European Jewish Identity Today: The United Kingdom

UK flagBy Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

[This is the first part of a series of articles, exploring how modern Jewish identity manifests itself in Europe today, best seen through the work of enterprising, active, and engaged members of Europe’s Jewish communities. Focusing on the United Kingdom, to begin with, this article will profile three individuals, working in the fields of education, religion, and community relations to change and improve the British Jewish community.]

Miriam Lorie, Co-Chair of Kehillat Nashira Borehamwood Partnership Minyan

“The impetus was a feeling that there was not meaningful Orthodox prayer spaces in the UK generally, and in our community in Borehamwood in particular, for women but also for men,” Miriam Lorie told me about the founding of the Kehillat Nashira Borehamwood Partnership Minyan. Set up in late 2013 in this outlying London suburban town, home to many synagogues and Jewish schools, Kehillat Nashira is the first of its kind in the United Kingdom: an inclusive Orthodox prayer space where, its founders state, “men and women can experience a similar uplifting connection” within the boundaries of halachic permissibility.

“I don’t think we’re innovative in this. We’ve seen it happen elsewhere: in Israel, in America,” where there are enough people who believe a partnership minyan is halachically acceptable, Lorie said. “We thought, ‘Why is Britain lagging so far behind? This is within halachic acceptability, so let’s create this.” Steadily approaching three years in operation, currently an average of forty-five people attend services on Friday nights, rising to between seventy-five and eighty on Saturday mornings, topping out at 120 for certain events.

For the women who come to Kehillat Nashira, “the role of being a spectator and observer in a place and worship seems so at odds with our own internal religious feelings,” Lorie said, and also “the experience of being a woman in the twenty-first century,” where women are independent professionals in the workplace and yet the Orthodox religious space remains “so shockingly segregated.” Seeing Orthodox Judaism as their home, however, the solution is not to simply leave and join a non-Orthodox movement. “There is a noble struggle in changing something from within for what you see as the better,” Lorie said. To give up on Orthodoxy simply because “it was not answering all my questions felt like the easy option.”

Prior to the establishment of Kehillat Nashira, Lorie had been going to the Orthodox Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue, and indeed, most of the people who helped found Kehillat Nashira were or are to this day members of the United Synagogue movement. “Many of them continue to be involved and have very good relationships with rabbis and lay leaders in the community.” Indeed, prior to Kehillat Nashira, Borehamwood was one of the first synagogues in Britain to have a women’s megillah reading. It also hosts a woman-only Simchat Torah celebration annually, and Kehillat Nashira gave Borehamhood the impetus to host women’s Kabbalat Shabbatot. “My observation is that we’ve moved the goalposts” and “things that were previously seen as radical are now fine since they’re not as radical as a partnership minyan.”

A graduate in Theology and Religious Studies, Lorie is also the Public Education Manager for the Cambridge Interfath Programme, with a particular focus on an initiative called Coexist House, for which she is the Project Manager. The institution aims to become “the leading global center for transforming public understanding of the practices and perspectives of the world’s religions.” Today, there are five partnership minyanim across London: in Golders Green, Hendon, Finchley, and Hampstead. Reflecting on Kehillat Nashira, Lorie concluded, “I’d like to think the partnership minyan movement has opened doors for women within the mainstream.”

Richard Verber, Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews

When Richard Verber was elected Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews last year, he became at the age of thirty the youngest person to hold that position in the history of the institution.

When Verber – who works professionally for World Jewish Relief – first took up a place on the board three years prior when he was with the Union of Jewish Students, there was the perception that the Board of Deputies was a “stuffy old organization that doesn’t care about young people.” At the first meeting he attended, nobody said hello, the tone and language was ‘foul,’ and the discourse was littered with “weird words, phrases, and jargon. Nobody explained how to ask a question and get involved.”

Believing in the very idea of a cross-communal body, Verber was involved in starting a pressure group with a view to changing the Board of Deputies: making it more “democratic, transparent, and accountable” and involving more women and young people. They ran more young people for various positions on the Board, had the layout of the room changed to make it more collegiate – “sometimes the board is hijacked by extreme views but the average member will listen to rational debate” – and their meetings began to be live streamed online for the first time.

