OPINION: United in resilience – a journey of British Jewish unity and pride

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OPINION: United in resilience – a journey of British Jewish unity and pride

Borehamwood and Elstree have proudly held 16 vigils for the hostages since 7 October. Now is not the time to keep our heads down. Now is the time to stand tall as British Jews.

Ronit and Eddie Hammerman. Pic: PA
Ronit and Eddie Hammerman. Pic: PA

After doom scrolling yet again on a host of social media channels, I was not in a good way. It was the early days of the aftermath of the brutal 7 October massacre and I was anxious, scared and desperate for good news. But there was none. And it was getting worse. I was all-consumed: crying on the Thameslink after viewing footage of the Hamas bodycams and responding to every social update – sending me, and no doubt my friends, into a mental health tailspin.

There were anti-Israel demonstrations as soon as 8 October, antisemitic attacks spiked instantly and an Israeli flag flying on Fairway Hall in Borehamwood was daubed with red paint. There were rumours of mezuzahs being ripped off in Elstree, which I believe turned out not to be entirely accurate, but scared everyone nonetheless. Someone on my own road had briefly posted a sign in their front window stating, “From the River to the Sea”.

I was sleeping badly and starting to feel under threat as a Jew in my own country. Israel is my homeland but Britain is my home. I feel fiercely British, but not since the Corbyn days had I heard so many conversations asking, ‘Where would you go if you had to leave Britain?’ and ‘Do you have an emergency ‘go-bag’ packed?’.

We were not under physical attack as in Israel but were suffering.  I felt threatened.

There were, of course, fleeting glimpses of light in those early days, like hearing Rishi Sunak declare his unwavering support to the Chief Rabbi at a packed Kinloss shul and the unanimous outpouring of love from Borehamwood and Elstree council where the deputy PM, our MP Oliver Dowden, ominously but correctly told us to cling on to this feeling of support, as he poignantly reminded us that times would get tougher.

But then, one morning, I broke.

I turned to my wife Ronit (who was in her own world of pain), and said, ‘Enough’. I couldn’t feel this way anymore. I was drained, anxious in my own town and angry that as a British Jew I was allowing myself to be terrorised. We needed to do something proactive and reclaim our own community. Ronit and I connected with Josh Moont and then Lara Lipsey, Nivi Feldman, Dani Meyers and Jeremy Newmark. And so it began.

There are hard times ahead but I am confident the momentum we have created together will help us meet our challenges head on and shape our Judaism and our connection with Israel for our generation and for those to come.

It started small. A vigil with shoes. Adult shoes and little red baby shoes alike, all with unbearable echoes of Auschwitz. While demonstrations of Jewishness on our streets aren’t very British  – or at least weren’t very British – now was the time to be more like the bold and brash US Jews. The Americans do loud and proud so well. The British Jewish convention has always been to ‘keep your head down as this too shall pass’. But this one was not passing and it felt like we didn’t have a choice but to stand up and be counted.

We arrived at the Borehamwood shopping park early. The weather was grim, the usual drizzly, cold autumn dampness reflected our mood. The experienced CST team was edgy. Me being too gung ho didn’t help their poise. I had a heated conversation with Ronit about putting the Israeli flag out early and she rightly told me to wait.

My eagerness acted as a forceful attempt to reject my own nervousness, a ‘fake it til you make it’ way to reclaim my right of proud identity as a British Jew, calling for the freedom of 240 Israeli hostages in captivity.

In this first week, maybe 30 people showed up.  We captured some emotive photos and lots of people engaged on social media, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. Yes, I know, people really didn’t know about it, but in a community of thousands of  families, the turnout was disappointing.

We couldn’t be the only people feeling heartbroken, could we? Please tell me there were others feeling as passionate, broken and as angry as we were.

Pic: EJacobs Photography

Fast forward to February, following our 16th consecutive Israel vigil with new faces each week, not only from our community but from surrounding badlands of Mill Hill, Bushey, Woodside Park, Cockfosters and Edgware.

Members of our local churches attend every week and we had the pleasure of hearing Christian Reverend Hayley Ace telling us we were not alone.

This hit hard.

Rabbi Chapper has spoken powerfully a number of times, Rabbi Czitron talked about his friend’s son, Daniel Perez, who is a hostage and Rebbezen Eva Chapper reduced us to tears after returning from a trip to Israel in November.

We have welcomed Marie Van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies and also heard from former Israeli ambassador Alan Baker on the prospects of peace. Our youth have spoken up about young hostages the same age as them, and we were momentarily uplifted by Olivia’s story of her family members being released from captivity.

Eddie Hammerman. Pic: EJacobs Photography

And while we celebrated the release of the hostages, we also remembered the hostages tragically declared dead and told the heroic stories of our IDF brothers and sisters who fought and died to protect us all. May their memory forever be a blessing.

