The recent Cricket World Cup turned into a nail-biter and now the Ashes is here. There’s been much discussion about the place of cricket in today’s Britain, but even if you’re not a fan, you probably know it’s still a big deal around the world, but only in certain places. And most of them are Commonwealth countries.
As we now know – no I’m not going to mention Brexit! – Brits are a bit funny about international associations to which we belong. Many Brits know nothing and care less about the Commonwealth. Actually, the Commonwealth is a big deal, with 53 member states and rising. Although it originally emerged from our former colonies, other countries are now applying to join the Commonwealth of Nations.
Those 53 countries span six continents and include a population of 2.4 billion, about a third of the world’s total. It includes huge countries such as India (population 1.3 bn) and tiny – very vulnerable – ones like Tuvalu (population 11,000). The Queen is its titular head. About two-thirds of these countries have Jewish communities. The Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC), founded in 1982, is the umbrella organisation connecting 37 communities.
There are large Jewish populations in Canada, the UK, Australia and South Africa, and tiny communities meeting challenges of distance and disconnection. I’ve recently visited several of our members, meeting Jews and our many non-Jewish friends. In February this year, my Africa tour encompassed South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Mauritius, Uganda and Kenya.
And there are remarkable stories and histories. The synagogue in Barbados, one of the oldest in the Western hemisphere, was visited by the Prince of Wales in March. He seems to like visiting Commonwealth synagogues, as he popped in to the shul in Cochin, India, in 2013 on his 65th birthday.
The CJC supports this network of Commonwealth Jewish communities. We share a menu of proven programmes many of which originated here in the UK such as Mitzvah Day and Limmud and imports, including the Shabbat Project.
We also make representations on issues of concern such as antisemitism and security. The New Zealand mosque attack and the massacres in Sri Lanka’s churches show that our concerns are not unique, and it’s important that our Jewish communities’ voices are heard.
In addition, we amplify the ethical Jewish voice. We are promoting a campaign on climate change, called “Small Islands: Big Challenges”, which has been well received. (Jews especially should feel for those whose homes are threatened and who face the shock of impending forced migration.)
And there’s lovely action from even the smallest communities. Gibraltarian Jews planted six etrog trees at their botanical gar-dens and the leadership of the tiny community in Mauritius has been responsible for planting thousands of trees.
The Commonwealth is like the Jews. It has no economic or military power but its strength comes from its relationships. It’s all about making connections and helping each other. Last year, CJC became a fully accredited Commonwealth organisation, the first to be built around a religion and its community.
The two huge Jewish communities of Israel and the US often overshadow our awareness of all the other communities in the world. But maybe a new accent on the Commonwealth here in the UK will lead us to look again at these fascinating outposts of Jewish life.
When you travel, check them out. They’re family!