Where the Big Society happens

Jewish social action groups are making the Conservative vision a reality

By Stephen Pollard, July 22, 2010

One of the many pleasures of being editor of the JC is the opportunity to meet all sorts of people and visit all sorts of places one would never normally encounter.

I'll be honest with you. Important and often inspiring as it is to schlep up and down the country to do that, I'm not always full of beans when the day comes.

I try to meet readers at least once a week, whether at a shul or an event of some other kind. But on a humid summer day, the idea of leaving my air-conditioned office rarely appeals. And when I've had a long day, have a headache and want only to have a shluf, I do sometimes wonder why I said yes to that evening's meeting.

But almost all the time I end up glad I went. Whether it's the astonishing hospitality and welcome of a small community - such as Leicester WIZO - or the chance to visit something extraordinary I would never otherwise have seen - such as the recent Leeds Jewish International Performing Arts Festival - it is a wonderful privilege.

But sometimes - I did promise to be honest - I accept an invitation knowing that it's an obligation which comes with the job, but which I have almost no interest in.

I felt I had to tell other people to sit up, and take note of their vibrancy

And what makes this job even
better is that, as happened just last week, even then, I am almost always proved wrong.

It was a gathering which, by its description, brought out the ranting tabloid hack in me.

"Bunch of lefties," I thought to myself. "Self-righteous do-gooders." "Pious worthies."

Then I met them. I listened to what they had to say and - crucially - what they were doing.

And I felt not just my ridiculous prejudices peeling away, but a sense that I had to tell other people to sit up and listen to them - to take note of their vibrancy, energy and commitment. These people, it dawned on me as I listened, were the future of our community. They not only embodied the spirit of Judaism - they offered something to those twenty- and thirty-somethings who don't connect with the traditional community groups.

If you haven't guessed already, I'm referring to the myriad social action groups which have sprung up in recent years.

Specifically, to a gathering called the Jewish Social Action Forum, which meets monthly at the JHub.

Those names probably mean nothing to you. And, if you're at all like me, you'll bridle at their description of themselves. The JHub, for instance, calls itself: "A centre of creativity, energy, learning and innovation.
We provide office space, meeting rooms and a support network for innovative UK-based Jewish individuals, projects and organisations who are working to contribute meaningfully, in a variety of ways, to the Jewish and wider world."

I read that before I went, and it fed all my prejudices with its worthy jargon. The reality deserves better than that description.

JHub houses the Jewish Volunteer Network, Net Buddy (an "independent learning disabilities resource website"), Mitzvah Day, René Cassin (a human rights charity) and Tzedek (which "works regardless of race or religion with some of the poorest communities in the world providing direct support to help local people so they can help themselves").

The Jewish Social Action Forum
is an umbrella body for those and
all the other social action groups in the country.

And the most striking thing about it is that they are not, as my prejudices had me fear, yet more left-of-centre agitators finding another vehicle by which to push their world view on the rest of us. Because politics isn't remotely the point.

If you share my view that the welfare state isn't the answer to poverty but often its cause, and that the best response isn't through the state but through - to coin a phrase - the Big Society, then you should celebrate what the Jewish Social Action Forum does.

It helps make that vision real.

    Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010


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