250th anniversary of the Board of Deputies of British Jews

June 19, 2011
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We come together to celebrate a remarkable anniversary of one of the great institutions, not only of British Jewry but of the Jewish world. The Board became a model for other similar institutions throughout the Commonwealth, notably South Africa and Canada.

I’m not quite sure what to wish you. Normally we wish people, Ad meah ve-esrim, “May you live to be 1twenty.” But you have already existed for more than twice that length of time. If I were to wish you long life, it would sound as if someone had just died. Therefore let me wish you Lech bekochacha zeh, – May you continue to do what you have done so well, bringing honour and distinction to British Jewry, and I hope, delight to God.

Working together

The Board was the result of an unusual cooperation between the established Sephardi community and the newcomers, the Ashkenazim. It is a great achievement that Sephardim and Ashkenazim worked so well together, and they still do – and here I pay great tribute to Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy of the Spanish and Portuguese Hebrew Congregation, whom I cherish as a colleague and as a friend.

The truth is that in British Jewry we work together across the religious spectrum, right, left and centre, quietly and without fuss, on the basis of two principles:

  • On all matters that affect us as Jews regardless of our religious differences, we work together regardless of our religious differences.
  • On all matters that touch on our differences, we agreed to differ but with respect.

So we work together on welfare, on chessed activities, in support of Israel, in fighting anti-Semitism and developing good community and interfaith relations. I profoundly hope we continue to do so.

Through all of that time the Board has also embodied what I regard as one of the defining characteristics of British Jewry. We are proud to be British, and we are proud to be Jews. We believe in integration without assimilation. Indeed it is only by being what we uniquely are that we can contribute to society what only we can give.

I have learned two powerful truths these past twenty years: non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism. Let us never forget either of these propositions. And now let me spell out what I believe makes the Board of Deputies important and essential to our community.

The Role of the Board

The Board is the single representative institution that allows the Jewish community to interact with government, other faith groups, other agencies and other communities. This does not mean that Jews speak with a single voice. Jews never spoke with a single voice. But it does mean that we are represented by a single body. That is one of our very greatest strengths as a community. It is what makes British Jewry the envy of other religious and ethnic groups.

The existence of the Board of Deputies also allows us to differentiate between two very different functions. The role of the Board is to defend Jewish interests. The role of the Chief Rabbi is to articulate Judaic principle. Whenever it comes to the defence of Jewish interests, that task is fulfilled by the Board of Deputies, the only body elected and empowered to do so. It does this with great distinction.

I count it as an enormous privilege to have worked with many presidents of the Board, and now with our beloved Vivian Wineman. We have been truly blessed by their leadership. The role of the JLC, the Jewish Leadership Council, is different. It is entirely appropriate that there should be a body that brings together some of the key organisations of our community, to share a vision of the future, plan together for the most effective use of our resources, and avoid duplication and waste. The proposal to create a Community Chest is a fine example of what the JLC and only the JLC can do. Again, we are blessed by its membership and leadership.

A Generation of Achievement

Now let me turn to where we are as a community. The short answer is that British Jewry is a community transformed. We can sum it up by saying that in the past, it was a community proud of its past. For the past twenty years, it has also become a community that in ways unpredictable, even inconceivable, it has built for the future.

The clearest example of this is in the field of education. In 1993, when we launched Jewish Continuity, 25% of Jewish children attended Jewish day schools. By last year that figure had risen to 66% and is still growing. In the past twenty years we have built more Jewish day schools than in any comparable period in our 355-year history.

I think we probably have enough secondary schools, but I have committed myself to ensuring that at least two, possibly four, new primary schools are built in the next two years.

I congratulate everyone who has had a share in this achievement, and they are many, but especially I salute our teachers and head teachers who have made Jewish day schools a watchword for excellence.

The same applies in the field of welfare. Let us salute the remarkable lay leaders and professionals who have turned Jewish Care, Norwood, JBD, Nightingale House and so many others in London and the Provinces into some of the most caring and compassionate, as well as professional, welfare organisations in Britain. This too is a spectacular achievement. Here we must pay tribute to the carers who relate to the elderly and those in need with such compassion and care.

We must say something about the CST, the organisation that allows us to go about our business in the Jewish community without fear, an organisation of superb professionals as well as 3000 volunteers. It has become a model for the rest of the Jewish world.

What about culture? Here too there has been an unprecedented flowering, whether we think of the London Jewish Cultural Centre, the new Jewish Community Centre currently being built, Limmud, Jewish Book Week, and Jewish music, film and arts festivals. Happy the people that can point to such achievements as these.

