January 30, 2008

Anglo Jewry Wakes Up

I may have to eat my words. Anglo Jewry is alive and well! Not only, but there is a new era of younger, proactive professionals who know how to run organizations efficiently, how to deal with governments and civil servants, and handle the press and the new media. And, for the first time, they are supported by new generation of younger magnates, often with a far stronger command of Judaism and Jewish affairs than hitherto, who are seeing that funding is there for the right projects, so long as they are run by appropriate people. I detect a sea change! Even the ancient, crusty, much-maligned Board of Deputies is waking up and for the first time that I can remember, looking exciting!

If there is one more general item that proves the point, it is that this year, for the first time in Anglo Jewish history, there will be a march through the centre of London to celebrate Israel's 60th birthday. And it will be a march to rival New York's, a proper one, not hidden away in an arena or a sheltered square, but out in the open, in your face. Anglo Jews will parade out in the open and not be scared or embarrassed.

For the first time there is also a ground swell of support for Jewish education and day schools coming from beyond the fringes and even indeed from the growing number of mixed marriages (which I happen to think might, and I stress might, not necessarily be all bad, if some choose to retain a positive Jewish identity). What is more, this new wave of well-trained and well-supported lay leaders are coming from areas in Anglo Jewry outside the ghettos as well as within.

When I first entered the rabbinate my concern was the other way. Orthodoxy in Britain was dominated by the pseudo-Orthodox. The largest and mainstream religious body, the United Synagogue, was about as Orthodox as a belly dancer is modest and it did not contain one fully functional mikveh in the nineteen fifties. The mood of Anglo Jewry was most unfriendly towards the ultra-Orthodox world, which was regarded as an irrelevant fossil. Gateshead Yeshiva was regarded as a sort of Trappist retreat for the socially challenged. My mission, when I entered the rabbinate, was to fight for a more positive Orthodox perspective. I wanted to defend and encourage Torah study, yeshiva, Jewish education, when it was unfashionable, underfinanced, and looked on as for extremists only. No "normal" Anglo Jew would want to be associated with any of them, except occasionally for guilt money. Only one rich Anglo Jew then gave substantially to religious institutions and that was the colorful Isaac Wolfson.

At that time Orthodox spokesmen were being outgunned and outmaneuvered by the non-Orthodox, who seemed to have commandeered the media. Now things have changed so much that the boot is on the other foot. Ultra-Orthodoxy, Charedi Judaism, whatever label you want to use, has now come to dominate our thinking and our community to the point where even the Chief Rabbi trembles before their onslaught.

This would not be perceived as problematic in a society open to discourse, disagreement, debate, and choice. But it is a feature of all examples of growing religious strength that it tends to stifle debate and impose conformity. That is why there are rebellious groups of religious youngsters who cannot find their places in strict orders, who may turn to religious violence. It's not just confined to other religions. Ours may not be as serious or as lethal, but look at recent riots and attacks by "ultra" youth in Beth Shemesh in Israel--even the Charedi establishment has decided that enough is enough. Others end up leading double-lives, as any clubber in London, New York, or Tel Aviv will testify.

At one stage I feared that the growth of Charedi communities, which I welcomed and supported, would lead to the Charedi-ization of all Anglo Jewry with the rest drifting away altogether. But now it seems the opposite is true. The stronger one section becomes, the stronger the community as a whole becomes, and it almost engenders creative competition. It"s like when a McDonald's attracts a Pizza Hut and then a Kentucky Fried Chicken. More does mean more for everyone. More Jewish schools of whatever color will lead to more children identifying, in whatever ways, and that means more chances (never guarantees) of stronger Jewish commitment. A better-run, more successful community means more people are proud to be associated with it. Better institutions attract more funding. Up to now all the creative elements in Anglo Jewish life came from outside the establishment, from informal or unofficial elements. Now at last some sections of this old establishment, and I do only mean some, are getting their creative acts together.

Anglo Jewry is indeed far more religious and learned, cultural and creative than it ever was. The only black hole remains academia, where we have all but nothing (O.K., one or two really good ones, but most have been attracted elsewhere). In comparison to Israel, the USA, and France, Anglo Jewish academic life is a ghost.

Of course, too many Jews are still alienated. Some feel the community only values the wealthy. Some simply haven't been touched or inspired by anything to excite their identity. For every one brought back to Judaism, far more slide away. Despite all the new schools, we have nowhere near enough really good Jewish teachers.

But the signs are good. I'm an optimist, and after speaking to a successful magnate, a Board of Deputies guru, a teacher, and a social worker, I must say that I cannot recall as upbeat a mood in Anglo Jewry as a whole, ever.

There are of course still fears that the flaccid, apathetic British and the rest of Europe still haven't still woken up to the threat to their values that rampant fundamentalism presents. But then the only response is indeed to fight back. So I'm delighted there are people in the Jewish and non-Jewish community who are taking these issues seriously. Well done people--enjoy the parade.

