mornings. In the process music began to matter to me hugely, and it wasn’t because I was doing it for an exam of any sort – it just made me explore some ideas about what was really possible in life, and wonder how people were able to do these amazing things. So from quite early on I thought, you can’t just use your spare time for watching movies or reading rubbish novels – you’ve actually got to get your head around the great novels, the great musical works or whatever, and you’ve got to get involved with some kind of social activism.
KP You indicated that social action and spending time with those who are suffering gives you some perspective, can you tell me – what has your own involvement taught you about why you’re here, what kind of perspective has it given you?
JN I really started spending time with people who were suffering and dying at the very end of my time at university, then during my time training to be a Rabbi. When I was a student Rabbi with a congregation that didn’t have another Rabbi, I did spend time with people who were dying for the first time. It taught that almost everybody who is dying has regrets about what they haven’t done. They largely (at least in my case which may be totally idiosyncratic), don’t have many regrets about what they have done, but they do have regrets about what they didn’t do. Often, they have very real regrets about things they didn’t learn, places they didn’t visit, books they didn’t read or whatever. And what it teaches you is that you need to fill your life with as much as you can, so you have as few of those regrets as you can – so all passions are spent, as it were. You won’t succeed, and the younger you are to die, the less likely you are to succeed, but do all the things you want to do – don’t say, ‘I’ll leave it until next year’, carpe diem and all of that.
That’s one bit, but the other bit is the way people deal with that when they are suffering and when they are dying, and the way they come to terms with things is very moving. The capacity for the human spirit to overcome regret and to face the unknown with equanimity is something that’s magnificent.
KP So seeing people face death has been a fairly instructive teacher for you?
JN Massively instructive, it’s extraordinary. My first congregation was in Streatham in South London where a lot of the people were not at all well-off, and had quite hard lives. They would mostly describe themselves as very ordinary people. When you were with them and they were dying, they would say ‘I’m really a very ordinary person, I haven’t done anything extraordinary with my life’, and you would think ‘you are not ordinary, you are remarkable. The fact that you are able to talk about yourself like this is remarkable, most people are not able to do that’. It’s like they are watching the film of their life backwards, and that is a very remarkable thing to do – particularly with clarity when you probably haven’t got terribly long left. There is something about nobody being ordinary, and the remarkability of the human spirit where you see the individual shine through, in what is for them, very extreme circumstances.
KP So you’ve learned through the experiences that you’ve been through that life is precious and short, but you have also got a road map through religion, can you talk about that?
JN I have found a road map through religion, but it’s a religion which is very different from Christianity, and perhaps more like Islam in some ways. My road map is a form of Judaism which is very much about social conscience and social action and what you do in this world – actually, I think all of Judaism is about what you do in this world. It’s very much about how you live your life here on earth. What I get from religion is Jewish teaching and the sense of community acting together. One of the things that is so important about a community is that they feel this sense of cohesion, even though the people are very different – they do things together, in the name of their community. I get that from religion, but in a sense it is not only from the religion itself, but from how Jewish communities behave – which I think is quite a significant distinction. So, for example, this congregation [West London Synagogue] runs a drop in centre for asylum seekers and winter night shelter with some local churches. The drop in for asylum seekers is a mixture of things, and all those who come to the drop-in centre are either Muslim or Christian, not Jews – for obvious reasons because that’s where most asylum seekers are coming from. As a congregation of Jews, we offer help, support, succour or whatever, to Muslim’s and Christians. What is interesting is that it is hugely popular to volunteer at the drop-in, we have more volunteers than we can use. That’s not just about doing what God tells you to do – it’s about being taught in our religion that you do what you can in this life, but also that Jews have had historically huge experiences of being asylum seekers. It’s about thinking ‘I’m well and I’m safe in this country, but I’m going to do my best to ensure that others can be safe and well too, and we’re going to do it together as a community.’
KP Can you tell me about volunteering, what is it that makes people want to use the little time they have to volunteer and help others?
JN Nobody volunteers for its own sake, we may think we do but that’s not what happens. Research shows that perfectly clearly. I chaired the commission on volunteering, and if you ask why people volunteer you quickly discover that the reasons people volunteer are all in one way or another to do with themselves. Why do we volunteer? We volunteer to give ourselves a reason to get up in the morning, we volunteer to get some meaning in our lives, we volunteer so that we can make friends, we volunteer because we think it is the right thing to do and we will feel better about ourselves if we do it…I think that it is really important that we understand that people volunteer for all sorts of reasons, but those reasons will in some way always refer back to themselves.
KP So this question of how to use the time you have, what are the ways that the question continues to guide you in your current position?
JN I’m quite old, I could retire – but instead I’m thinking, what can I do to change the country? What can be done about our very restrictive access to asylum seekers, which I feel is wrong? Brexit seems to have licensed a form of hatred that I thought we wouldn’t see, how might that be challenged? So, in this little bit of life I have left I would like to see what I can do to make the world a better place.