By Rabbi Joseph Dweck, Senior Rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community
At the base of the human experience is the problem of meeting our essential needs. Torah guides us in navigating this problem through its commandments to us. The principles of tsedaka-charity and hesed-loving support for life, are entirely based on the centrality and importance of sustaining and cultivating human life.
We also learn that there is a difference between tsedaka and hesed. The former aims to provide essentially needed sustenance, while the latter aims at cultivating life. One looks to meet needs, while the other looks to enrich and help growth and flourishing. Surviving, is not the same as thriving, and it is essential to recognise the difference between the two. We are taught that we should always be thankful we are not starving, without shelter, or vulnerable to attack. Conventional teaching suggests these always be the principle generators of our gratitude, and anything else that might be missing in our lives should be put into that perspective. Yet, perhaps it is not always useful to use human suffering as a base measure for living a full, healthy, and prosperous life. When our base needs are satisfied, we must not take them for granted, but focus our energies elsewhere if we are to grow and thrive rather than just survive.
The last few weeks has seen politicians, journalists, activists and more gathering for the post-Covid return of party conferences. The JLC were in attendance at both the Conservatives and Labour to follow the key developments and interact with key politicians and policy influencers to amplify and magnify the work of our members.
This week the Conservative Party were in Manchester for their first in-person conference since they secured an 80-seat majority in the 2019 election. Despite the context of fuel shortages, the mood was relatively upbeat among those in attendance. The Prime Minister concluded the conference with an upbeat speech which, while light on policy announcements, was received well by the party members in attendance.
The JLC were keen to ensure that the Government were able to interact with the local community while in Manchester and one morning facilitated a visit by Work and Pensions Minister Guy Opperman to the The Fed where he met with Jewel and the Friendship Circle.
The Conservative Friends of Israel reception was once again one of the most popular events of the entire conference with a long queue already formed 30 minutes before it was due to begin. Cabinet ministers including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Party Chairman Oliver Dowden were greeted with loud cheers as they spoke about strengthening the UK-Israel relationship.
CST and the Antisemitism Policy Trust were on a panel organised by Conservative Home with former Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick. The discussion included the community’s support for the upcoming legislation on online harms and the possible implications of the Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill.
Last week saw Labour in Brighton where delegates voted through the rule changes mandated by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission following the antisemitism crisis in the Party. Our Co-CEO was at the conference and wrote in the Jewish Chronicle that while some issues remain – such as the efforts of a minority of delegates to oppose these new rules – the progress is good for Jews and democracy in general.
Following the vote, the Jewish Labour movement held a well-attended rally with speakers including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, Margaret Hodge, Ruth Smeeth and Camden Council leader Georgia Gould. The Conference also saw former Labour MP Louise Ellman announce her return to the Party in a sign of support for Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer’s efforts to fight antisemitism.
Starmer used the conference to push through rule changes which he believes will help secure the future of Labour in the coming years. He used his speech on the final day to explain his background and why he became leader of the Labour Party. His speech was regularly interrupted by heckles from far-left members of his Party but he appeared to be prepared for this and responded, “chanting slogans or changing lives”.
While in Brighton, we were joined by the Shadow Culture Secretary, Jo Stevens, for a tour of the new Brighton community hub which is currently under construction as well as the local Middle Street Synagogue.
Unfortunately, the conference saw the passing of a one-sided and problematic anti-Israel motion. However, in a sign of the change in leadership in the Party, the motion was immediately rejected by Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary.
Labour Friends of Israel finished off the conference by bringing back their reception. The event saw a full crowd addressed by Lisa Nandy and a video message from Starmer. The impressive turnout from senior party members is seen as yet another sign of the improvement in the Party following the issues of the previous leadership.
Conference season was kicked off by the Liberal Democrats holding an online conference for a second year in a row. The party passed a comprehensive motion on Israel which clearly attempted to be even-handed. The motion will see the Party support the International Peace Fund, further normalisation deals with Israel and increased trade. It also condemned the Palestinian Authority and Hamas for their violations of human rights. Less positive was the inclusion of a boycott policy which was added into the motion via an amendment. The Party’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson wrote about why she does not consider this policy to be BDS.
Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel hosted the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister for their annual fringe event. The group has been working hard to foster ties between the Party and their Israeli counterpart, Yesh Atid.
As we have sadly said too many times this year, our 2020 Chaggim will be like no other we have experienced. This is also true for Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah this weekend.
