Religion, or mere self-interest?

A disturbing series of events seems to indicate that the advocates of ‘outreach’ don’t know the meaning of the word


How far out does charedi outreach reach? Just how prepared are charedim to reach out to their Jewish brethren, and on what terms?

Here is a selection of the many news stories that have landed on my desk over the past couple of weeks:

● In a quiet suburban street in Edgware, residents have appealed to the local authority to close a charedi boys' school that opened without planning permission in 2006. But a spokesman for the school told a local newspaper that the school had had "a good" Ofsted report last year and that a shortage of primary school places "was a valid reason to allow it to remain open".

● At an imposing ceremony in Oxford, attended by (among others) no less a dignitary than the Lord Lieutenant of the county on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen, a Jewish study hall was formally opened by the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Meir Lau. No expense has been spared in the construction of this seat of learning. I understand that its magnificent, hand-carved ark was imported from Israel, and that the facility boasts matching oak furniture and what one newspaper report described as "luxury study chairs and a library of Judaic works in all areas of Jewish study".

Charedim seem willing to co-operate with other Jews only on their own terms

● In Hackney, sundry charedi groups have banded together (a very rare occurrence in that part of the world) to denounce plans to build residential accommodation on the site of a former school, contending that the school site should be reserved for charedi use. Rabbi Avraham Pinter, the leader of this bold alliance, declared it "an absolute scandal that the educational needs of the fastest growing part of Britain's Jewish community are being ignored by Hackney Council."

● In the city of Cambridge, the centrally located branch of the Lubavitch movement has appealed against the refusal of the city council to grant planning permission for a mikveh to be built in the grounds of the premises it occupies in Castle Street.

Each of these stories can be read in one of two ways. You can read the facts, as I have given them above, and you can conclude that in every case the charedim are justified in what they have done - and indeed deserve our unequivocal support. But in case you are tempted to go down this road, let me beg you to consider other facts, as follows:

● The school in Edgware has become a nightmare for its residential neighbours. "The noise levels," said one resident, "are intolerable. Balls regularly come over the fences and neighbours are now being denied the enjoyment and privacy of their gardens." The school in question consists of two semi-detached residences, the gardens of which have been turned into a hard-surfaced playground that, because of a lack of drainage, causes flooding to neighbouring gardens.

● The no-expense-spared study hall in Oxford is quite separate from the facilities of the Oxford Jewish Congregation, which also serves as the headquarters of the official Oxford University Jewish Society. It is in fact located within the premises of something called The David Slager Chabad Jewish Student Centre, part of the well-financed, expanding Lubavitch presence in the city that threatens to marginalise (and is in my humble opinion intended to marginalise) Oxford's Jewish society and synagogue.

● The school site in Hackney has become vacant because the school itself has been rebuilt elsewhere. Jewish groups did indeed express an interest in taking over the site, but were outbid by a private company that plans to use the site for residential accommodation. The educational needs of Hackney's charedi communities are not being ignored, but the local authority must balance these against the much more acute shortage of high-quality, modern residential accommodation in the borough.

● In Cambridge, planning permission has already been granted for a mikveh in a discreet suburban location. Why, you might ask, is the Lubavitch movement there not willing to assist in this project, but is instead adamant that it must construct a separate facility in spite of fierce local opposition?

What do these stories have in common? I suggest that they all reflect an unwillingness on the part of charedim to co-operate with any other section of Anglo-Jewry save on their terms, and a seeming inability - or unwillingness - to consider their needs in the context of the needs of the wider society of which they are part.

Far from "outreach", they reflect an appalling selfishness.

    Last updated: 4:51pm, May 21 2010

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