10 Comments:

At 9:59 AM , Blogger Still Hopeful said...

I think you are a bit confused. What we are witnessing is a historical cycle. Renewed confidence after a decline is not unheard of. German Jews thought they were extremely successful because they were able to obtain influence in the German principalities, but as we see in the writings of Rav Hirsh this was to have serious consequences. American Jewry's influence is at the price of their orthodoxy. My own experience working within the community shows that you cannot ask for funding from non-Jewish agencies without appearing as though you are playing to the gentile agenda. The success you are celebrating is temporary and illusory. History will show you self -congratulation to be premature.

 
At 10:33 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Very interesting point. You might well be right, but I guess a little dose of optimism is not bad on occasion!

 
At 3:28 PM , Anonymous Graham said...

As a sympathetic & curious outsider I hold Rabbi Rosen to be a good example of "Renaissance man ". Unfortunately this brings images of Italian catholicism and a hankering for ancient Greek practices to mind.

Hardly appropriate for a Rabbi. So I’ll better go for "R’no nonsense man"

Over the last weeks he has exhorted his fellows to enjoy Christmas and now even to consider marriage outside of the tribes, though keepin‘ within the faith.
Nonetheless the big Jewish boo-word "assimilation" is still wielded.

What, (before kosher pies from Melton Mowbray, Saturday flat-rate telephoning or the Queen‘s English in the Knesset become accepted) – in 5768 / 2008 might one view as assimilation too far?

Graham

 
At 9:41 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Well thank you for the compliment, and may I confuse you further by saying a soul is never necessarily lost.

Assimilation is one thing. It is the conscious attempt to lose oneself, to abandon one's people and tradition and merge with the majority or some other culture. That is something I will never be happy about, even if I recognize the right of people to make that choice and might still be friends with them.

But marriage out can often be circumstantial, accidental, and does not necessarily lead to turning one's back on one's people and religion. I have come across many examples where the contrary has been true.

I well remember scandalizing my congregation in Glasgow by declaring (just to make a point) that I'd rather marry a non-Jewish girl who cared about God and morality and wanted to lead a life according to Torah than a Jewish gfirl who did not!

OY

 
At 6:40 AM , Anonymous Still Hopeful said...

Not surprised they were scandalised. Such sentiments are contrary to Torah, and cuts a Jew off from his people. A non-observant Jewish woman or man can become a baal teshuva. The children form a halachically Jewish woman are automatically Jewish. As I said in my last comment, you are confused but also an iconoclast for its own sake. Over and definitely out.

 
At 9:11 AM , Anonymous Es said...

A non-Jewish woman who was committed to living according to Torah would, in all likelihood, convert if she intended to be the wife of a Jewish husband.

 
At 9:31 AM , Anonymous still hopeful said...

You specific said marry a non-jewish woman not a convert who would " prior" to marrige be halachically Jewish. Marrying a non-Jew prior to conversion is as you well know prohibited.

 
At 9:42 AM , Anonymous Es said...

I'm not speaking on Rabbi Rosen's behalf. I'm not the one who specified a non-Jew. I'm only saying that just as a secular Jew can do tshuvah, a non-Jew who cares about G-d and Torah can make decisions that bring the family in line with halacha, as well. It has happened on multiple occasions.

After all, if you marry a Jewish woman who doesn't have a real connection to Torah, you are bound to be committing aveirahs far greater than transgressing the prohibition on marrying a non-Jew, in and of itself.

 
At 9:52 AM , Anonymous graham said...

In respect of the 19th and early 20th centuries I do not think it can be generalised that "German Jews thought they were extremely successful" - some were, many were industrious and wealthy, but most remained only too well aware of the invisible barriers against them. To compare their lot with that of present-day Anglo-Jewry seems inappropriate. If Rabbi Rosen's post would explain WHY each of his individual contacts are feeling upbeat - that would be interesting.
"still hopeful's" first response suggests despondency is the Jew's correct natural state.
The ages old hatreds and resentments which Jewry has always experienced have their sources in the non-Jewish world. That is where the problem must be tackled - not by defining Jewish behaviour.

Graham

 
At 9:59 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

My point was simply that I detected signs of a new willingness to combat the challenges more openly and professionally. The people I spoke to all told me that in their organisations there was a new determined mood, no longer apathy or a tendency to brush things under the carpet. But this does not mean here are no dangers.

Islamo anti-Semitism, Left Wing and academic anti-Semitism are on the rise, and elsewhere I have referred to the Europe-wide disease of hoping that if you appease, the danger will go away. Yes, indeed, any hatred is the disease and problem of the hater. But this does not mean the victims should not make every effort to respond.

 

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