Community is ‘divided and can’t fund itself’

Jewish organisations need to attract a wider donor base, support innovation and encourage greater cross-communal collaboration, a new report recommends.

It also says that synagogue buildings could be used more widely for social and cultural purposes.

The report was commissioned by the Jewish Leadership Council as part of its “community vitality” project to guide policy-makers and philanthropists on future investment.

Produced by Dr Keith Kahn-Harris, co-author of a book on contemporary British Jewry, it was based on conversations with 140 communal activists in 14 focus groups across the country.

On the positive side, the UK Jewish community is “in many ways a vital one” with “an extraordinary range of services” on offer, Dr Kahn Harris says in a draft of the report.

But there is concern about whether the current level of activity is financially viable without a larger network of contributors.

One participant in the focus groups said: “The reality is that the community can’t fund itself any longer. Every part of the community is short of funding, and the reason for that is not because the community’s poor, this community is far wealthier than it ever has been. There are individuals who have amassed great wealth, but the amount of Jewish giving or giving to Jewish causes has declined dramatically.”

Also apparent is a strong dislike of communal conflict and division, making it often “stressful and frustrating” to work within the Jewish community.

“What I don’t like about the community is that we are so fractionalised and there is so little respect between people who are perceived as belonging to different groups,” one activist said.

Instead, organisational clashes should be better managed and dialogue promoted between different sections of British Jewry — including with the Charedi community.

The JLC’s community chest and other funding bodies should restrict grants to groups who can show evidence of “joint working” and “cross-communal collaboration”, the report recommends.

It also calls for more funding to be available to “innovative new projects”, although some participants were sceptical about central organisations being involved.

In most eyes, synagogues remain a “backbone of Jewish community”, although some only “reluctantly” acknowledge their central role.

But there is a belief that they could be “more vital places” if they were to open their doors to youth movements and other groups to run activities. “There’s no reason why synagogues have to be boring old horrible places,” one participant said.

Some activists feel that greater vitality is not a question of more money. “For things that really concern us, money is not a limiting factor, it’s personnel,” one said. Another believed there had been “an under-investment in people, programmes and content” compared with buildings.

JLC chief executive Jeremy Newmark said that the report was “the first stage in opening up a conversation across the community as to how we can work together to improve engagement and vitality across the Jewish landscape”.

American sociologist Professor Steven Cohen has been already been asked by the JLC to investigate how to take further the ideas on extending synagogue use.

Last updated: 4:45pm, May 2 2013