Sometimes we don’t realise how much we have changed. So let us listen to a description of Anglo-Jewry just over twenty years ago, in 1989, written by the then greatest expert in the world on Jewish communities throughout the world, the late Prof Daniel Elazar:

The religious life of British Jewry is seriously endangered . . . Jewish education is limited and not many young people study in Jewish schools . . . Jewish cultural life is even more limited. At one time Britain had a modestly active Jewish cultural scene. Today that cultural scene has diminished substantially. Adult education is minimal. By and large the powers that be in British Jewry are content with the status quo and do not seek change. At most they bemoan the decline of British Jewry, but like their British peers, do little to try to alter their state.

Daniel Elazar, People and Polity: the organisational dynamics of world Jewry, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1989, 331-33.

No one could say any of that today. There may be other Jewish communities bigger than us, and in some respects better than us. But no Jewish community in the world has changed so much, so fast, and so creatively.

This has been the achievement of the community as a whole, and Elaine and I have considered it a privilege to have been humble foot-soldiers in a Jewry in which so many have achieved so much. May God continue to bless our community and the many British Jews who have been such a blessing to their fellow Jews and to Britain as a whole.

The next twenty years

Now let us look forward to the challenges of the next twenty years. They will be significantly different.

Last Thursday I was in the Dutch parliament arguing the case for shechita, where there is already a Parliamentary majority in favour of banning it. I hope and pray this won’t happen, but it may. After shechitah will come an attack on brit mila. And after Holland the battle will move on to other European countries.

This is a disturbing development. As I said to the parliamentarians: The Netherlands was the country where, in the 17th century, European religious liberty was born. Let it not be the place where in the 21st century it began to die.

Meanwhile throughout Europe, and increasingly even in the United States, it is almost impossible to get a fair hearing for Israel, in the media, in university campuses, and perhaps in the future, in some of the churches. We may find ourselves in the 21st century caught between radical secularists on the one hand, radical religious groups on the other, both accusing Israel of the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and attempted genocide.

We will find ourselves in a situation in which battles we thought we had won – for religious freedom in the Diaspora, for national sovereignty in Israel – will have to be fought all over again.

This is an important fight, a good fight, because how the nations of the world treat Jews is usually a good indication of how they treat human beings as a whole. Those who deny freedom to Jews will eventually lose it themselves. That is what happened in Germany. That is what happened in Stalinist Russia. That is what is happening in the Middle East today as people are being slaughtered in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.

However, precisely because the new challenges are global, the Jewish response will have to be global. I will be making that point in Israel at the President’s Conference later this week.

Twenty years ago the battle was Jewish continuity, and our response was creative and energetic. For the next twenty years the battle will be for Jewish freedom – individual in the Diaspora, collective in Israel – and this too, we will win.

I will be here with you, on the frontline, whether as Chief Rabbi or thereafter. I will be spending the years ahead training a new generation of Rabbis, educators, and lay leaders, and continuing the battle for a Judaism that engages with the world, unafraid of the intellectual, moral, and social challenges of our time, a Judaism of literacy and spiritual depth that is prepared to lead the way in the fight for freedom and human dignity. In that fight, may God be with us all.

Let me add a word of Torah. Yesterday in our synagogues we read the story of the spies, who came back with a devastating report. The good news: it is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey. But the bad news: we cannot conquer it. They are giants. We are grasshoppers.

How could ten of the spies have got it so wrong? The people of the land were as terrified of the Israelites as the Israelites were of them. The spies surely knew this. They had said so at the Song at the Red Sea. Besides which, they will leaders, princes, men of renown. They should have conquered their fears. What mistake did they make?

Rashi gives a marvellous explanation. The spies saw that the cities were surrounded by high walls. They were well fortified. The spies concluded that since the cities were strong, the people who lived in them were strong.

In fact, says Rashi, the exact reverse was true. People who need high walls to protect them are weak. People who are strong do not need such defences.

The same is true about Jewish faith. If we are strong in our faith, we do not need to hide behind high walls. We should have the confidence to be in the world, speak to the world, and work with the world, without walls and without fear.

Giving Thanks

Let us end, however, by giving thanks first to you, the Deputies, and all those who came before you, for representing the Jewish community, defending the Jewish community, and showing the Jewish community at its best.

Second, to this country that we love. It has given us much, and the Jewish community has given it much in return. May it continue in its tradition of tolerance, for it was this that made Britain great.

Lastly and most profoundly, we thank God - she-he-cheyanu ve-kiyemanu ve-higiyanu lazman hazeh – for keeping us alive, and sustaining us, and bringing us to this memorable day.