20 years since worst antisemitic arson attack in UK, Aish has built back stronger

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20 years since worst antisemitic arson attack in UK, Aish has built back stronger

As leader of Jewish Futures, Rabbi Naftali Schiff has expanded the work of Aish UK and hopes a new building will help it do even more

Arson at AISH.
Arson at AISH.

It has been 20 years since Rabbi Naftali Schiff discovered that Aish UK, which he led and where he prayed, had been set alight. 

He remembers walking to the building in Hendon on a Shabbat morning, to find a cordon around the site.

He learned it had taken three fire engines to extinguish the flames, and one police officer pulled Rabbi Schiff aside to inform him that there were Jewish artefacts that had been shredded and left at the scene.

Those artefacts turned out to be two Torah scrolls, which had been forcibly removed from the Ark and desecrated.

“They had ravaged the synagogue and ripped the Sifrei Torah,” Rabbi Schiff recalls. “It was dismal.

“I remember crouching down and picking up two sides of a Sefer Torah,” he says. “As soon as I cradled them in my hands, I read the verses and as I rose up, I felt a tremendous surge of energy – I thought: ‘We are not going to allow ourselves to be defined as victims of antisemitism.’”

To this day, no one has been arrested in connection to the incident, which caused damage of about £250,000. But Rabbi Schiff refused to dwell on the desecration.

Arson at AISH

Within a few days of the fire, his team moved into a temporary rented office in Golders Green to continue their work, and the remit has significantly expanded.

“We were not going to let anyone stop us,” he says, recalling a conversation at the time with the late Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks. “Rabbi Sacks said: ‘Your response has to be the traditional Jewish response to antisemitism. According to the level that they afflict us, we will expand. We will grow stronger and bigger than ever before.’”

And they did.

Now, as its founder and chief executive, Rabbi Schiff heads Jewish Futures, a collection of 12 organisations working across the community, reaching 17,000 people, the majority of whom are 16- 30-year-olds. As well as Aish UK, those organisations include the social action charity Gift; Ta’amim, which celebrates Jewish cooking; and Shelanu, which supports Israelis living in the diaspora.

Arson at AISH.

From his perspective, Jewish Futures, which employs about 100 people, is able to reach a diverse range of groups and thereby engage as wide a range of Jewish people as possible – and since 7 October, some of these grassroots groups been needed more than ever before.

“We know that there are many different pathways to a set of core Jewish values,” he says. “The Jewish experience cannot be ‘one size fits all.’ That was one of the reasons that we started these other organisations.”

He describes Jewish Futures as “the biggest network of Jewish educational organisations in the country” – and a key method of engaging thousands of British Jews, something that is especially important since the rise in antisemitism after 7 October.

“The traditional models of Jewish interaction are conservative and official,” he says. “Being Jewish is fun, it’s engaging and vibrant. We must give young Jewish people positive reasons to affiliate. Young people are not going to want to be Jewish, if they are just told that everybody hates us.”

Despite setting up and interviewing Shoah survivors for JRoots – a Holocaust education group which takes 5,000 people to see Auschwitz every year – Rabbi Schiff thinks it is “tragic that young Jews are defined by the Holocaust”.

Descended from German Jews himself, he explains: “Despite the fact that we are a persecuted people, we have impacted the world positively in every area of society, Jews are excelling and bringing blessing to the world.

“Jewish life is vibrant, there is a sense of connection. It brings purpose to a lot of young people. We need to show that.”

Passionate about the work Jewish Futures is achieving – and what more it could achieve – he says that positive informal education, engaging activities and social networks are combating assimilation and disengagement from Judaism.

And now, from the same building that was set alight in 2004, he is working on realising a Jewish centre for young people in Hendon, just 2.5 miles away from where we sit.

His plan to build a 35,000 sq ft building over five storeys, has been met with opposition from residents despite being granted planning permission in 2021; but Rabbi Schiff says the centre, if it fills its funding gap, could revolutionise the life of thousands of young Jews. So far, he has raised £12.5m, needing another £5.5m to realise the project. Its tagline? “The place to connect”.

Sitting in his office, which is full of pictures, inspiration, books and memorabilia, Rabbi Schiff shows no sign of slowing down. From his ceiling hangs a ‘flying pig’ toy, to remind him that anything can be achieved. And this project is next in sight.

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