The rates of COVID-19 infection have dramatically increased in recent weeks all around the country and especially in areas of high Jewish population. We must all play our part and follow guidance which is written to keep us all safe.
We have a duty as citizens to protect our neighbours and obligations as Jews to protect life (Pikuach Nefesh).
Our festivals, celebrations or times of reflection will come again next year when we can hopefully celebrate fully with family and friends.
Our community has suffered since the beginning of the pandemic. We have lost too many. Only by following the rules will we avoid further avoidable sorrow and grief.
I urge all members of our community to strictly observe the laws and guidelines this Chag to keep us all safe.
Chair, Jewish Leadership Council
Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day for commemorating the Holocaust, begins on the evening of Monday 20th April with this year also marking 75 years since the liberation of Bergen Belson. As with all other events, the current situation means that the planned national commemoration is no longer able to take place as intended. However, you can still remember by joining the online commemoration.
Monday 20th April: Online National Commemoration
On Monday evening you can join the national commemoration here.
As part of the ceremony, you are invited to light a yellow candle in memory of a Holocaust victim. You can find out where to pick up a candle here.
This year there will also be no March of the Living. However, through the The March of the Living Virtual Plaque Project, you can still join the tradition of placing messages on the tracks at Auschwitz. Create your own plaque here.
Celebrating all who work with the Jewish community and for equality
Each February in the UK marks LGBT History Month. This month is a way for all people to celebrate the contribution of LGBT people to the UK, acknowledge the fight for equality and promote the key tenets of inclusion and diversity & the benefits to the public.
At the JLC we wanted to find a way to embrace this, to profile the people and projects within our member organisations that are working towards LGBT equality and advancing inclusion. When many within our community have experienced concerns about growing prejudice targeting Jewish people, this month offers an opportunity to focus on a positive part we can all play in protecting and providing for the diverse people within our community.
We have reached out to all our members and are collating responses; we wanted to hear about the different projects and the amazing people that are making a difference. Each project or person plays a vital role in helping to shape the future of LGBT inclusion within the UK Jewish Community, and it is a pleasure to be a part of highlighting that to the rest of the community.
Over the past few years, the Jewish Community of the UK has been through a lot, there has been more focus on us in the media, in politics and on our streets and we have been resilient and loud in our response to calling out antisemitism wherever it has taken a hold. Our members have been at the forefront of this as well as running a myriad of other projects, including positive ones like the ones we are highlighting here.
Some of those highlighted have been involved in improving inclusion in their places of work including with training from Keshet UK. Some feature the dedicated professionals and volunteers who are contributing to religious life, community services and enriching Jewish culture. Some showcase the broader benefits to organisations and communities of harnessing the rich diversity of identities and talents of those who bring their full selves to their work. ALL the people and projects demonstrate the solidarity, strength and joy that come from fighting for equality and embracing diversity.
We are so proud that our member organisations cover a broad range of expertise and that they reflect such a large proportion of the UK Jewish Population. We hope that in highlighting these projects, everyone can feel a little more proud of our community.
I’ve always been a fan of Chanukah, I mean - 8 days of doughnuts, what’s not to like? But growing up, there was one aspect that excited me the most.
For some, it’s the thrill of presents, whether 8 small or 1 large. I remember my friends and siblings using the Argos catalogue as some kind of mystical advent calendar, leaving it in obvious places with relevant page corners turned down in hopes of receiving the latest fad.
For others, it’s the joy of candle lighting, the chance to play with fire in a parentally sanctioned way. Show me the child who doesn’t enjoy turning the candle just that bit too long when trying to drip the wax into the holder for added safety...
And those arguments about what exactly constitutes a latke? Just potato? Potato and egg? Onion or not? Or most controversial of all, my grandmother’s matzo meal batter with neither potato or onion, served with sugar and cinnamon after candle lighting? Readers, I am imagining your horrified faces at that suggestion, even my own husband is probably forcing a smile at seeing me in print whilst screaming inside “BUT THOSE ARE BUBBELAS! FOR PESACH!!!” (Trust me, matzo meal latkes rock. Worth every calorie).
But I’m a showbiz luvvie, so above the smell of the grease and the roar of the fryer, it was all about the Chanukah concerts. Whether in the synagogue hall, school or community centre, these events were the highlight of my year. Even Purim couldn’t hold a candle to them. Heading out in your costume on a dark wintry night seemed like the height of glamour. The building would be decorated, the Ladies Guild / PTA / Volunteers would have put out tables of treats, there would be games and activities - dreidel spinning for the kids, roulette for the adults (same same, but different), eating doughnuts without licking your lips (oh no! I’ll have to try again!) And before that, we would get to perform.
