By Neil Taylor
I often wonder what gives meaning to my being a Jew in the Diaspora. I am a Zionist and I have tried to live in Israel and subsequently returned to my home country. I am not religious, but have spent all my life working for the Jewish community. Currently as the Director of Care and Community Services for Jewish Care, I see myself as part of and contributing to the Jewish people, however without the sense of purpose that comes from the role, I continuously reflect upon what would otherwise justify being associated with being a member of the Jewish people and what would give meaning to being a Jew.
Much of the communal resources we have, is quite rightly devoted to the education of our young people, connecting them to their Jewish identity through social, recreational and educative activity in order that we can inspire young and not so young to engage with their Jewish community and to feel ‘good’ about being Jewish. However, the essence and limits of what we do appears to be to ensure that as many Jewish people as possible, stay connected for the sake of Jewish continuity. That more knowledge, insight and understanding of what it means to be Jewish is somehow sufficient to sustain a sense of peoplehood because we share a common history, heritage and obligation that we simply have to pass this from generation to generation. In the meantime, this is not sufficient to disguise the deep conflicts between us, whether they be religious, political and values led, which go a long way to undermine the sense of cohesion and common interest that one would aspire to in order to create a sense of community.
With ‘Zionism’s purpose to uphold peoplehood in the neutral binding ground of Jewishness’ [Yossi Klein Halevi – The Tragedy of the Wall] being compromised, what is going to be sufficiently compelling for Jews in the Diaspora to have a purposeful identify with Jewish peoplehood. Without a new mission, that will circumvent our differences, what endeavour will unify the Jewish people with a renewed sense of purpose?
Education for education’s sake does not provide enough meaning to sustain the connections. Despite the great number of young people in full time education, I contend there isn’t the evidence to suggest that this is having a material impact on the number of Jewish people contributing to their communities. Surely the measure of success of Jewish peoplehood is that a sense of common identity gives rise to the positive sense of how we as a community demonstrate the added value we bring to society, by virtue of the shared values that we have developed over the millennia.
The value(s) of social care
While international relief has become a means by which young people can give meaning to their identity and their social conscience by combining their Jewish and humanitarian values, social care is not normally associated with Jewish peoplehood or a means by which to promote Jewish identity. Over the years, as a Jewish professional, I have made several attempts to nurture programmes that would connect returning Israel campers with their community through volunteer activities with those who need support e.g. older people, people living with physical and learning disabilities and mental health conditions, all to no avail because others do not see the connection.
The evidence suggests that to the contrary, social care is as good a means by which to build community, as any other vehicle. It is the single most successful area of activity within our community at mobilising the largest number of people to give of their time and their money to support others to live as meaningful, purposeful lives as themselves. In of itself, gives purpose to those thousands of people who volunteer who otherwise may never have reason to be part of their community.
Social care as a mission for JCCs
JCC’s, neutral on the political and religious spectrum, have a unique role to play, to harness the resources of the community, and to provide the necessary leadership to identify and to respond to the challenges we face. JCC programming that is entirely focused on strengthening individual Jewish identity, will not do justice to the potential that exists to develop our communities as people increasingly do not see the importance of their collective responsibilities. A JCC, as is the case with the Redbridge Jewish Community Centre in London, that integrates its educational effort with its social care agenda, where young people share the same facilities as the old, where people with disabilities and older people with dementia, are given the same opportunity to participate in communal life, demonstrates the power of what can be attained genuinely positions it at the heart and soul of a community, not to mention the economies of scale that it can achieve.
As a JCC Global/JDC mentor for FSU communities the separate development of family/ social services and JCC development was successful and did not hinder the renewal of specific Jewish communities in the FSU. However, in many situations the separation of education and social care only fostered a sense of disintegration and divide within a community, that discourages people from taking active responsibility for the people less vulnerable than themselves and does nothing to promote the sense of collective identity that is necessary to sustain Jewish peoplehood.
It was always difficult to understand what the difference was between programming for older people in a social services setting (Hesed) and programming for older people in a JCC setting until it became apparent that the JCC’s target audience was the ‘middle class.’ Once we understand that our work in ‘social services’ is to restore people’s independence, connect them to their communities and provide the opportunities to live meaningful (Jewish) lives and is not only to ‘care’ for them, we will then realise that this is no different to the JCC agenda. We also need our young people to grow up with a deep appreciation of these social care challenges, not least because it can be an excellent recruiting ground for future volunteers, staff and donors.
A call to action for the JCC movement
Zionism no longer represents the single goal around which Jews will coalesce and while all efforts to focus on promoting Jewish identity activities are worthy, neither of these represent a 21st century solution for those who seek an identity and a collective purpose to combat the challenges we face today. Perhaps the Global JCC movement should adopt the mantra ‘Kol Israel Arevim Ze le Ze’ – all Jews (or all the people of Israel) are responsible for one another as its core mission as a means by which to give meaning to the concept of Jewish peoplehood.
Neil Taylor has been the Director of Jewish Care since 2004, responsible for Jewish Care’s community based and residential service provision and the volunteer department, which supports 3,000 volunteers working across the organisation. Neil has 25 years of managerial experience in social care, starting as a youth worker and subsequently managing the Redbridge Jewish Community Centre for several years. Neil has mentored the management team of Jewish Community Centres in Kharkov and Dnepreprotrovsk, Ukraine.