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Fiddling while Golders Green burns

UK Jewry needs a strategic plan to sustain its charitable finances and engage its youth, especially in the face of threats to its continued existence
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn giving his keynote speech at the party's annual conference, October 2018. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire via Jewish News)
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn giving his keynote speech at the party's annual conference, October 2018. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire via Jewish News)

Time for action to secure the future of the British Jewish community

It’s the start of 2069 and there’s still no consensus among Britain’s Jewish organizations on how to mark next year’s 1,000th anniversary of Jewish presence in these fair isles… Some things never change. Invited over from France in 1070 by William the Conqueror to support his cashflow, we’ve enjoyed good times here, prospered and made significant contributions to all walks of life, to a scale that is disproportionate to our size.

Musing about the future is all well and good, but I’m actually doubtful whether our children and grandchildren will get to celebrate this milestone. My mood is obviously affected by the prospect of a Corbyn government. No one can predict the outcome of this week’s vote in Parliament, but given all the Brexit trauma so far, a General Election and Labour victory cannot be ruled out.

All of this has made more urgent a series of conversations that I have been having with a group of major donors, lay leaders and charity professionals about the need for consolidation. We have too many charities to support and it is unsustainable. Everyone agrees with the prognosis, but no one seems able to administer the medicine: radical surgery.

Many of those I have spoken with also acknowledge that, in the event of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister, enough members of our community will leave the UK, putting a significant proportion of donations in doubt. Support for Israel will no doubt continue wherever these donors go, but if you have moved to Herzliya, Miami or Marbella, you’re unlikely to go on funding charities in Britain.

As one major donor put it, “98 percent of the funding is coming from 2% of the community.” It is not an unbelievable scenario: 5,000 people (let’s say 1,000 families) providing the overwhelming majority of donations. So, it doesn’t take many of them to leave to decimate the generosity we have relied upon for decades.

We have been far too complacent, failing to invest in developing wider donor support and engagement. It is like a business without a strategy for growing its client base, instead precariously assuming that the same clients will go on buying forever — and, in this case, that they will be prepared to spend more and more. Did no one think there might just be a rainy day? Apparently not. A few weeks ago, I talked with a professional fundraiser at one of our major charities who said that it did not have a contingency plan for a Corbyn government.

But even if you are an optimist and think that the specter of Corbyn is overrated, the viability of the Anglo-Jewish community is still very much in question. First, this unique funding structure is unlikely to be sustained. There are signs that the historic bond of giving first and so much to Jewish causes is breaking. In conversations with North American Jewish community representatives, I have already heard the alarm bells ringing. As one philanthropy adviser explained, a trillion dollars will transfer between the generations in the next 25-30 years, and there is profound concern that those inheriting will not support Jewish causes in anything like the same way that those who made the bequests did. The explanation lies in the second threat to the future of our community.

Twenty-five years ago, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks put the issue of Jewish continuity on the communal agenda. Some have suggested that he read too much into the American research of the time and exaggerated the problem of intermarriage. A recent study amongst European communal leaders and professionals, carried out by the American Joint Distribution Committee, concluded that the biggest perceived threat to the future of European Jewry is not anti-Semitism, but disengagement from Jewish life. Perhaps not the active assimilation that Lord Sacks talked of but, in the end, the result is the same: the disappearance of our community.

There is one bright star on the horizon: the Haredi community. According to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, by 2030 half the Jewish children born will be from this group. For the rest of us — the mainstream community — the prospects are bleak: at best, a stagnant birth rate. Add to that the disengagement theme and you have a recipe for disaster.

There’s excellent update on Lord Sacks’ Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren? in Tal Keinan’s recently published God Is in the Crowd. (I bought a copy after seeing an advertisement on this website.) Right from the start, the author doesn’t mince his words: “My prognosis for the Jewish future is grim.” It’s a powerful treatise on Jewish identity in the 21st century, as well as a fascinating account of the author’s own aliyah and achievements as a squadron leader in the Israeli Air Force. In providing a compelling analysis of the challenges now facing Israel and American Jewry (he pretty much writes off the rest of the Diaspora), Keinan attempts to define new pathways to solving these because, as he says, “in an era of seemingly limitless personal options, our choice as a community is stark: create meaning in Judaism or accept extinction.”

Meaningful Jewish experiences are key and my own engagement has been particularly informed through a series of profound moments: attending a synagogue fundraiser during the Yom Kippur War, hearing that the hostages had been rescued from Entebbe, watching the horror play out at the Munich Olympics, visiting Refuseniks in Moscow, and joining 1,000 students in voting to overturn a “Zionism is racism” motion, to enable a Jewish society to meet at a British university. No one would wish a repeat of any of this, but the absence of such an emotional backdrop does have its impact.

It also doesn’t help that many of our communal offerings seem stuck in a time warp, slow to respond to the need to change. The explosion in Jewish secondary education is of course a fantastic success, but why are we only now coming to terms with the need to ensure knowledge of Israel is ramped up before teenagers arrive on campus? And when they get there, are we really doing enough to support them? The Union of Jewish Students is 100 years old this year, but lacks the funding to make the necessary impact at what, for many, is the final frontier. Time on campus has always been important, but it is now of fundamental significance. Lose them at university and it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reconnect with them later. We need a major focus on preventing disengagement because a lack of involvement in Jewish life and its institutions will also be a direct challenge to future funding. A much broader and experimental menu than currently on offer is needed, all the way from the age of 12 to probably 32.

According to New Philanthropy Capital, the British Jewish community has a total annual budget of £1 billion. Would a company with such an annual income operate without a strategic plan for sustaining its position? And if such a company were faced with threats to its continued existence, wouldn’t we imagine it responding quickly, looking for ways to innovate, to stay ahead of the game?

We are not short of good communal leaders, but this leadership has more successfully engaged itself on the financial front than in strategic thinking. Some might say this is because British Jews are an inherently conservative bunch, slow to act until it gets really serious. Last summer’s strong response to the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party being a case in point.

Fortunately, our American cousins are already on the case. Recognizing the profound challenges to the future of their community, some enlightened individuals have started to bring the principles of the business world into the Jewish charitable sector. Organizations such as Upstart are seeking to inspire the development of innovative ideas, to find new ways of engagement. Of particular interest is the way in which the concept of Jewish risk capital is being developed. Like the commercial world, funding is being provided for a number of new communal ventures on the understanding that there is a high risk of failure. Precisely because this is not funding the status quo, it attracts some traditional donors hungry for innovation and helps to bring on board new ones who will not fund the established institutions.

This new thinking is certainly worthy of our exploration. Indeed, we rarely connect with the rest of the Diaspora to learn from their experiences. Jews in London, Paris, Sydney, and San Francisco are all facing similar challenges. Simple technology could enhance this connection and perhaps we could also find some Jewish risk capital of our own and create an environment in Britain where those with innovative ideas for our community will bring them forward?

Hillel’s “If not now, when?” has often been used as a call to action, most famously, for the Soviet Jewry Campaign. But we cannot afford ourselves the luxury of waiting; we must take action now. It is time for a bold initiative to foster debate on how we might change our course for the better, so that our children and grandchildren will be engaged in a community celebrating its 1,000th birthday.

We’re calling it Achshav – the Hebrew for “now” – and we’d love to hear your thoughts at www.achshav.org

About the Author
Lionel Salama is co-founder of HOPE, a brand consultancy for organizations that make a social impact.
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