Over the Summer, and since June 2019, I have spent a fair amount of time with leaders of Jewish communities and senior representatives of Jewish communal organisations from around the world.
There had been one topic that has been at the forefront of their mind- antisemitism. And this global focus amongst jewish communal leaders on the topic is leading to a slight policy difference with us in the UK; which is ironic, since the high profile focus on anti-Jewish racism in the Labour Party here in the UK is one of the factors that is cited for an increasingly hard line approach on the issue coming out of the United States community and Israel.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the outgoing Executive Vice President of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, made a speech at a gathering of jewish communal leaders in Israel in June in which he described there being a “global war against the Jews”. For him, from his vantage point, the stakes were that high. Of course, he is able to take a much more global view of the threats around the world than we do in the UK, looking parochially at our own issues. But even we, as leaders of Jewish communal organisations in the UK, with all the threats that we are familiar with- including record numbers of reported antisemitic incidents and our main Opposition Party under investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission- would not describe what we face in the UK in such bellicose terms. Perhaps it is our typical English reserve and stiff upper lip attitude, but we have sought frequently not to use alarmist language in confronting the challenges that we face.
The United States Government has begun to make policy interventions in this area. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has stated that it is US Government policy than anti-Zionism is the same as antisemitism.
This article first appeared in the Jewish News on 3rd May 2019.
JLC Director of Policy & Public Affairs Claudia Mendoza writes:
Public attitudes and awareness towards mental health have changed significantly over the years. This is in no small part due to the fact that there has been a sea change in the way mental health is addressed. From government to charities to celebrities drawing attention to the issue, the taboo is slowly being eroded. This is certainly true in our own community, where more people are coming forward to talk about their own experiences.
Indeed, the Community Wellbeing Task Force – a Jewish Leadership Council led initiative – was set up to address the increasing mental health challenges facing Jewish children and young people today. The Community Wellbeing Project is a three-year pilot scheme stemming from the advice of an expert panel and commissioned research, which identified that a positive approach to mental health and wellbeing requires an educated partnership between school staff, parents/carers and students. Wellbeing Practitioners have been recruited in five pilot schools in London and Manchester to build on existing programmes, run new evidence-based initiatives and work together to share best practices. The Wellbeing Practitioner will support the school in the development and delivery of its whole school approach to emotional wellbeing.
Having a mental health condition increases your chances of being lonely but loneliness – which we tend to associate with older people – can affect anyone. Loneliness does not discriminate when it comes to age or background and even if you are surrounded by colleagues, friends and family, you can still be affected by loneliness. The effects can be as detrimental on a person’s health as that of many physical health conditions.
The wonderful thing about being part of a community is the sense of belonging and structure it provides. Indeed, Judaism as a religion offers much needed order in an increasingly chaotic world. There are practices around every life event helping us to navigate our way from cradle to grave and the laws around Shabbat provide tranquillity after a working week.
At the end of last year, the Prime Minister launched the government’s loneliness strategy which confirmed that all GPs in England will be able to refer patients experiencing loneliness to community activities and voluntary services by 2023. This is known as ‘social prescribing’ and will allow GPs to direct patients to community workers offering tailored support to help people improve their health and wellbeing, instead of defaulting to medicine.
The Jewish community has much to offer when it comes to social prescribing. Of our 35 members, many have programmes aimed at tackling loneliness. This week the JLC facilitated a meeting between Jewish Care, JAMI and Mims Davies MP in her capacity as the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Sport and Civil Society. In this role, she has responsibility for the cross-government work on loneliness and we were able to share some of Jewish Care and JAMI’s work as well as some of the work done by our other member organisations.
The Apples and Honey nursery based at Nightingale House for example, is the UK’s first nursery to be based at a care home, allowing older people to take part in activities with children such as baking and singing. The benefits of intergenerational activities go far beyond alleviating loneliness but on this issue, it has proven a huge success.
As with all our engagement with government, we want to be seen as a community who can offer best practice and innovation on issues affecting society at large. The Jewish community faces some unique challenges but most of the challenges we face are faced by many outside the community. Being part of a community allows us to problem solve together but we want to make sure that the things which work for us can work for others too and we hope that the Minister took away some ideas.