Forty years ago, the Jewish community in Britain was not overly concerned with anti-racist causes.
So says Edie Friedman, the American-born psychologist who was so disturbed by British Jews’ lack of engagement that she set up the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (Jcore).
She recalls coming to the decision while sitting in her bedsit in Leeds, having arrived in the UK to work as a youth organiser for Oxfam.
“When I got here, I found things in the Jewish community were very different from in America.
“The only thing I could find on race issues was a dusty pamphlet in the Board of Deputies office.
“Tackling institutional racism generally and racism within the Jewish community was not on the agenda. So I set up with just myself and a typewriter.”
On Monday this week, Jcore marked its 40th anniversary with a celebratory dinner in London for 140 guests.
In her speech, Dr Friedman told them that back in the ’70s the “established Jewish community defined its anti-racist work predominantly in terms of combating antisemitism and fighting the National Front.”
Decades later, the situation has changed. “I think the community is much more at ease with getting involved with race and asylum issues,” Dr Friedman says.
“It sees it has an important role to play in both campaigning for a better deal with refugees and in finding ways to help them integrate into British life.”
Dr Friedman says part of the problem was that Jews felt they had to decide between playing an role inside the community, or being engaged outside it. There was no overlap.
She says: “Jcore was started to say you didn’t have to choose — you could do both — by contributing to the wider society, you were also forging a positive Jewish identity.”
The charity has campaigned on a variety of issues over the years. “When we launched, one of the first things we started was English classes for Vietnamese refugees,” Dr Friedman says.
“In the ’80s, we launched a mobile counselling unit for Bosnian refugees and put counsellors working with Holocaust survivors in contact with the refugees of recent torture.
“Islamophobia and issues to do with Muslim communities were not as pronounced as they are now. “There seemed to be more public sympathy for asylum seekers and refugees than there is now.”
Most recently, Jcore co-ordinated the Jewish Communal Taskforce on Refugees – which runs the Support Refugees website and oversees the Jewish response to the refugee crisis.
Dr Friedman considers this as one of the charity’s biggest achievements alongside its “Jump” mentoring programme for vulnerable young asylum seekers: “We have paired more than 100 unaccompanied young people in Britain without parents or a guardian to mentors who can help support them.” The £50,000 raised at this week’s anniversary dinner will help to fund the initiative
JCore is no longer a one-woman band. It has a staff of four and numerous volunteers. Adam Isaacs, 22, is its campaigns and communications manager. He got involved with the charity last year after feeling moved by the news coverage of the refugee crisis.
This year he helped organise a trip to the French Grande-Synthe refugee camp at Dunkirk.
Adam says that “Jews have always been persecuted and have been refugees many times throughout our history. As much as the community helps each other, without the help of others we would not be here today.
“I wanted to give something back and the work that Jcore do, providing direct support to refugees and campaigning for a fairer asylum system, is the perfect way to do this.”
A source of particular pride for Jcore staff is that Jcore is truly cross-communal, one of the few Jewish charities that is, Dr Friedman believes. “I’ve taken delegations of rabbis from all the movements to hand in joint petitions to Downing Street which speaks for itself,” she says.
For anyone who doubts the need for an organisation like Jcore, Edie Friedman has the perfect response: “I found, a number of times, it was important to remind people both inside and outside the Jewish community that the first Immigration Act, in 1905, was directed against Jews.”