Jewish identity project will stand the test of time

On Wednesday March 6 I attended a Jewish burial. It wasn’t at Bushey, Willesden or Waltham Abbey, and no, I wasn’t consigning a sefer Torah to its final resting place either.

It was, in fact, a joyous occasion; the burial of a time capsule under the piazza on the site of the new JW3 Jewish Community Centre on London’s Finchley Road.

In true old-school Blue Peter-style, we gathered a range of items that represented who we are today, and buried them with an instruction not to be opened until March 2113.

As part of this project, regular readers will have been following the progress of the Jewish identity campaign that JW3 has been running with the Jewish Chronicle since December last year.

Our aim was to spark a community-wide conversation about what being Jewish means to us all, and to provide future generations with an insight into what it was like to be Jewish in London in 2013.

Each week since the launch of the campaign you’ve been able to read the responses of a broad range of people – a few in the public eye and most who are not – in answer to the question: “What does being Jewish mean to me?” It’s been a real eye-opener and the reactions published in the JC represent but a fraction of the responses that will be found when someone unscrews the cap of the time capsule in 100 years.

Amazingly, the testimonies are still coming, which is great, as in addition to their burial for posterity, the JW3 programming team will be using them as the inspiration for exhibitions and events on Jewish identity which will feature in the centre during our launch season this autumn.

It’s been my privilege to read almost all of your submissions and I have to say it’s been great fun as well. While this wasn’t designed as a scientific piece of research, there are definite patterns which emerged (and for the record we did devise a way of ensuring that any one Jew could express only a single opinion!).

We learned for example that:

● Purveyors of shawarma and salt beef, and bakers of challot and bagels can be confident that their legacies (if not their recipes) are assured. It won’t be a surprise to anyone to hear that many a Jewish identity is forged from the stomach outwards.

● Primary school children have clearly been paying attention in their Jewish studies classes or at cheder. Their liberal references to God will warm the hearts of rabbis of every denomination.

● Tevye would be delighted too to hear that we continue to define ourselves by our traditions – even for many who don’t actually keep them! From Friday night dinners to celebrating festivals, to recreating memories from our former years, traditions still form a key component of many people’s Jewish identities.

● Family is perhaps the strongest pillar of Jewish identity and seems inextricably bound up with our national sport — arguing. One anonymous contributor summed it up beautifully: “For Jews, life is an endless argument -- with ourselves, with our families, even with God. We argue because we disagree; and we disagree because we care”.

I was delighted to see the extent to which a strong sense of community endures and how it is bound up with caring, a strong ethical code and a sense of collective responsibility for one another. For some, community is a sense of belonging to a tribe, for others it’s about rolling up their sleeves and doing their bit for the collective good.

Many of you expressed a desire to be part of what Adele, a community worker in her 30s, described as: “Communities which learn and aspire together, challenge and cradle each other; bound by Jewish ritual which anchors us to our histories.”

Part of what being Jewish means to me is never being alone; always being connected through time and space to a vast, unified, diverse, colourful, noisy, thoughtful, ever-questioning, arguing, loving, global family. Where, like in any family, there are those who I feel closer to and who bring me most joy, and those who frustrate, or upset me; yet we remain unified by our family bonds.

Raymond Simonson is chief executive-designate of JW3, the Jewish Community Centre for London

Last updated: 12:45pm, March 22 2013