Making Jewish Communities Work

Posted on March 1, 2008 in Default

By Daniel Anderson

Whilst reading Andrew Mawson’s recently published, and deeply inspiring, book ‘The Social Entrepreneur – Making Communities Work’, I found myself continually asking how can we apply the lessons of his experiences within our own community?

The book documents Mawson’s experiences, as an initially wet-behind the ears young reverend, appointed to a run-down parish church in the heart of one of the poorest neighbourhoods in London’s East End. Confronted with the harsh realities of his situation, Mawson acknowledged he had 3 options. To simply accept the situation as a dead loss confining himself to the weekly sermon to a handful of elderly regulars; to retreat into his ivory tower and write a theological treatise on poverty; or get off his backside, enter the real world, meet ‘real’ people and seek to find ways of engaging and involving them. Needless to say, he chose the latter and over a 20-year period, set about transforming his parish in Bromley-by-Bow into a modern, active, community-based, healthy living centre. Indeed Mawson was the feature of one of the Chief Rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah broadcasts a few years back on the subject of hope against all the odds.

2 years ago at Limmud I presented my own personal manifesto for creating real change within our community. For too long, I believe that our needs and interests have been delegated, often by default, to the various communal bodies and religious organizations, and in the process, we have abrogated personal responsibility and local community action.

For sure, these associations are excellent at forming committees and working parties, writing mission statements, talking about the ‘Jewish contribution’, the importance of social action and decrying the growth of intermarriage, but in practice have been poor at addressing the diverse needs of its somewhat disparate community – one which, according to the Board of Deputies own research, over 30% are choosing not to affiliate in the traditional sense, i.e. to belong to any synagogue movement.

For example, if we take the numerous initiatives that have emanated from the Chief’s Rabbi’s office in recent years, such as ‘the learning hour’? The ‘What will you do?’ project, or the most recent ‘Project Chesed’ they have, in the main, sunk without a trace. That is not to say that these ideas were not worthy in and of themselves, but because there was no attempt to involve real people at the local level, to make tangible the theoretical, to create a true sense of ownership, but rather just an expectation of participation, they failed to make any long-lasting impact.

And what about the Jewish Leadership Council, a group of self-appointed grandees, made up of luminaries such as Lord Levy, Gerald Ronson and Sir Trevor Chin? They recently set up the Commission on Jewish Schools to determine the future of Jewish educational needs, given the growth in school places and a projected shortfall in take-up. Now since it is parents and the choices that they make, which are the determinant factors as to the likelihood or otherwise of this scenario coming to fruition, you would have thought that they would be at the centre of any such research, but you’d be wrong. Apparently, this was not considered practicable, and so instead they are relying on the views of the various representative bodies. Can this really be the best way of tackling the potential crisis? I don’t think so.

I suggest that we need to promote an enterprise culture, one that seeks to empower the individual, recognizing and unleashing the untapped, complementary talents across the community and encourage entrepreneurial initiative. It is interesting to note that Mawson himself created a climate whereby people felt comfortable coming forward with ideas and suggestions. More to the point, he supported and nurtured them, acting in the role of a mentor, rather than that of autocrat, creating true empowerment rather than paying synthetic lip service, and in the process made a tangible and long-lasting difference that cut across the age, gender and income divide.

But for this type of approach to happen within the Jewish community, we need to radically rethink the role of the synagogue. Traditionally, this has been the epicentre of communal life, but to many it has become a place of spiritual stagnation. Parochial, not just in geography, but often also in mindset, it has a dated, unresponsive approach more in tune with the past and not with the challenges of the 21st Century.

For our synagogues need to be more than just places of prayer, Maleva Malkas, and ad hoc learning programmes. Instead we need to transform them into spiritual activation zones, places where individuals are inspired and encouraged to use their initiative, to take responsibility and play a full contribution in the best way they can, rather than be prevented due to a combination of process, policy and procedure. To that end, our rabbis themselves need to step back and stop believing that they and they alone can or even should determine what is in the best interest of their congregations, particularly since the vast majority are, at best, involved in the periphery, if at all. They need to take a leaf out of Mawson’s book, and start trusting more in people rather than simply in ideology.

Daniel Anderson is a life coach and aspiring social entrepreneur. He co-runs Tiferet.