London’s Debbie Danon: Doing More Than ‘Just Show Up’

courtesy Grassroots Jews
courtesy Grassroots Jews

by Abigail Pickus

With the end of university looming, Debbie Danon began interviewing for jobs in advertising.

“They said, ‘You’re really good, but we just don’t think you want it. Other people are hungrier for it,’ and I thought, so true!” said the 29-year-old professional powerhouse and young Jewish leader in London.

Her good friend put it this way: “I don’t see you selling toothpaste. Find something value based that will allow you to live out your values.”

And so Danon did.

These days, she works as a senior learning and events specialist, but for nearly seven years, she worked for Three Faiths Forum, a leading interfaith organization.

“I’ve always been interested in the human motivation towards altruism and compassion, especially in the moments when you think they would be overwritten by circumstance,” she said. “What gives people the inner reserve to override anger and fear and to be able to find a different way of dealing with things and to have better relations with each other?”

Danon grew up “south of the river,” a reference Jewish Londoners would instinctively understand, meaning she grew up far from the entrenched Jewish communities in north London. But that is where her parents, both Turkish Jews from Istanbul, settled when they moved their family to the UK because of her father’s work.

There Danon and her brother grew up in the Sefardi Orthodox community and in the Jewish Zionist youth movement.

She attended Cambridge University where she studied theology and was active in the Jewish community. After university, she spent time in India on a scholarship to research Hindu communities.

But the seeds were planted for the Three Faiths Forum (3FF) before she set off for India when a friend who worked there mentioned Danon to her boss.

“She said to me, ‘you should think about 3FF. It’s going places,’” recalled Danon.

By the time Danon came on board at 3FF, soon after she returned from India, she joined a staff of only five people. Her role was to design a program for single faith schools to expose them to other faiths and beliefs.

It was a challenge.

“Many Jewish schools understandably only understand Jews,” said Danon. “What is the safest way to introduce them to other faiths and sensitize them to the fact that when they leave the walls of the school not every non-Jew hates them? That they can learn a lot from people who are different from them and it doesn’t compromise their identity.”

For the first two years, Danon led the piloting of a variety of programs, including their flagship program called, “Encountering Faiths and Beliefs,” which was designed to help young people from across a wide swath of backgrounds become confident and sensitive communicators and manage the “fear and anxiety reflexes” around meeting new people.

“It’s normal to be anxious about the things we don’t know, about the unknown,” said Danon. “But it is not an excuse to say, ‘I’m scared of it, therefore it might be bad.’ Young people, particularly Jewish young people, might go to Jewish day school and then Jewish after school clubs, but at the end of their school experience they will eventually encounter people who are different than them. And not only are they going to have to explain Judaism to people who don’t have tons of references to it, but [it will be doubly challenging] if they haven’t ever met people who are different from them,” she said.

What it comes down to is “having comfort and confidence in speaking to anyone and not letting fear be a motivating factor,” Danon continued.

What it all comes down to is being proud of your own traditions. It is “being an ambassador and that change factor for someone else,” said Danon. “We all want to live in a society where we feel safe and valued and if we don’t work together on that we are never going to achieve that.”

In other words, if we only live in our little self-contained universe, we’re not creating and being part of a robust society.

While the goals sound noble enough, such work begs the question: Do these kinds of interfaith exercises matter? And how do you measure success?

The answer came in the Spring of 2013 after the Woolwich attack, in which a British soldier was brutally attacked and killed in the neighborhood of Woolwich by two young men who claimed to be avenging UK violence against Muslims.

According to Danon, there was a marked difference in the responses of those communities who had been engaging in inferfaith dialogue and sensitivity training.

“The difference in the response of the communities was tangible as opposed to the response in previous years when [hateful, race or ethnic based violence] had happened,” she said. “You could see the difference in the communities where relationships had been built.”

During her tenure at 3FF, Danon was promoted to management, where she piloted a pivotal faith awareness, diversity and inclusion training program for businesses.

She also helped grow 3FF’s education program to reach nearly 10,000 young people and 1,000 educators per year. Part of her work included leading intercultural training all over the world, in Berlin, Stockholm, Istanbul, Yangon, Jerusalem and New York.

But after six and a half years, Danon was ready for something new, which is how she recently came to take a new job at a for-profit but “values led” company she had admired for a long time, The Smarty Train. As the Senior Learning and Events Specialist, she
designs events and programs for the first few years of a young person’s career development for leading consultancies, financial services companies, law firms and nonprofits.

Outside of work, Danon has always been Jewishly engaged.

After university, she lived in a communal Jewish home in London that, like her childhood home, was located outside the comfortable walls of the established Jewish community. That neighborhood was Willesden Green, which is far from the very Jewish London suburbs of Golders Green or Hendon. (She credits Moishe House London for starting the trend by establishing its house there.)

The young women in her house opened up their doors for minyanim and learning sessions. Interestingly, many of the young Jews living in the communal homes at the time ended up staying in the area, thereby expanding Jewish life to different parts of London.

In addition to being a member of the ROI Community, Danon is also very active in Grassroots Jews, an independent minyan movement in London. (She recently finished up a stint as its co-chair.)

For the past five years, Grassroots Jews has offered alternative holiday experiences from Purim to the high holidays. Last year’s Yom Kippur services drew over 300 people, the group’s biggest event to date.

“We wanted traditional but funky, we wanted art and flowers everywhere and lots of singing,” said Danon.

They put a huge emphasis on getting people who had never led services before to participate. For the Purim shpiel they invited a well-known female scholar to read megillah and lead a discussion. Break out sessions at different events have included everything from divrei torah to meditation.

The group attracts those in their 20s and 30s, and the movement is growing and changing and in many ways is representative of the burgeoning independent minyan movement taking place across the globe.

“I read Elie Kaunfer’s book [Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities] and was like, this is my life! A lot of young people here are not interested in the denomination conversation. For years I felt where do I belong? I don’t want to quibble if I’m Reform or Masorti or independent. People don’t ask you to define, they just ask you to show up. For people who want content but are embarrassed or don’t know [much about Judaism], it is democratizing to come to someone’s living room,” she said.

Beyond Grassroots Jews, Danon is also involved in a variety of minyanim that meet for Shabbat services and learning in people’s homes (ie the living room reference), offering everything from more progressive, liberal prayer to those with specific ethical agendas, such as vegetarianism.

“It’s a very exciting time to be young and Jewish in London. I certainly think the options are huge,” she said, rattling off everything from JW3, the new Jewish Community Centre of London with its state of the art building and enticing events, Limmud, and the alternative minyan scene.

“I routinely get people contacting me on Facebook because they see my name as an admin on Grassroots Jews, saying, ‘I haven’t done anything Jewish for years. Where should I start?’ There are a whole bunch of things I can suggest, often starting with going to someone’s house for Shabbat dinner,” she said.

What is especially gratifying to Danon is how many people email her after a Grassroots Jews events to say that was the most inspired they have ever felt from a Jewish event.

“My core purpose is enabling people,” she said. “I’m asked a lot if I want to be a rabbi and the truth is, I could do many aspects of being a rabbi without being ordained, like pastoral care, cultivating a strong and valued volunteer base, and making people feel that their work and passion is acknowledged. Those are the things I hope to do in the Jewish community and beyond.”