Sir Trevor Pears, chairman of the Pears Family Foundation, is often asked how much of its money goes towards Jewish causes.
His answer is simple: “Every penny”.
And when the question then comes asking how can that include the foundation’s work in Nepal or Rwanda or in the UK — the beneficiaries of its £15 million a year expenditure range from children’s mental health charity Place2Be to Quaker Social Action — he responds: “These are Jewish causes”.
Loving one’s neighbour, welcoming the stranger, pursuing justice and helping the most vulnerable are, he says, “fundamental Jewish values”.
One of the community’s most influential philanthropists, Sir Trevor rarely speaks in public. But last week he explained his motivation in a JDov talk — which stands for “Jewish dream, observation or vision”, the Jewish equivalent of the short inspirational addresses known as Ted Talks.
He did so as part of an event at JW3 in London to celebrate the tenth anniversary of JHub, the centre launched by the foundation to incubate new Jewish ventures, fostering what JHub’s director Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand called “ a confident, inclusive and outward-looking British Jewish community”.
JHub’s 16 residents over the years have included the Jewish Volunteering Network, the human-rights organisation Rene Cassin, the children’s book club P J Library and educational software developers Jewish Interactive.
Sir Trevor recalled a Hebrew University dinner 25 years ago where the speaker was Vidal Sassoon (who founded a centre for the study of antisemitism there). “He remarked the problem with the Jews was that they allowed themselves to be defined by others.
“That observation resonated with me but I couldn’t express why,” he said. “His statement was a personal challenge”.
Over the years, Pears would ask people he met what they thought was the purpose of Jewish life. The most popular answer from rabbis was “to keep halachah, the laws” — which only prompted a further question: was the purpose of being Jewish to keep halachah or, “do we keep halachah for a purpose. Only the latter makes sense to me”.
Lay leaders would commonly respond that the purpose of Jewish life was “to ensure we don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory”, he said. “Such a negative self-definition makes absolutely no sense to me.”
Over the years, exploring Jewish texts, he has come to see being Jewish “as a journey rather than a destination and that you are what you do”.
The 20th-century American-Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, when asked why he first joined Martin Luther King on a civil-rights march, replied, “I felt I was praying with my feet”.
Like many others, Sir Trevor said: “I believe we are a people at our best when we are praying with our feet”.
However, he argued: “There seem to be many Jews who are unaware of, or who have forgotten our deeply-rooted heritage and commitment to social justice and action.”
While he has never hidden his Jewish identity in his travels abroad, he has come across people involved in international development work who would whisper to him “by the way, I am Jewish”.
He felt it a “terrible shame that they seem to be doing this work despite, not because they are Jews”.
The director of Mashav, the international development arm of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, once told him that, in a country that could not keep secrets, the organisation was Israel’s best-kept secret.
Some years ago, Sir Trevor recalled visiting a hospital in Ghana’s second city, Kumasi. “A tall Ghanaian doctor, white coat blowing in the wind, came out to greet us, grinned, opened up his arms and bellows, boker tov [“Good morning” in Hebrew].”
The hospital had received training and equipment from Mashav.
Israel’s Society of International Development now comprised 80 NGOs, he said, thousands of foreign graduates from Hebrew University programmes in medicine, agriculture and other subjects were assisting millions of their fellow countrymen and women, while Israel was leading the way in innovation technology for developing, rather than developed, nations.
Such activities were true to the highest level of giving for Maimonides, which was helping others towards self- sufficiency — giving a hand-up rather than a hand-out.
“Israel could soon be known not only a start-up nation, but also a hand-up nation,” he said.
Sir Trevor’s was the last of more than 100 JDov talks, which remain available in a video bank online. The programme, backed by the Pears Foundation, will be “taking a well-earned sabbatical”, Rabbi Boyd Gelfand said.
At the end of his 14-minute talk, recalling Vidal Sassoon’s challenge, Sir Trevor said: “Am I defining myself? I hope so. Am I praying with my feet? Again, I hope so. For me, being Jewish is a call to action to make the world a better place and I believe this is our collective calling and always has been.”