Exec Summary: December 2015

One Newspaper. Four Days. Two opinions.

The Guardian newspaper, at the end of October, unwittingly presented two sides of a debate current in civil society regarding the rights and the wrongs of boycotts of Israel. And it revealed the misplaced obsession of those who call for boycotts of Israel.

First, there was the hugely significant letter, signed by over 150 influential figures in the arts and cultural worlds, organised by a new group called “Culture for Co-existence”, stating their opposition to boycotts of Israel.  They described boycotts as “divisive and discriminatory” and advocated that culture should be used to break down divisions and promote peace and co-existence. With stellar figures such as Hilary Mantel, Melvin Bragg, JK Rowling, Niall Ferguson, Zoe Wannamaker amongst an illustrious group of signatories, one would have hoped that this message would begin to resonate.

But no. Four days later, the BDS obsessives were back in The Guardian peddling their message. This time, an advert was paid for by over 350 academics calling for an academic boycott of Israeli educational institutions. Many of the signatories were the same old “usual suspects”, who had made this call before, supplemented by an assortment of largely anonymous academics.

These two interventions in The Guardian rather framed the debate. A message of peace and co-existence advocated from within the cultural world and a message of division and boycott from a self selecting group of academics.

Interestingly, these both appeared in the midst of an outbreak of terrorist violence in Israel and the Territories, with large numbers of murderous attacks being randomly perpetrated on Israeli civilians.

Those who advocate BDS seem to close their eyes to events elsewhere around the world and focus only on Israel and the injustices that they wish to highlight. Many of those in the BDS movement only see the world through the prism of their view of Israel and they have been more myopic than usual recently.

It is my fervent wish, and something that I am determined to achieve in my time in this role, to persuade people that being Pro-Palestinian does not mean that you have to be anti-Israel. It is perfectly possible to support Palestinian self-determination and a two state solution without continually demonising or delegitimisig Israel. That was the message of Culture for Coexistence.

Building Vital synagogues

Amongst its objectives, the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) seeks to coordinate activities which help to deepen engagement with Jewish life and Jewish identity.

With this in mind, the JLC last month published a new study, Exploring Synagogue Vitality, by Professor Steven Cohen and Michelle Terret.

Having served as an Honorary Officer and, latterly Chairman, of a major modern Orthodox community in London (Hampstead Garden Suburb), I have seen the deep and integral role that a vibrant synagogue can play in the overall life of a community. The aim of Professor Cohen’s study was that the research should clarify our understanding of and appreciation for the most salient features of some of our most vital congregations, how they are created and how they are sustained. The report began with a survey of over 200 synagogue leaders throughout Britain. Then, we observed six congregations in action. , selected to provide diverse arenas for seeing vital features of synagogue life. Finally, we surveyed congregants in five of the six synagogues which we observed.

It becomes clear from reading the report that vital congregations do not come about by accident. They require reflective leadership. To take just one example extending a warm welcome to visitors demands intention, attention and execution.

I can personally attest to the fact that it is vital to establish a deeply rooted and widely shared culture of welcoming that permeates every aspect of the synagogue. This ranges from what happens when people call up to join the shul, to how often visitors and members are habitually invited to meals, and how people are continually empowered to contribute to the community in whatever ways they can.

We sincerely hope that this study provides the impetus to enable us to deepen our affiliation with Jewish life and identity. We will bring the recommendations together and consider them alongside the other areas of our work which touch on Jewish identity, including schools, informal provision for young people and the home. Only by looking at good practice in all these areas will be able to create the interventions which will have a tangible impact.