What’s it like to be Jewish in Great Britain?

What’s it like to be Jewish in Great Britain?

A visiting Brit, former Board of Deputies head, talks about similarities and differences

In a way, British Jewish life can seem to us, here in the United States, to be an alternative universe version of our life here.

Most British Jews have backgrounds similar to our own – most are the descendants of eastern Europeans, some of whom can be traced back three or four generations, others who are Holocaust refugees or survivors. A smaller number of them are Sephardi.

British Jews celebrate the same Jewish holidays, speak the same language, share many Jewish and general cultural references. They even can trace their mythic origins in their country to the east side of its biggest city – Manhattan’s Lower East Side for us, London’s East End for them.

There are many differences as well, though. To begin with, we do not say a prayer for the Queen during our prayer services. Our community is much larger – they have fewer than 300,000, representing about .4 percent of all Britons. (That’s roughly the number of Jews in northern New Jersey.) We have somewhere between 4.2 and 5.3 million, depending on which definition of Jewish the statistician uses. That’s about 1.8 percent of all Americans. They have those lovely, dancing, enviable accents; we plod along in our flat heavy Americanese.

Jon Benjamin

Some can boast of family in the country since the eighteenth or even the seventeenth centuries; far fewer of us can do that.

And they have a communal structure that is far more inclusive, organized, and official – and far older – than ours.

Jon Benjamin, who lives in the bustling Jewish neighborhood of Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London, was in Tenafly visiting his brother- and sister-in-law, Neil and Rachel Czuch Taylor. A lawyer by training, he has spent many years in Jewish communal life in England. From 2005 to 2013 he was the chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the organization that is the liaison between the Jewish community and the government. He is now the chief operating officer of World ORT, which describes itself as “the world’s largest Jewish education and vocational training non-governmental organisation.”

Mr. Benjamin met with the Jewish Standard to talk about his community and his work.

First, he explained himself – although that discussion is entirely entwined with the community that is so integral to his life.

Although the Jews had been expelled from Great Britain in 1290, around the time that Oliver Cromwell ruled the community, they began to reappear in the mid- seventeenth century. Mr. Benjamin’s father’s family, believed to have originated in east Prussia, first appears in British records in 1770. Family lore has it that in the absence of a large Jewish community anywhere, its ancestors moved to North Wales, where they bred horses. Eventually, when the nucleus of a Jewish presence in London pulled at them, they moved to join it.

His family was Ashkenazi, but most of those early British Jews were Sephardi; their families had gone from Spain to Amsterdam and then to England. “They spread out all over Great Britain,” Mr. Benjamin said, noting that some Jews flourished in Penzance, where not only trade but also smuggling contributed to the local economy. “Later, they all settled in clusters. The early immigrants were more adventurous. Later, they went where the money was.”

The oldest synagogue in Great Britain, Bevis Marks, a Sephardi shul, was founded in 1704; it still is a shul today.

The Board of Deputies was established in 1760. “It was founded when George III, of American Revolution fame, came to the throne,” Mr. Benjamin said. “They sent a letter to the king welcoming him.” Most of the members were Sephardi, and the minutes of the first meeting were in Portuguese. Fairly soon, Jews were reasonably well accepted. “Obviously they kept a sort of low-ish profile, but English history is interesting,” Mr. Benjamin said. “There were other groups that were seen as more of a threat – Catholics and Nonconformist Protestants.” Groups, in other words, that were more familiar and therefore posed a more understandable risk.

The Board of Deputies started meeting regularly in the 19th century. “It had more of a purpose then,” Mr. Benjamin said. “It started advocating for rights for Jews.” The group now meets in the home of the father of the first more-or-less Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. (The Disraelis were received into the Anglican church when Benjamin was young, but he always was thought of as Jewish – the conversion just for show – by his enemies, his supporters, the Jewish community, and, it seems, even by himself.)

In 2010, “when the Board of Deputies had its 250th anniversary, we were invited to a private audience with the queen at Windsor Castle,” Mr. Benjamin said. “It was really impressive. There were only six of us, so it was pretty private. She asked each of us where we were from.” Remembering that her ancestors, the German-speaking House of Hanover, became assimilated Britons after his did, “I felt like saying, ‘We’ve been here quite as long as you have been, Your Majesty.'” But he held that thought.

The Board of Deputies represents the entire Jewish community. It is not synonymous with United Synagogue, the Orthodox organization headed by the chief rabbi. “About 60 percent of the community is Orthodox, at least nominally,” Mr. Benjamin said. A growing percentage of British Jews are charedi, and some are observant; as for many others, “the shul that they go to three times a year is Orthodox,” he said.

“The board is made up of about 280 deputies, elected by their synagogues, the synagogue movements, and other organizations,” he continued. “It pretty much reflects the cross-section of the community, and it is involved in pretty much any issue that affects the Jewish community.”

It does not involve itself in intra-community religious disputes, but it takes a stand on issues that affect the community’s ability to live a religious life – governmental attempts to regulate kosher slaughter and religious circumcision come to mind. “Then, the high-level watermark we use is Orthodox, and everyone more progressive is happy with that,” Mr. Benjamin said.

In Great Britain religious schools can be state funded, and there have been court cases exploring the obligations and limits that such funding demands. That is a knotty issue that often conflicts head-on with the definition of Jews as an ethnic group – who, in that case, can offer or refuse membership in that group? The interface between civil and religious law is never easy, and it differs from country to country.