Vigil Week 7 was special as the Chief Rabbi and Oliver Dowden attended alongside our deputy mayor. It was on the same day that the UN was calling for a vote against Israel and our deputy PM, told the world’s media, the British government will do all it can to help Israel secure the release of hostages taken by Hamas and is standing “four-square” behind Israel in its efforts to remove the threat of Hamas. While only for a day, this statement reverberated around the world and it felt like we had, as Jeremy Clarkson would say, ‘Did a thing’.

And while it fortifies us as British Jews (which is no mean feat), our core mission is to highlight the plight of the hostages and to call for their immediate release. We will not let the world forget. Every week, a volunteer picks a hostage they can relate to and speaks from the heart about their life so the hostage is not a number but a person.

Pic: EJacobs Photography

To enable this meaningful connection, many volunteer speakers have been in contact with the families of the hostages to find out more about their personalities, their loves and interests. Not only has this led to a better understanding of the person, but it has connected on a deeper level to their family, letting them know that a little town they’ve probably never heard of in England takes to the streets every week and calls for their family’s release.

This was brought home to me on the brilliantly constructed Borehamwood & Elstree Synagogue solidarity trip to Israel in January. In a rare hour’s break in our schedule, we wandered down to the gazebo set up outside the prime minister’s house by hostage families.

No longer can we afford to keep our heads down and hope that someone will speak for us. If we want a secure Israel and a vibrant UK Jewish community, it’s up to us to shape it.

We fortuitously met Aviva Siegel who was released after 51 days in Hamas captivity and who calls for her husband, Keith’s release. On the day we met her she had given evidence to the Knesset on rape and sexual violence she had witnessed in Gaza. She managed to detail her experience to us as we sat there stunned. Feeling we had to justify who we were to this incredible woman, I told her that we were on the streets in Borehamwood every week, calling for her release as we continue to call for Keith’s.

We showed her photos of previous vigils, where we had celebrated the first birthday of the red haired baby, Kfir Bibas with cake, balloons, candles and a party table. She was surprised at how many of us there were.

We hugged and cried, praying that, for even a split second, we had helped lift the spirits of a woman going through hell.

Pic: EJacobs Photography

It seems the vigils have become, for many, a moment to support one another (before or after they buy their challot), a time to be grounded in the week and a way to publicly declare our British Jewish pride in support of Israel. At the end of each vigil we sing the Hatikvah followed and God Save the King as a demonstration of our deep rooted British values and pride.

But are we safe here? I hear this question a lot, from friends in Israel and online. The inconvenient truth is we have not seen any trouble at all and, in fact, passersby, after finding out why we are there, have been highly supportive.

Last week vigil stalwart, Lisa Shaffer, was reduced to tears after a Borehamwood local insisted on donating to our cause, even though we were not collecting. After some back and forth, he thrust a tenner at Lisa which was later donated to an Israeli charity. The lady in the balloon shop was in shock at the reason we were buying two orange balloons and wished us luck in our mission to bring the Bibas kids home. Sadly, most people just don’t know and when they find out, they cannot be more supportive.

But while we lean into our Britishness, in our kishkes, we also know that there is another noisier minority. We know we need to work harder to make our voices heard. As Daniel Taub said to the CEO of the United Synagogue, Jo Grose, on her Israel solidarity trip last November, ‘We are at a seminal moment in Jewish history’.

No longer can we afford to keep our heads down and hope that someone will speak for us. If we want a secure Israel and a vibrant UK Jewish community, it’s up to us to shape it. We all have our unique skills. Social media commentator Lee Kern calls them ‘superpowers’.

Kern is a writer, producer, prolific social media influencer and most recently a hero of the Jewish people. He says: “Ask yourself, what is your skillset? How can you give service? What is the most efficient way you can use your time? We don’t all need to pick up guns. Israel can do that. We don’t all need to yell into the cesspit of social media. But you will have some skills that can be your gift to the Jewish people. Think about what they are and then use them. A war is not just won by its soldiers – it is won by its citizens – and we are a diverse people with a multitude of personalities and gifts. What we can do when we pull in the same direction is supernatural!”

As another social media titan, Eitan Chitayat states, “I’m Jewish – and I’m f-ing here to stay”. He reminds us “that we will get through this as we love life, we’re strong and smart and funny and beautiful and talented and resilient and educated and hardworking and positive and so much more”.

There are hard times ahead but I am confident the momentum we have created together will help us meet our challenges head on and shape our Judaism and our connection with Israel for our generation and for those to come.

This is our time.

Thank you to fellow organisers of the vigils, but most importantly thank you to everyone who has joined us, spoken, schlepped and shared the photos and videos. The impact is down to you. I am proud to live in our community and be able to play my small part in discovering our new British Jewishness.

Every week we will pray that this is our final week and our brothers and sisters will be released. But if not, we will be there next week.

We. Go. Again. Am Yisrael Chai.

  • Eddie Hammerman is a PR expert and co-founder of the Elstree and Borehamwood weekly vigils for the Israeli citizens who remain hostage in Gaza.
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