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Jewish life flourishes across the Commonwealth

A rejuvenated Commonwealth Jewish Council will be taking an active role in discussions among Commonwealth representatives meeting in London this week

    The settlement of Jews across many parts of the globe is an 'amazing' story, says president of the Commonwealth Jewish Council Lord Mendelsohn
    The settlement of Jews across many parts of the globe is an 'amazing' story, says president of the Commonwealth Jewish Council Lord Mendelsohn

    In 1899, Joseph Hertz, later to become Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, visited Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. He suggested  that the Jews who had begun to settle there should establish a community.

    The Honen Dalim Synagogue, built in 1926, fell into disuse after the country became independent in 1975.

    But thanks to a local non-Jewish businessmen, it was returned to the Jewish community in 1989 and restored five years ago. One of the world’s smallest Jewish communities holds services in English, Portuguese and Hebrew.

    And now Honen Dalim is receiving a subsidy from the Commonwealth Jewish Council  (CJC) for a community education programme.

    “Communities you might have thought some years ago were likely to die out are finding some form of renaissance,” says CJC president Lord Mendelsohn. “Mozambique is now a viable community. You never would have thought it.”

    Founded by Lord Janner in the early 1980s, the council was relaunched under Lord Mendelsohn’s leadership three years ago. 

    It has 35 constituent communities — compared with the Commonwealth’s 53 member countries comprising 2.4 billion people — and has just been formally accredited to the Commonwealth.When Commonwealth heads of government gather in London this week for their biennial summit, CJC members will be among the 5,000 people taking part in parallel meetings. CJC delegates will attend the four Commonwealth forums for civil society groups — including business, women and youth — discussing issues such as sustainable development, the environment or social justice.

    “These are the sorts of things where we can always make a contribution,” Lord Mendelsohn says.

    “We have been strong supporters, for example, of an initiative started at the last Commonwealth heads of government meeting in 2016, which is the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy. 

    “The Canopy is a commitment by governments to a reforestation programme. It is about mobilising civil society to get governments to commit to the initiative and we have tied in with Tu Bishvat [the New Year for trees] the notion why this is an important contribution to the world.”

    Participating in forums is also an opportunity to meet and build links with people from countries where there is no Jewish community, such as Pakistan or Bangladesh.

    The council will also stage two associated events of its own next week, hosting a reception with the Board of Deputies for senior political figures attending the summit and organising a lunch with the Indian community and the Indian Jewish Association. A big lunch, Lord Mendelsohn notes wryly, is something the council feels “particularly adept at being able to achieve”.

    The council is now organised around four regional groups, each containing one of its four biggest communities — Canada, the UK, Australia and South Africa. It has 11 African communities and ten in the Caribbean.

    “Across the Commonwealth, we have some of the most outstanding Jewish leaders I have met,” he says, including vice-president of the European region, Jonathan Arkush, outgoing president of the Board of Deputies. 

    He is “a great Jewish advocate internationally, he has done a terrific job for us and we are distraught he has decided to step down”.
    Apart from Mozambique, the CJC has subsidised a community project in Kenya and Holocaust educational programmes in India and Gibraltar. 

    “Each of these initiatives has to be something sustainable, have deliverable paybacks to the community, engage people and ensure it helps to build the capacity of the community over the medium to long-term. We don’t just support a one-off activity,” he explains. The CJC and two communities are discussing whether to try to recruit a rabbi. “Our role is also to promote activities that are going on across the Jewish world, making sure we are able to maximise the Commonwealth participation in the Maccabiah, or International Mitzvah Day, or the Shabbat Project or March of the Living.”

    The council may also be called upon to help communities with particular issues. Its publication last year on security has helped a number of communities brief governments, or other agencies, about protecting Jews.

    “There are certain countries where there are diplomatic problems either about how they relate to certain issues or even accessibility to the Jewish community. In those, it is about how we open doors. In others, it is about how we get terms of discussion right.”

    In Africa, the CJC has been making contact not only with Jewish communities but also increasingly with groups that believe they have Jewish roots — such as the Lemba in South Africa, or some of Nigeria’s Igbo. 

    “In the Congo we even have someone who sees themselves as a Jewish member of the government,” he says. “You have got communities too in Ghana. There is a whole variety of different people who either feel some close association or have some antecedents who are Jewish. A number of these people are very supportive and helpful to communities. There is no reason why we shouldn’t encourage and foster goodwill where we can.”

    Learning about the settlement of Jews across the globe has been “enlivening and amazing”, the peer reveals. “I think it’s to our detriment that we haven’t had as much appreciation for the way in which Jewish life has flourished across the world.”

    In particular, Indian Jewry fascinates him. “If you look at where those communities came from, the story is extraordinary. It is important to understand that India is a country which has eschewed antisemitism. We have plans to celebrate and mark that.

    “A country based around the Hindu civilisation has been the great example of a nation in which antisemitism has never taken hold, despite attempts of some Europeans to import it in latter years. That’s remarkable.”

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