Ben Judah

American Jews have a lot to learn from us Britons

Whether it’s tackling antisemitism, developing schools or philanthropy, we just do it better


Members of the Jewish community hold a protest against Britain's opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and anti-semitism in the Labour party, outside the British Houses of Parliament in central London on March 26, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Tolga AKMEN (Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

September 28, 2023 10:59

It takes being away from home for a long time to see things clearly. I’ve been living in the US now since 2017. When I first got here, I thought nothing British — and certainly nothing Jewish — couldn’t be improved by a bit of time in the US, but my views have more than mellowed. Like many an immigrant, I’ve actually come to appreciate the good things about home. Because British Jews really do have a lot to be proud of, compared to our American cousins.

There are three main areas: antisemitism, philanthropy and schools.

British Jews have risen, united, to the challenge of antisemitism far more effectively than American Jews. They have engaged in philanthropy far more strategically and they have far more successfully built a network of Jewish schools, expanding its reach beyond the strictly Orthodox into a greater share of mainstream Jewish school children. American Jews may be bigger and brasher in almost all ways but when it comes to what counts in making a successful community, Britain can teach them a thing or two.

Let’s look at fighting antisemitism. When it comes to the rise of conspiracy theories, hate and noxious politics, American Jews have for the most part failed to put the community before politics. There has been no American united front to stand up to antisemitism on the right, like there was in the UK, where a coalition of activists and supporters stood up to the rise in antisemitism on the left.

Ben Shapiro and Adam Sandler on the same side? Forget it. But that’s close to what British Jews managed when antisemitism boomed recently on the far left.

In the US, too many donors, politicians and commentators have equivocated and as a result — despite there being a lot more Jews in the US — they have been less effective at standing up to rising antisemitism.

More than a few American Jewish commentators I know have said they admire the bravery and the backbone of the British Jewish community when it comes to calling out antisemitism in politics. Because they lack it.

American Jewish philanthropy is also much bigger than its British equivalents. But is it necessarily more effective? True, there are a lot more Jews to provide services for. But British Jewish philanthropy has been more strategic and focused.

This is especially true when it comes to the work the community has done to support Jewish schools. In the US, less than a third of Jewish children go to a Jewish day school, with over 70 per cent of those schools being Charedi. Whilst strictly Orthodox schooling is booming, the numbers of those attending modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and other more open kinds of Judaism has been falling.

This would be sufferable if extracurricular education was strong. It isn’t. Between 2006 to 2019 enrolment in supplemental Hebrew schools declined by 40 per cent in the US.
This is where it comes back to philanthropy. Despite regular calls on the Jewish donor class to invest in education, no necessary super-donor with a vision has yet come forward. Money fans out, chasing the unaffiliated, or is stood up for Israel advocacy, with plenty of photos but with little appreciable effect.

It was the late Rabbi Sacks who led the charge for Jewish schools in the UK. Focusing minds on this, unlike in America, may end up as his greatest legacy.

The number of Jewish schools has boomed in Britain from about 60 in the mid-1990s to more than 130 today. Roughly 60 per cent of Jewish children are studying in Charedi schools. But more than four out of ten mainstream Jewish children are now studying in Jewish schools compared to just over a quarter a decade ago. London has been the driver of this expanding mainstream Jewish schooling drive, in sharp contrast to New York, where nine out of ten Jewish children at a day school are strictly Orthodox.

The British figures would certainly cheer Rabbi Sacks as much as the American ones would upset him, because research shows that attending a Jewish day school is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not a child will raise Jewish children themselves.

This is why British Jews have a lot to be proud of. With a lot less money, influence and — let’s face it — charisma, they have managed nevertheless to build where it counts and stand up where it counts.

Instead of always looking over the pond to our more glamorous cousins, it would serve American Jews well to take a look at how British Jews do it. Sometimes it takes a smaller, stodgier community to show you what the essentials are.

September 28, 2023 10:59

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