Q & A: Bill Benjamin, UJIA Incoming Chairman

1. What motivates you to be involved in communal life?

Jewish living and Jewish communal life are a source of great richness and meaning. They offer a sense of identity, meaning and belonging in what can be a lonely and rootless world. However, Jewish communal life doesn't run on auto pilot. If we wish to sustain it, we must be involved. As Hillel said, "If I am only for myself, then what am I?" This involvement is also in my blood. My grandmother was totally devoted to Hadassah and my mother was active for years in the local federation of Jewish philanthropies in the city I grew up in the USA.

2. What is the most exciting project that you are currently involved in?

I feel both excitement and trepidation over taking on the role of Chairman of UJIA in January. We want to develop in our young people a strong Jewish identity that includes a love for Israel. At the same time, we must continue with the unfinished work of helping with the development of the people and the land of Israel.

The project on Jewish communal vitality under the auspices of the JLC is also extremely exciting. We are listening to voices from all over Anglo Jewry but particularly at the grass roots level about what is working and not working in the community and how the community should devote its resources to deepen its member's affiliation and involvement with Jewish life.

3. How has the community changed in recent years from your perspective?

I am an American who has lived here with my wife and children for 11 years but that is still long enough to witness change. I think that Anglo Jewry has a terrific pulse. Schools, shuls and community centres are being built or revitalized. Limmud and Jewish Book Week go from strength to strength. There are so many points of entry for those who want it across the religious, cultural and educational spectrum and there are important groups committed to social justice as well.

4. What are the biggest challenges facing the community today?

To my mind, there are three principal challenges. As I touched upon above, there is tremendous innovation in Anglo Jewry today. That's great. At the same time, we must make sure that our traditions, our teachings, our time honoured ways of life remain relevant. We have to be able to articulate to the young why be Jewish. Second, we must value communal cohesion, shalom bayit, more than we do. There will always be legitimate disagreements over religious practice, politics and ideology but we mustn't lose sight of Clal Yisrael. Finally, there is the challenge of combating the attempt to delegitimize the State of Israel.

5. How has the JLC added value to your work in the community?

The JLC has exposed me to the diversity and complexity of the community. To date, my major communal activity has been in a synagogal movement, I had no exposure to the immense amount of work in protecting the community's interests in the political sphere.