It’s been a year since I arrived at the JC. Before I came, I had some professional experience of the community, having helped establish an antisemitism think tank, and written a fair amount about Israel and the Middle East. But other than that, I was no more connected than most people — the occasional shul visit and a strong Jewish social life.
So these past 12 months have given me a wonderful opportunity to learn about the community, from its heart, with the perspective of an outsider (although after a year at the JC, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to call myself that again!).
Will you indulge me in a few reflections on what I’ve found?
The single most striking thing is the sheer vibrancy of Jewish life today. Too often, the talk is of doom and gloom: young people are marrying out, the demographic is too elderly, shuls can’t keep going… on and on the litany goes.
But that masks so many other more positive signs. If I was so minded, I could — we all could — spend every night at some fascinating talk, whether on politics, culture, theology or any number of subjects. No shul worth its salt doesn’t have a thought-provoking programme of extra-curricular events.
The dumbing down of so much in our nation’s culture is depressing; but just as the success of organisations such as Intelligence Squared puts the lie to the idea that drivel has driven out serious thinking, so too the astonishing and ever-increasing success of Limmud and individual shuls’ adult learning programmes show how great is our community’s appetite for engaging with meaty subjects.
And even better, it seems that the demand crosses the generations, with younger Jews at the forefront of the revival.
That’s one reason why we’ve tried to offer you more analysis and comment in the JC — we know that you don’t want to be given the lowest common denominator but would rather be stimulated by experts.
But if there is one refrain I have heard repeatedly as I talk to readers, it’s frustration with leaders’ refusal to stand up properly for Israel. There’s a strong feeling that there is too much concern amongst the likes of the Board of Deputies with not offending the government.
To be fair, the peace rallies in January, at the height of Operation Cast Lead, were a sign that supporters of Israel’s right to defend herself from terror and to live in peace would not be cowed. And the recent hard-hitting joint statement from the Board and the Jewish Leadership Council, after David Miliband’s pusillanimous abstention at the UN over the Goldstone report, showed that the mouse has started to roar. And about time, too.
A related theme is the question of who speaks for the community, especially with regard to Israel. The likes of Independent Jewish Voices and Jews for Justice claim that it’s wrong to assume that most of us stand solidly behind Israel. At the moment, it’s only really anecdotal evidence that dismisses the claims of such groups (which, despite their claims to the contrary, I insist on regarding as representing only anti-Zionist Jews). So it’s good news that, as we report this week, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research — which is now recovering its lost but once excellent reputation — is to conduct a survey on what exactly we think about Israel.
The biggest domestic issue, by far, has been the JFS case. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the individual case, at a time when the worry is that the community is shrinking, does it really make sense to cause such self-inflicted wounds? Not the least of which is getting ourselves into the surreal mess of having the Supreme Court lay down the criteria for deciding who is or is not Jewish. We’ve had many pages devoted to the case so far; and this one isn’t going away.
Professionally, it’s a privilege — and a joy — to be able to produce, every week, a paper which is so cherished a part of the community. We’ll never get it 100 per cent right; but that won’t stop us trying. Do please keep letting us know what we can do better.