About 65 percent of Jewish children now go to day schools, “because they are the best schools in the area, because they can be state funded, because their parents want to reinforce Jewish religion and culture, because their parents don’t know much and they won’t get it anywhere else,” Mr. Benjamin said. Part of it, he added, is the result of a campaign spearheaded by the former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks.

The relationship of the Jewish community to Israel is strong, Mr. Benjamin said. Part of that is simple geography – Israel is only about four and a half hours away. “If you can afford it, it is an absolute rite of passage for 16-year-olds to go to Israel, and lots of them go on school trips as well. Because Israel is closer physically, there is a closer relationship politically and spiritually as well.”

When they first immigrated to Britain, Jews, like other immigrants in other places, wanted to fit in. “They wanted to be more English than the English,” Mr. Benjamin said. In large part, they have succeeded. “There is a sitcom called ‘Friday Night Dinner,'” he continued. “It’s about two boys who go home every Friday night and have dinner with their families.” As is true of sitcoms around the world, hijinks and complications ensue. “It is infantile but mildly amusing,” Mr. Benjamin said.

Those two young men and their family are Jewish. There is challah on the table and candles glisten from a sideboard. They are, after all, at a Shabbat dinner. That fact is neither obscured nor stressed in this low-end television show. It is just a given, part of the background.

Another thing that defines British Jewry, Mr. Benjamin said, is that “we tend to see ourselves as sitting off the continental coast. We are not part of the mainland. So when people talk about what’s going on in Europe, we say that they are not talking about us.”

So, he said, the problems that are confronting European Jews are not looming as large for their British counterparts. There have not been serious efforts to ban kosher slaughter or circumcision. There is not blatant anti-Semitism. “The one thing that is probably true to say is that because of the BBC and the Guardian, and the nonprofits like Oxfam that are based in Britain, that support BDS, people can get the wrong idea,” he said. “If you insist on reading the Guardian or hitting yourself over the head with a brick – well, you’ll get a headache in either instance.

“Most Brits don’t remotely care about any of this stuff,” he continued. “There never has been an academic boycott of Israel. If anything, there has been a pushback in recent years, a strengthening of British-Israeli cooperation.

“There are debates on campus at Oxford, and a couple of years ago there was an attempt to introduce an Oxford-wide boycott of Israeli products. There are 37 colleges at Oxford, and it didn’t pass at any one of them.”

Britain is home to a large Muslim community – there are nine times more Muslims than Jews, Mr. Benjamin reported. “They are predominately South Asian rather than Arab, and for a couple of generations they were not particularly politicized, and if they were, it was about South Asian politics. That has changed – we have issues of radicalization now, of people going off to fight in Syria. But what we have not seen is shootings, like in Kansas City, or in Seattle.”

Britain is safer than the continent in general, he continued. “You go to Brussels or Vienna – there are armed police outside the synagogue. We don’t have that. We have some guy like me standing outside, just keeping an eye out.” (Mr. Benjamin does not have a particularly police-like affect.) “The police might drive by once in the course of a Shabbat morning – or not. It’s nothing like Paris. You see people coming to work in kippot. You don’t feel threatened.”

Moving back to a discussion of his own life, Mr. Benjamin said that he did not go to a yeshiva. Instead, he was sent to public school – that is, as any Anglophile would know, a private school. His was Dulwich College, founded by one of Shakespeare’s colleagues, Edward Alleyn, and set in part on the banks of the Thames. (Raymond Chandler, the quintessential early 20th century L.A. noir thriller writer, inexplicably graduated from Dulwich. So did the explorer Ernest Shackleton and the lawyer Hartley Shawcross, who was the lead British prosecutor at Nuremberg.) Next, he went to Manchester University, and then to law school. For eight years, “I practiced law as a litigator – which is good practice for Jewish communal work,” he said. “I moved into the communal world – I thought that with all the tsouris in being a lawyer, I could do it perhaps for a higher calling.”

Now, at World ORT, Mr. Benjamin oversees fundraising and programming all around the world, “managing the relationship between the fundraising countries – the United States, Britain, Canada, Switzerland – and the operations countries, which are many and varied, including Israel and the former Soviet Union, South America, and South Africa.

“We share best practices that we build up in one country with another one,” he said. “I arrived in South Africa for a seminar, where Israeli instructors were teaching South African teachers about hi-tech. A similar program was running in Lithuania. We might try something in Lithuania and refine it in South Africa and offer it in Argentina. The whole world is part of the network.”

Part of the organization’s goal is to train disadvantaged children to be able to work with technology. Although it would be wonderful if some of the children with whom they work show themselves to be gifted and work their way toward Nobel prizes, ORT has no illusions that most of their children, like children anywhere, will be anything other than average.

World ORT is helping deal with the ongoing situation in Israel. Among other things, it provides training and programs for disadvantaged children there – particularly for children sent up north for safety, and others who are still in the south, in rocket range. “We do a lot of robotics,” he said. “We try to make science fun.

“We offer very practical physical responses to the situation,” he said. “To help the kids’ mental welfare, and so that their parents can know that their kids are safe and looked after.”

In the end, the British and American Jewish communities are more similar than they are different. “The same issues come up again and again,” he said. And then the community tackles them.

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