Britain’s Jewish Living Expo

As with the premature publication of Mark Twain’s obituary, reports of the demise of the British Jewish community are greatly exaggerated.

The oft quoted statistic, that the number of Jews in Britain in the 1950s was somewhere around 450,000 and has now shrunk to 270,000, is now widely considered by experts to overstate the first figure and understate the second. In fact, the number of Jews in Britain today is likely to be more like 300,000, but even that is only part of the story. Jewish life in the UK is vibrant, dynamic and innovative in the arts, education, advocacy and in every field of community endeavor. Despite the overstated reports of communal strife, our institutions are the envy of other faith communities and command the greatest of respect from government and wider society.

Leading a delegation of communal professionals last year to speak to the minister responsible for the government’s Big Society initiative, it soon became apparent that our achievements in engaging young people, our delivery of social welfare and our record of engagement in social issues generally were a revelation, and a model for others to follow. And follow they do, with other communities seeking advice from the Board of Deputies on communal infrastructure, from the CST on security matters, and from Jewish Care and JLGB on care and volunteering, to name but a few examples.

It’s not just non-Jewish communities that look to British Jews for inspiration. Limmud, pioneered in the UK, is now a worldwide phenomenon. Jewish Book Week attracts international acclaim. The way we protect our community from physical threats is a benchmark for even large communities such as in the United States. Our schools are heavily attended and our young people enjoy an Israel experience in ever greater numbers.

It is against this backdrop that the first Jewish Living Expo is taking place at Wembley Stadium on March 18. Typically, given the surfeit of community events taking place at any given time, I found myself conflicted. On the same day, the Board is holding its annual regional plenary meeting in Newcastle, which I would normally attend, and it is also the day of Liverpool Limmud. Having long since given up hope of getting to Wembley to see my football team in a cup final, the Jewish Living Expo seemed to provide an eminently worthwhile reason to make the trip to the hallowed home of English football.

Being a Jewish event, the action will be taking place in the conference and banqueting suite, rather than on the pitch, but there will still be an impressive display of community organisations, workshops, advice, speakers, celebrities and, of course, food. You can even book a tour of Wembley Stadium.

Just as important as the content of the day is what it says about our community, and the way others interact with us. One of the confirmed speakers is Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, a friend and supporter of the community, and someone who understands the Jewish contribution to Jewish life, and the challenges we face. The willingness of major national figures to turn out for the community is a continuing testament to the regard with which we are held. That is not to say that there are not concerns about the way issues that matter to us, such as Israel, shehita, or campus anti-Semitism, are dealt with. But it does mean that we are regarded as trusted and trustworthy interlocutors, whose views are taken seriously.

With that in mind, I am running a workshop on the role that everyone can play as an advocate on topics that concern us as British Jews; or as the title of the session puts it, “How not to be an armchair Jew.” Simple things like informed and well-argued letters to MPs, reasoned responses to newspaper articles, Facebook, blogs and tweets (and if I am losing you here, then make sure you come along to the workshop!). The point is, that as a community of educated and articulate people, the power to influence opinion is within us all, and we should each see it as our responsibility to be advocates for the community. It is not someone else’s responsibility; it is ours collectively, as students, trade unionists, professionals; as consumers of news media, voters, council tax payers, TV licence fee contributors and theater goers. We all have a voice and we should use it.

That, in essence, is the purpose of the Board of Deputies, a truly democratic organisation made up of representatives of synagogues and communal organisations up and down the country and across the religious spectrum. And as the community’s representative organisation, made up of people like you, we are supporting the Jewish Living Expo, and hope to see you there on 18 March. Wembley, here we come!

About the Author
Jon Benjamin is Chief Operation Officer at GIFT