Harvard Hillel is based in an impressive building and has an even more impressive variety of events on offer. Dinners, outings, lectures, debates and much more. To be perfectly honest, the main reason I visit is to find a minyan for Mincha. But there is something about the atmosphere of the place that strikes me as emblematic of the American Jewish community in general. A building openly advertising itself as proudly Jewish within the main Harvard campus seems completely natural. The building has security of course but it isn’t overwhelming. And, most significantly of all, despite the reported increase in antisemitic incidents in the US, discussions and anxieties about antisemitism don’t overwhelm the message boards.
In a word, Jewish students on campus seem to have an air of self-confidence. Like the rest of the local community, they are proud to wear their faith on their sleeves (or heads) if they feel like it.
During our brief sojourn in the USA, it is this positive sense of self-confidence that we’ve found most refreshing.
It’s nice to drive along a major thoroughfare and see a sign reading “Turn right for Congregation Toras Moshe” and be greeted at Boston International Airport with signs in Hebrew. And it is wonderful to see Jewish community centres, synagogues and schools that aren’t anonymised or hidden from view.
To be fair, the Jewish community of Greater Boston is home to some 248,000 Jews, according to a 2015 survey. To put things in perspective, that’s not far off the size of the entire UK Jewish community. Those numbers grant this community the feeling of self-confidence that comes with being statistically significant.
And there are other relevant factors, too. One Sunday we visited the nearby Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest shul in North America. We heard the story of George Washington’s letter to the congregation in 1790, promising that, “… the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…” The American Jewish community considers the freedom to practise their religion, and the freedom to express it in public, as their founding charter.
Unfortunately, however, I have also found that this self-confidence can lead to some misconceptions here about the health of the Jewish community in the UK. Often, when engaging in conversation with local Jewish Bostonians, the question, “where are you from?” is followed by questions about the “problem” of antisemitism in Britain, and whether the Jewish community can cope with the local Islamist extremists. Of course, I’m quick to point out that day-to-day life for Jews in Britain is an overwhelmingly positive experience, and that incidents of antisemitism, worrying though they are, are not leading to any form of mass panic or modern-day exodus.
But, on a more fundamental level, looking back at the British Jewish community from this side of the pond, I also think that we can learn a thing or two from the American Jewish sense of positivity and self-confidence.
There are some things we cannot change. Sad as it may be, we absolutely require high levels of security around our communal institutions. The CST, supported by the police and security services, are nothing short of world-class in this area. Yet, the way we conduct our public discourse, and in particular the specific topics we choose to focus on in depth, whether on campus, in shuls and especially in the media, could perhaps do with a rethink.
A positive, self-confident attitude about Jewish life in 21st-century Britain needs to be consistently communicated alongside the undeniably important concerns we have over the continuing scourge of antisemitism. It saddens me that the impression many American Jews have about our community is that we spend our days anxiously cowering in our homes, waiting for the next terror attack to strike. This is both incorrect and misguided, as well as unfair.
In his most recent book, eminent Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker demonstrates how, despite a continuous improvement in the key indicators of human well-being over the past 50 years, such as fewer wars, less crime and less poverty, news headlines have strangely become ever more pessimistic and morose.
This is a bad thing for many reasons, not least because it skews reality, creating a sense that things are always in a downhill spiral, when actually they are pretty good.
So, if we indeed believe that life in Britain is good for the Jews, we owe it to ourselves to ensure that the narrative we convey to outsiders is one of self-confidence in the future of our community.
Yoni Birnbaum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Community. He is currently in Boston on a Harvard Fellowship