Considering The Place of Tikkun Olam in British Jewish Identity

Courtesy Tzedek
Courtesy Tzedek

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

The United Kingdom is decidedly more mid-Atlantic than its actual geopolitical position belies. British politics, culture, and society would be recognizable to both continental Europeans and Americans, and yet not; it would be hard to define Britain as being either fully European or totally Americanized. Indeed, it would be fair to say the same of British Judaism and Jewish identity, too, including in its attitude and approach to tikkun olam as a tenet of Judaism.

British Jewry, as with the other Jewish communities of Europe, has historically been built around Orthodoxy and an Orthodox establishment. To this day, by affliation, the Orthodox United Synagogue is the largest single movement in British Judaism. Also like Europe, in the period following the Second World War and the Holocaust, British Jewry had to undertake a period of reconstruction and consolidation that required the concentration of community resources inside as opposed to outside, for items like Jewish day schools and security services.

But British Jewry isn’t fully European. Whereas on the continent, non-Orthodox Judaism is a negligible influence, particularly on social issues, the role of Liberal, Reform, and Masorti Judaism has increased in recent decades, making the community somewhat American in that way. This, in combination with other factors including increased and regular contact with Israel, improved economic and social status, generational change and the role of youth movements, and the emphasis Chief Rabbis Sacks and Mirvis have placed on interfaith dialogue and collaboration, has beget a growing awareness of the importance of tikkun olam and the place of British Jewry both nationally and internationally.

Thus tikkun olam as a factor in British Jewish life is growing, but it is still not the case that it is as central to British Jewish identity as it would be to American Jewish identity by comparison, nor as important to British Jews as Zionism, fighting anti-Semitism, Holocaust remembrance, or religious identity. OLAM – a collaboration of the Alliance for Global Good, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Pears Foundation that aims to promote stronger Jewish engagement in global humanitarian issues – will involve several British Jewish organizations including World Jewish Relief and Tzedek and have to operate within this reality.

“I wouldn’t overrate its significance yet in the community,” Paul Anticoni, Chief Executive of World Jewish Relief, said to me of tikkun olam. “There’s a growing appreciation that British Jewry is right to be playing its part, but I think if you asked ten Jewish individuals in Golders Green, ‘What are the three most important things affecting our community today?’ I doubt many of them would put tikkun olam in the top three.”

“In some ways it’s quite simple to say not very,” Jude Williams, Chief Executive of Tzedek, said when I asked her how central she thought tikkun olam was to British Jewish identity, “but I think actually the closeness and affinity that people feel to the issues of what’s going on in the wider world, or social justice generally, is very real. People understand that Judaism has a lot to say and are very interested in what Judaism has to say.”

Anticoni posited that the growing relevance of tikkun olam represents something of a generational shift. “We have a younger generation that is worried about relevant global issues – climate change, migration, poverty, injustice – with a sense that these are issues that should concern us as Jewish global citizens as well as those more traditionally associated with the Jewish community such as Israel. Today, young people are a little more aware of the world and how it impacts on us.”

This generational evolution in attitudes in favor of tikkun olam is associated with a strengthening not just of the place of British Jews within Britain but of British Jewish identity itself. “For a postwar generation of British Jewry, things were hard, times were tough, concerns were everywhere, and as a result the community rightly focused on its own and looking after itself because there were enormous challenges,” Anticoni continued. “It’s only more recently, as our community has prospered and thrived, that we’ve become more global citizens than we might have been twenty years ago.”

Williams said that it’s “definitely true” that there’s a generational divide on tikkun olam, that the younger generation of British Jews is “more integrated and more open to ideas of interfaith and social action.” But there is also a divide (although Williams stressed that she wouldn’t overstate it) between communal institutions and the members who make up the community, in that the institutions of British Jewry continue to be defined by what she called a ‘postwar agenda’ of priorities, one that does not necessarily including interfaith and social action to the extent that it should.

“In terms of a communal agenda and a major push from the mainstream leadership, then we would have to say that the community has different priorities at the moment, and one of our challenges is to shift that,” she said. “I do see a certain type of insularity within the community but I also see a lot of people pushing back against that and saying, ‘It can’t only be about anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, protection of the community, and internal needs like old and vulnerable people.’ There has to be other pieces as well and I am certainly in favor of ‘as well.’”

Indeed, social action has “never been a top priority for Anglo-Jewry,” Rabbi Natan Levy, Project Officer for Interfaith and Social Action with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote to me in an email, while stressing that tikkun olam within the community has long been part of the broader agenda.

“The Board of Deputies of British Jews spends ten times as much on combating anti-Semitism as it does on social action,” Levy continued. “There is a strong argument that as attacks on Jews in the UK reaches a 10 year high, this discrepancy is entirely justified. Other voices say that our best and most sustainable way to combat anti-Semitism is to invest meaningfully in projects that create such strong bridges with other peoples and cultures, that they cannot be torn asunder with hate.

“Personally, I favor the later approach, but I do understand the nuance that drives these choices. Perhaps the best way to inculcate real change in Anglo-Jewry would be to ramp up the quality and quantity of social action education in the Jewish schools,” Levy said.

In considering why it is that tikkun olam is not as central to British Jewish identity as other factors, it is also important to consider the Jewish past, the Jewish present, and the more it might be said European part of British identity and by extension British Jewish identity. Levy told me that “a history of persecution and ghettoization in which Jews learned the hard way that our efforts and resources need to be turned inwards rather than outward” continues to contribute to British Jewish perspectives on social action. “These are real obstacles that can make for serious challenges to tikkun olam, defined as helping the non-Jewish world.”

“Until we are able to clearly and cogently examine these challenges with a deep sensitivity to tradition and authenticity of approach,” Levy concluded, “I doubt we will ever be able to really flip the switch on Anglo-Jewry’s  overall willingness to engage with the global social justice issues, like climate change, debt-relief, or extreme poverty.”