When George Rosenfeld was 13, he did what many barmitzvah boys do by raising money for charity.
He and two friends selected three causes to support but he was taken aback when some people objected to the inclusion of a non-Jewish charity, Water Aid.
“Someone asked ‘why do the Africans need clean water if they don’t have the Torah’?”
Now 18 and a Cambridge student, Mr Rosenfeld is encouraging support for charities outside the community by spearheading a Social Responsibility Week (SRW), which starts on Monday and will include events at schools, Jsocs, youth movements and synagogues across the country.
He said he had been inspired by joining a trip to Ghana, run by Tzedek, for the Chief Rabbi’s Ben Azzai scheme, which promotes the importance of outward-looking social responsibility. Despite the “striking differences” with those encountered, “we found much common ground. When we described our religion, they related to us through the idea that belief in a God is central to all our lives.
“When they spoke about their aspirations to study at university, we related to them through the perception that education is a universal springboard to future success.
“And when Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You rang out from a Ghanaian mobile, we related to each other through our shared appreciation for music.
“It reinforced the idea that there is incredible potential for people of my generation to make a difference in the world — and with limited cost to ourselves. I hope others will come to realise that the beneficiaries of our help don’t have to be Jewish for it to be our Jewish responsibility to help.”
He anticipates a significant turnout for SRW which he is organising with the help of Tzedek. “We have Jsocs in Cambridge and Birmingham that will be theming their Friday night dinner around SRW with guest speakers. Kings, Imperial, UCL, Oxford and others are also hosting speakers.”
Primary schools Kerem, Sacks Morasha and Independent Jewish Day have signed up for special assemblies and lessons. Participating synagogues include Bushey, Cockfosters and North Southgate, Hendon, Mill Hill and Woodside Park.
The Chief Rabbi — who is expected to address an SRW assembly at JFS — said it reflected “exactly the kind of activism we hoped the Ben Azzai programme would catalyse. At a time when many young people are more likely to be focused on their rights than on their responsibilities, there is a real need for people across our community to follow the wonderful example set by the students who are organising Social Responsibility Week.
“This is an outstanding campaign, organised by the next generation of young Jewish leaders. Each of them recognises that their sphere of responsibility extends to the world’s most vulnerable people.”
Mr Rosenfeld pointed out that Jewish organisations often excelled as first responders to natural disasters, or by delivering emergency aid to refugee camps.
“These achievements create an image and legacy of which we should be proud. But narrow-minded introspectiveness and blinkered ignorance must be driven out and replaced at all levels by empowering education about the importance of an outward-looking identity.
“This includes acknowledging that according to Judaism, every human is deserving of the opportunity to thrive — and is deserving of our support in achieving this.
“And by extension, recognising that by reaching out, we are in no way compromising our Jewish identity but are wholeheartedly embracing it.”