Verber’s election last year is, then, a continuation of this project to open up and transform the Board. While Verber and his allies are not looking to push out older people, “my hope is that I can be successful in mainstreaming the idea that we need the best and brightest from the community” on the Board, he told me. Britain’s Jewish community still needs more women and young people not only on the Board but also in leadership positions in synagogues and Jewish charities. The Board is in the process of rewriting its constitution and seeking ways to increase cooperation and open channels of communication with the Haredi community in Britain, who are at present for various reasons underrepresented on the Board.

As Senior Vice President, Verber works on the Board’s international relations portfolio. “The Board does not exist to solve” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to “protect the rights of Jews in the UK,” Verber said in explaining his brief. Nonetheless, “part of the constitution is to uphold and protect the State of Israel. The British Jewish community has a view that’s fairly well listened to and an important responsibility sits on our shoulders.” Occasionally, the Board feels the needs to say actions that occur in Israel are wrong, such as the arson attack that led to the death of Ali Dawabsheh in the Palestinian West Bank village of Duma. Broadly speaking, though, “the Board takes a pro-Israel stance.”

More than a year into his new job, Verber says, “The more you get to know about the Board, the more impressed you are.” There remains a great deal about the institution that needs to be improved. It is “not very good at PR,” which begets ‘ignorance’ about the work it does. Further, there is a problem with community engagement, since most Board deputies are representatives of synagogues and “younger people tend not to join synagogues outside the Orthodox movements. Good youth wings do not translate into synagogue membership,” Verber explained. Part of further increasing the representation of young people on the Board will involve discussion with grassroots groups and charities – those who operate outside of the walls of the synagogue.

Lauren Hamburger, Director of PJ Library in the UK

Since 2005, PJ Library has been distributing high-quality children’s books with Jewish content, for free, to homes across North America and other corners of the Jewish world. An initiative of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, it derives inspiration from Dolly’s Parton Imagination Library initiative, which aims to promote early childhood literacy by giving away books to those from birth to the age of five. Grinspoon “decided to start his own free book project,” Lauren Markoe previously reported, “for Jewish kids who might not know that Purim is a Jewish holiday or how they can prepare for a Shabbat dinner without the free Jewish-themed book arriving in their mailbox each month.”

“I first heard about PJ Library when I was living in living in New York and we signed up for it,” Lauren Hamburger told me. PJ Library launched in the United Kingdom in early 2015, and Hamburger – who also works in the British Jewish community to expand opportunities for women in Judaism – is the local director. “I wasn’t used to seeing modern, high quality Jewish books in the UK. We loved receiving them and began speaking about bringing PJ Library to the UK,” she explained.

“What’s fabulous is to be able to talk about Jewish festivals and values in a way that fits in with twenty-first century secular living,” Hamburger said. The books PJ Library distributes cover Jewish culture, values and traditions and encompass an array of Jewish authors and illustrators, in a way that recognizes how the Jewish world has changed and modernized. They portray engagement with the non-Jewish world and show mothers as figures who work outside the home, for example. PJ Library “celebrates these aspects of Judaism” in books that “speak to the modern day family,” Hamburger said.

When PJ Library launched in the UK, it had the ambition of distributing 2,500 books in the first year – a target they surpassed within the first six weeks. 1,300 families are now on the waiting list for a book. The project “enables Jewish families to create their own bedtime library,” Hamburger said. “It’s not just about children learning about values” but establishing a moment for parents and children “to get together and read a story.” Conversely, in the case of intermarried families – an increasing reality in the British Jewish community – such a moment also allows parents to learn about Jewish values and concepts with their children. “Books create Jewish moments” and also build a bridge between the home and the community’s cultural institutions, like Limmud, JW3, and London’s Jewish Museum.

With PJ Library now a year old, Hamburger believes there is now more “awareness of high quality Jewish children’s literature.” Whereas before Jewish families were reading non-Jewish books to their children, not only in secular or intermarried families but traditional families too, PJ Library has “shown the British Jewish community that there are hundreds of amazing Jewish children’s books,” all the while encouraging others to realize “that there is an audience that values Jewish children’s literature” and wishes to be proactive about Jewish learning. Parents, Hamburger concluded, “still want their kid to hold the book and learn to read.”