How our communal charities came together in a crisis

The JC explores how Jewish organisations put their plans straight into action after the terrorist attack in Israel


 The true horror of the October 7 pogrom may have taken days to grasp, but within hours of news of a terrorist attack in Israel, the leaders of British Jewry’s main community organisations were ready. Plans for an emergency that had long been in preparation were swiftly put in place.

The Downing Street vigil that took place the day after Simchat Torah in the diaspora, just two days after the Hamas massacre, was organised “in no time at all”, said Board of Deputies chief executive Michael Wegier. 

The need for the Jewish community “to come together very quickly” in such a scenario was understood, said Jewish Leadership Council chief executive Claudia Mendoza.

Together with CST, the Board and the JLC form the crisis management group that has been leading the community’s response over the past month. As Israel was involved, the UJIA and Bicom (British Israel Communications and Research Centre) were also brought in.

“We realised this was going to be a two-pronged approach — how to support Israel and how we ensure the community was itself secure and being looked after,” Wegier explained.

Dave Rich, the CST’s communications director, said: “The moment we woke up that Saturday morning and saw a terror attack had happened, we knew immediately what was going to come next in terms of the impact here.”

Although there has been criticism of the police, he says the organisation’s work with them has been positive.

“There are huge areas where the police are really investing a lot of time and effort into protecting the community on a daily basis and it’s paying dividends,” he said. 

“We’ve had police officers stationed in our control room in our head office in London every day since this crisis began so there is a real-time response to incidents when they get called in.”

In the last outbreak of conflict between Israel and Gaza two years ago, the CST recorded six months of antisemitic incidents in a single month. Now the same volume has been reported in three weeks. 

And whereas the flare-up in 2021 lasted less than a fortnight, the current war is soon to enter a second month.

While the crisis has stretched the organisation, since it began, 900 people have come forward to offer their services — supplementing its volunteer force by nearly 30 per cent. All of them have had to be interviewed and trained. “It’s a good problem to have,” said Rich. “It’s a real testament to the community that this was the response of so many.”

One thing that has been different has been “the psychological and emotional impact” of the atrocities on October 27 as the chilling details unfolded, which has increased anxiety within the community.

But so far, the trust has not had to advise any shuls, groups  or schools to close or cancel events. 

“Terrorism is all about frightening people so much that they stop living their lives,” Rich said. “It’s really important to try and carry on as close to normally as we can. I know nobody is feeling normal. However worried people are, it is important to try and be resilient.”

Meanwhile, organisations have gone into overdrive updating politicians, fielding countless media requests and launching emergency appeals. 

In this week alone, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addressed the second of the Board’s online community briefings on Sunday; Education Secretary Gillian Keegan appeared at another briefing organised for families with children in non-Jewish schools on Tuesday; and the following day, Robert Halfon, the minister responsible for higher education, spoke at a third about the situation on campus.

The first community briefing last month was watched by nearly 13,000 people.

Then there was the impressive turnout of up to 15,000 people at last month’s Trafalgar Square rally to highlight the plight of the hostages kidnapped by Hamas, even though details of the venue were released only the night before. “It met my expectations,” Wegier said. “I would have been a bit disappointed had it not been as full as it was.”

Lessons have been learned from lockdown, when community organisations went virtual and turned to digital platforms. “We’re all geared up for online working. It is entirely organic now,” Wegier said. Leaders can confer without “having to shlep across London” to meet.

Organisations have also drawn lessons from the experience of the May 2021 conflict.

“It was the first big crisis where there was a proliferation of social media and the response from the community [then] was that they didn’t feel prepared. They didn’t have the tools to have their voice heard,” said Mendoza.

But from the work done over the past couple of years, organisations are better prepared, she feels. The Board, for example, has been publishing guidance on its website for teachers and students in non-Jewish schools, as well as for people in the workplace who may be affected by the fallout from the terrorist attacks and the war.

However, fresh challenges have arisen. “One thing we are having to do this time which we have not really had to do previously,” Rich said, “is to put out messaging on a regular basis about false rumours that are circulating online or in WhatsApp groups about supposed attacks that haven’t happened or things that may have happened that weren’t antisemitic or directed at the community.” One such rumour was that Hamas supporters were threatening to knock on Jewish doors on Halloween.

Organisations have also had to  support British families or Israelis here who have been caught up in the crisis. One thing that Wegier was personally involved in during the first few days was helping to get “vulnerable British people out of Israel — elderly British people who were living in Israel but who wanted to be back in England with their children”.

As for contributing to Israel, Wegier said: “We have been pushing people to send money and not goods.”

Dealing with the crisis has put additional strain on staff. “Many of our teams in all the organisations are working 18 to 20 hour days,” Wegier said. “So we have done a lot of work with Jami and others just to make sure we are managing our staff properly. It is something I don’t think the community realises. It is also expensive.”

Mendoza said: “The first 10 days was something I’ve never experienced in my entire life. Adrenaline like I’ve never experienced — I was unable to sleep because of it.”

Fundraising organisations are trying to galvanise extra support. Magen David Adom UK has an ambitious target of $15 million (around £12.4 million) for its emergency appeal.

As soon as Simchat Torah ended, UJIA launched a special campaign too. “Rallying support from the British Jewish community for Israelis in a time of crisis is in UJIA’s DNA,” said chief executive Mandie Winston. “We know British Jews want to help — our job is to give them a reliable, trustworthy vehicle with which to do that.”

The response has been “incredible”, she said. “The number of people who have volunteered, hit the phones and written emails, organised events and done whatever they can to raise money has been amazing. Our community stands shoulder to shoulder with Israel. 

“But this is just the start. The communities that were targeted by Hamas will be affected by what they’ve been through forever and we, as a community, will need to be there for them.”

Some 200,000 Israelis have been displaced and won’t be home for months, she said. “They will need ongoing support, including trauma relief, day camps and, at the moment, food.”

UJIA has also been working with PaJeS, the Jewish schools’ network, and the Union of Jewish Students to help young displaced Israelis who are in the UK. But while the crisis has meant “all hands on deck”, UJIA still has to prepare for next summer’s Israel tours and camps. “So it’s not business as usual, but we are not losing sight of our other responsibilities,” Winston said.

Beyond the practical support, there is an additional responsibility for diaspora Jews, she said. “When our chairman, Louise Jacobs, visited Israel and met with survivors of the attack, their plea to her was for our community to be a voice for them. They don’t want their neighbours, their friends and their families — their beautiful communities — to ever be forgotten. 

“Now is the time to come together as one people and let them know that their pain is our shared pain, and we stand with them today and forever.”

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