‘We might be one people, but there are many different ways to connect to our heritage’

Rabbi Naftali Schiff’s innovative approach has inspired thousands of people to explore their Jewish identity


Rabbi Naftali Schiff supports the idea that there are a myriad of ways for people to connect to Judaism (Photo: Jewish Futures)

He occupies a tiny office in a humdrum building, along a street-front in Hendon where a disused pub — a sadly common sight — betokens better days in the past. But the modest headquarters belies the enormous impact that Rabbi Naftali Schiff has had on British Jewry in the 30 years since he began working for the Orthodox outreach organisation Aish.

Over that time, the chief executive of Jewish Futures has built up a network of enterprises that span social action, Holocaust education, leadership training and more, intended to keep young Jews involved with the Jewish community, while encapsulating his belief that there is no one path to Judaism.

Schiff is a model of the new rabbinic entrepreneur, who is willing to experiment rather than accept the status quo. At the last count in 2022, Jewish Futures spent more than £10 million that year, proof of the trust that donors have in him — though he professes: “I don’t have a talent for fundraising. Responsibility dictates that you’ve got to do what it takes.”

What the plain-speaking Hasmonean and LSE graduate, who has a background in Bnei Akiva, won’t deny is the passion he has for his causes. His career began in Israel, where he studied at yeshivah and went into the army, serving with the Givati Infantry Brigade in Gaza and Lebanon in the mid-1980s. He and his wife, Elena, a geneticist, were living in the Old City in Jerusalem, where Aish was based. “They heard there was a young couple who were happy to host students,” he recalls. He thought Aish a “bit American and weird and born-again” at first, but he did some teaching there and worked increasingly to bring British students on to Aish’s summer programme in Israel, the Jerusalem Fellowships.

In 1996, Schiff wanted to dedicate the fellowships in memory of Danny Frei, a young British oleh killed by terrorists the previous year. Frei’s parents loved the idea but asked him who was going to raise the sponsorship money. “So, I said I would. That was a pivotal moment.”

In 1999, he and Elena moved to Britain so he could work at the Aish UK branch, set up by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt. Initially, they planned to stay two years. But as the organisation “flourished and mushroomed” and more opportunities beckoned, they remained — though the only home they own is in Jerusalem.

Aish now has five branches all over the country, operates on 23 campuses and 21 schools and attracts more than 7,000 in-person participants to events each year. Beyond charity committees, there was not a lot going on for young Jewish adults when it first opened here — and it was faced with suspicion. Parents feared that its aim was to whisk their children away to yeshivot and a strictly Orthodox lifestyle. Some within centrist Orthodoxy thought it was trying to undermine established institutions. “People are very nervous around frum people,” he said. “They think we are very evangelical.” Others thought Aish “some voodoo thing from across the pond”.

But while some acolytes did become frum through Aish, that was not the organisation’s mission, he stresses. “I would rather reach 10,000 young people in England and have them be part of the community, connected with Israel, part of school boards and charity boards, than make a hundred people frum a year.”

Over time, the wider community understood that Aish was not a cult and came to accept it. It has even received an invitation to join the Jewish Leadership Council. “When any new kid comes on the block, everybody feels threatened by it,” he said. “But we work hand in hand with chaplaincy with UJS and the United Synagogue, whereas we didn’t 30 years ago.

“We run explanatory services in every United synagogue, our speakers speak in every United synagogue. Together we, JLE [the Jewish Learning Exchange], Seed and the United Synagogue put together Aleinu [an annual conference for those involved in outreach], and the Chief Rabbi comes. We have evolved from being [seen as] the naughty revolutionaries.”

Aish is now firmly embedded — and respected — in the landscape of Jewish informal education, proven by its recent fundraising campaign, Proudly JewAish, which raised £2.4m in just two days.

As a descendant of the saintly Rabbi Elimelech of Liszhensk, one of the early masters of the Chasidic movement, which transformed east European Jewry, perhaps Schiff’s spirit of innovation is inherited.

