As I stood checking the set up for our Chanukiyah at Waddesdon Manor, the full impact of what we were doing as SBJC (the Jewish community in Buckinghamshire and Herts) became clear. The 2021 census in England shows that there are 1,688 Jews living in Buckinghamshire, the smallest minority religious community and making up 0.3% of the population. Yet here we were, not in Barnet or Hertsmere, but in the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside with a public celebration of Chanukah for all visitors to see.
No-one would know I was the rabbi, as I checked the beautifully designed Chanukiyah, made by the artist Michelle Dufaur. The Chanukiyah was here thanks to the inspired idea of Sarah Dewberry (Head of Learning at Waddesdon Manor) and generously support of the Rothschild Foundation. Being incognito allowed me to overhear families enjoying the Christmas lights that are a regular feature of Waddesdon Manor, a National Trust property, saying to one another, ‘Oh, look it’s the Jewish festival of lights – it’s chanukah’. One young child, whose mother was explaining about Jewish festivals, exclaimed, when seeing the decorations on the Chanukiyah itself, ‘Look mum, it’s a dreidel!’ Their primary school teacher will be very proud.
As a community, we strive to be visible and engaged in our local community and try to accept all invitations. Two years ago, in the middle of lockdown, we were invited to be a window in the Berkhamsted Advent Windows. Each night of advent a different household ‘unveiled’ a Christmas window to brighten up the darkness and isolation of lockdown. SBJC was invited to be a window to share the lights of Chanukah, which led to a COVID compliant opportunity to celebrate Chanukah and share the lights of the miracle. This year was our third year participating.
On Sukkot, we put our Sukkah up in the grounds of St Peter’s Church in Berkhamsted – whose generosity and partnership is growing by the month. Visitors and residents of Berkhamsted discovered that not only do Jews live here, but they are a visible part of civic and religious life. We welcomed hundreds of children to the Sukkah to tell them about Judaism and Jewish history. Father Stuart Owen, rector of St Peter’s, invited me to co-officiate with him in blessing the town at their festival of light.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve been on walking tours of Amersham, with the Amersham museum, the Bucks Museum have hosted special online exhibitions with us, we’ve shared our lives in the Chiltern Open Air Museum and stomped through the woods of Ashridge and sung a hearty Avinu Malkeinu outside at the wildlife trust managed College Lake in Tring – the first time we had sung together since pre-pandemic. Not to mention, speaking at Chesham Mosque, participating in Interfaith roadshows with Beyond Difference, addressing Chesham Peace in the Park and many, many Jews locally involved in hosting Ukrainians who have fled conflict. I’ve also been regularly welcomed by Dr Nighat Arif on her BBC Three Counties Sunday morning show.
To be affirmed and visible in Jewish life as a small community requires courage from the members of SBJC – one of the fastest growing communities in the country and a constituent of Liberal Judaism. At the same time, with that courage, we have found phenomenal partners and generosity from all parts of our region. We have discovered open arms and willingness to make space for us in public life and curiosity, interest and dialogue. We’re not hidden inside a building and, as a result, Judaism is not just encountered in the class at school as part of the RE syllabus or at interfaith events.
Our connection to the local police is equally important – our Community and Diversity Officer regularly attends our services and activities, not just because she has to, but because of genuine interest. The Community and Engagement Team at Buckinghamshire Council are in regular contact with me too, ensuring our voice is heard.
I recognise how the spectre of antisemitism is rearing its head in worrying ways and it is not just online hate but in-person threats and acts of violence that trouble me. In no way do I wish to diminish the concern or the significance of the work of CST, who also support us in many ways. When the hateful outbursts like those of Kanye West occurred, children and adults felt isolated and often frustrated or anxious about the silence of possible allies. Being an ally is not just taking the nice bits of Judaism – it’s recognising the whole experience of living as a Jew in the 21st century. All the more so, when we’re the only Jew in school or in the PTA, sports club or in your street. Based on the population count, on average I reckon there would be one Jewish child in every school in Buckinghamshire – it can feel lonely, pressured and vulnerable to be out and outspoken.
At the same time, if we’re to discover our allies, help them find their voices, to engage friends, colleagues, neighbours in appreciation of what it means to be Jewish, then our communities must be pro-active, constantly, to ensure we are visible. And when we are visible, when we hear children marvel at seeing a chanukiyah in the least expected place, or stop to look in on a sukkah in a church ground or smile when they see a Torah scroll danced in the street and Hebrew uttered at a Christmas light switch on, and when the discourse about being Jewish raises awareness of antisemitism in history and in contemporary life and at the same time highlights our celebrations, we should feel there is cause to celebrate. When our children’s artwork is seen on public installations and our prayers are heard in the streets and through the hills, when Lord Rothschild joins us to celebrate in the historic Rothschild country house that is Waddesdon, we can recognise the goodness of the moment.
As a community, we are on the search for a building that we can call our home, where we can welcome people – Jews and non-Jews alike. Let me tell you the property market in South Bucks for a small community makes that all but impossible. At the same time, we will never stop making sure that we are visible in wider public life and we will also not stop being grateful for the miracle of organisations with whom we can partner and professionals and friends willing to open their hearts and doors to us to help make that visibility possible, affirming our place here and our belonging.
At Chanukah, the mitzvah is to publicise the miracle of the festival – which is why we put our lights in the window, on the streets and on social media. This year, as we share Jewish life in public, fulfilling that mitzvah, I can say with confidence that a great miracle is happening here and it’s called SBJC – South Bucks Jewish Community!