OPINION: Vibrant, yes, but all is not well in the community

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OPINION: Vibrant, yes, but all is not well in the community

Can our community make 2023 the year it accommodates the unaffiliated masses? Alex Brummer assesses the potential pitfalls facing British Jewry.

Alex Brummer is a Jewish News columnist and the City Editor, Daily Mail

Limmud FSU participants
Limmud FSU participants

As we start a new secular year, British Jewry remains as vibrant as ever. It has great cultural depth including Limmud, Jewish Book Week, the Jewish Film Festival and the polished magazine Jewish Renaissance.

The community is politically well organised through the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council. Nevertheless, it is hugely wasteful of energy, resources and clarity as to why a relatively small minority needs two often duplicating governance groups.

It also is blessed with an array of charitable entities, from the behemoths Jewish Care and World Jewish Relief to lesser known organisations such as the Abraham Initiatives (UK), which fights for a more shared society in Israel.

Alex Brummer

Many are much admired by other minorities for the high quality of administration, public profile and effectiveness in galvanising the generosity of donors in hard times. But there are too many overlapping organisations and egos competing for the attention of the same relatively narrow circle of robust givers.

All is not well in the community post-Covid. Corbyn has been seen off the battlefield. But when it comes to institutional racism there is blindness to antisemitism, as David Baddiel has illustrated so effectively.

As fundamentally disturbing is the disconnect between Jews identifying as such and religion. As someone who lives outside the hotbeds of Jewish religiosity of north west London, parts of Hertfordshire and Manchester, I might, admittedly, have a false impression. There are some shuls where finding a seat on Shabbat is as hot a ticket as the musical Hamilton.

There are also swathes of the Jewish population which have become alienated from ritual Judaism. Lighting the Chanukah candles as an alternative to Christmas is easy enough. Attending services, unless there is a secular flavour (Remembrance services in November, Holocaust events in January), is a minority interest.

I was recently at a well-attended Klezmer afternoon at Gunnersbury House, the former Rothschild residence in Ealing. All seats were taken despite a clash with the World Cup final. I discovered recent census results show as many as 5,000 people in the Ealing area identify themselves as Jewish. Yet despite the local United Synagogue having a bright and hard-working rabbinical couple, assembling a minyan post-Covid can still be difficult.

Swathes of the Jewish population have become alienated from ritual Judaism.

In Richmond, the census shows 2,000 self-identifying Jews and there is a substantial Israeli minority working in tech on the M4 corridor. Generally minyanim are not a problem. An active cheder has attracted a diverse group of Jewish and Israeli families. The Richmond Community Hub offers a range of services and draws a diverse audience.

Brighton and Hove has four open synagogues, an active Chabad, but so far is showing minimal success in attracting a large, diverse unaffiliated Jewish population. The clue for Sussex, as  for communities around the country, is attracting the unaffiliated back to Judaism. Cultural events will only go so far.

There needs to be some serious thinking among traditional communities about attitudes. Are they welcoming enough to strangers without great religious skills? Are they open enough to Jewish and non-Jewish partners in ‘married out’ relationships? Can the role of women be enhanced in services? Is all the repetition in services entirely necessary and could some liturgy be axed to make services shorter, as was the case during Covid? Could divorce be a less invasive and sexist procedure? Does Diaspora Jewry really need the extra day in the foot festivals?

Such questions may seem heretical among the Gateshead graduates who so influence British Jewish thinking. But all are worth asking as 2023 begins.

  • Alex Brummer is a Jewish News columnist and the City Editor, Daily Mail
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