One of the insights that motivated him was realising that “a mistake in education is a one-size-fits-all approach”. For much of his own generation, Jewish education was cheder, where “everyone got the same stale bun and orange juice and got shouted at… What we understood is you need to provide different pathways to reach the same set of core values. This was an evolution of thinking and strategy.”

The word that he turns to frequently to summarise the goal of Jewish Futures is chibur, or connection, which is linked to “chaver”, “friend”. Connecting young Jews to each other, to their community, their heritage is Schiff’s driving force. “We grew up in an era where there was a sentimental attachment to being Jewish,” he says. “That sentimentality doesn’t continue and that is why we are losing so many.”

Tens of thousands of people have been connected by Aish activities. The first spin-off was Gift, which encourages good deeds and volunteering and stands for “Giving Forward Today”. What prompted Gift was a sense that “we’d forgotten that part of being Jewish is giving. Winston Churchill said you make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give,” says Schiff.

Gift has spawned other ventures such as Shabbat Walk, where volunteers go on Shabbat afternoon to families that may need help, perhaps with children with special needs.

Then came JRoots, focusing on Holocaust education, which now takes around 4,000 people a year on trips, mostly to Poland.

Forum for Jewish Leadership provides internships to more than 100 Jewish students each year from the UK and elsewhere. Netzach is another leadership programme, which includes training for the Conference of European Rabbis. Chelkeinu provides text-based learning opportunities for women leaders and teachers and Chazak for young Sephardim grew under Jewish Futures’ wings before going independent.

There is Shelanu too, which runs events for Israelis in London and Klal Chazon for Charedi youth. Launched more recently are Ta’amim — “Judaism on a plate” — which explores religious culture through food, and Eilecha, which offers spiritual growth through niggunim — melodies — and other practices.

All in all, JF events draw more than 17,000 individual participants each year. It also has a large online presence, spurred by a media department set up three or so years ago that testifies to its determination to keep up with the times.

Its raison d’etre is to “allow people to make an informed choice in a milieu, when they were slipping away”. Young Jews do not assimilate out of choice, he believes; they fall away from the community because of a lack of contact.

The approach JF has cultivated, he believes, has rubbed off on Jewish schools, which have created their own informal education departments. “Our informal approach — in terms of a Jewish identity that is chosen — is much more compelling than being forced to wear a kappel or to daven minchah [in school].”

In light of October 7, the organisation has put on events to support young people, such as its “Let there be light” havdalah, which attracted hundreds. In November, it arranged a speaking tour for Adi Efrat, a survivor of the Hamas attack on Kibbutz Be’eri, where more than 100 people perished. The secular, jeans-clad secular kibbutznik may be a far cry from the typical Aish speaker, but Schiff says: “I have a deep respect for her, a deep respect for Jews of all different types, especially for those who will stand up and be responsible and be counted.”

Yet, amidst the diversity, he believes that everything at the moment can seem “so fractured” with people identifying as “this type of Jew” or “that type of Jew”.

Instead, Schiff hopes the organisation’s most ambitious project — a planned new four-storey HQ called “Our Story” — will enable it to further its vision that “we are all part of one”. It will contain an auditorium, events and exhibition space, a youth lounge and a “mindfulness and wellbeing” zone.

The site in Brent Street — one of north-west London’s kosher rows — cost more than £5 million and the building will cost nearly £20 million to erect, half of which has been raised.

Especially after October 7, people need “safe, inspiring places to meet”, he says.

But if Schiff sets his sights high, he keeps himself grounded through keepsakes in his pocket, which include his father’s dogtag as a Second World War British soldier and his own IDF dogtag, to which he has added a “Bring them home” tag for the hostages. Since October 7, he is more “driven than ever. There are many battlefronts to the Jewish story.”

But while JF is responding to the challenges of the hour, Schiff stresses that “nobody wants to be something because everybody hates us. Our organisations, our leadership across the board, need to introduce young Jewish people to the grandeur, the majesty, the vision of our story and invite them to be part of it, [however} they want to connect.”

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