Dispatch from the UK: One People Separated by a Common Language

Posted on May 19, 2009 in General


The British Jewish community rarely seems to feature on the worldwide Jewish map. It may have been significant a century ago, although probably only then because a handful of its leaders had access to the corridors of power of the British Empire. Today, however, it is seldom the focus of international Jewish attention; in the context of Israel-Diaspora discussions, ‘Diaspora’ tends to be a synonym for America, and the other countries that comprise the Jewish world outside of Israel barely seem to feature in the discourse. Britain is no exception.

To be fair, there is reason for this. The British Jewish community numbered 450,000 at the end of the Second World War, but its population has declined to fewer than 300,000 today, the loss being variously attributed to assimilation, emigration (in part to Israel), and a low birth rate. Arguably, no other comparable community has suffered such numerical decline in the same period. And the numbers only tell part of the story; in his 1985 book Diaspora, the scholar Howard Sachar variously described British Jewish organizational life as “pedestrian,” its cultural life as “somnolent,” its religious-educational life as “exceptionally shallow,” and its religious establishment as “a bore.”

I don’t know if Sachar has visited the UK since that time, but if he were to drop in on us today, I’m not convinced he would issue quite the same report. Visit the leafy north London suburbs of Golders Green and Hendon, and you’ll encounter a growing range of kosher restaurants, creative educational initiatives and innovative organizations that are breathing new life into the community. Come on Shabbat, and you’ll find a mounting array of interesting spiritual possibilities, ranging from the inspirational Orthodox community of Ner Yisroel, the melodic traditional egalitarian community of Assif, and the funky band playing at Finchley Progressive Synagogue’s monthly ‘Shabbat Resouled.’ Come at the right times of year, and you’ll have opportunities to attend Jewish Book Week – an impressive literary festival by anyone’s standards – the Jewish Film Festival, and the real jewel in the community’s crown, Limmud.

The story of Limmud is a truly remarkable one, particularly given Sachar’s rather bleak view of British Jewry a generation ago. Founded in 1980 as a conference for Jewish educators based on the American CAJE model, it has become one of the great international celebrations of Jewish culture and learning. It attracts 2,500 people annually to its December festival, including some of the biggest names in Jewish music, politics and education, and, as its reputation has grown, it has inspired a whole range of Limmud spin-off events in 26 other communities around the world at the last count. In many respects, the success of other Jewish initiatives in Britain and elsewhere can be traced back to it too – a number of people behind some of the more creative endeavours that pepper Jewish life around the world today were initially or at least partially inspired by their own experiences of Limmud. It has even spawned a love child of its own – Limmudfest – an eco-friendly summer Jewish festival that is starting to have a whole unique impact on the community.

Its success can be attributed to a number of key factors. It doesn’t impose any particular version of Judaism onto participants; instead it provides open space for people to celebrate and engage with Judaism on their own terms. It doesn’t differentiate between those who know and those who do not – participants inevitably flock to hear big names, but everyone is encouraged to be both participant and presenter, and to contribute whatever it is they have to the success of the event. It is run almost entirely by volunteers – Limmud is a space for anyone – provided they can garner sufficient support from the team as a whole – to try anything, to push any boundary or to test any theory. In that regard, it’s a profoundly empowering space – the Judaism one encounters there is vibrant, creative and alive precisely because participants are given the opportunity to make it so. And yet, at the same time, Limmud is deeply committed to an implicit set of values that underpin virtually everything it does – community, responsibility, tolerance, mutual respect, openness, diversity – and somehow it creates a space in which everyone seems to instantly and organically understand and embrace those.

Limmud’s example teaches some important lessons about the future of the Jewish People. It demonstrates that it is possible to be a serious Jew without necessarily identifying with any particular denomination or belonging to a formal community. It demonstrates that if we provide an inspiring and empowering space that allows Jews to shape Jewish life and community, they can be trusted to do so in ways that are more creative, more inspiring, and more thoughtful than we could ever have imagined. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates that Jewish creativity can happen anywhere – even in a somnolent, shallow and boring place like the Jewish backwater that is (or once was) Britain.

The implication of this final point may well be that the geographically and ideologically-loaded language of ‘Israel-Diaspora’ has become somewhat redundant. The term, which has long been the standardised language of Jewish discourse, clearly differentiates between Israel on the one hand and everywhere else on the other, it merges all Diaspora communities into a singular bloc, and then often reduces that bloc down to its largest component part, the USA.

I don’t reject Israel’s implicit primacy in the duality. It is the centre of the Jewish world, what happens there affects Jews everywhere, and its Jewish religious and historical significance vastly outweighs any claims from any other part of the world. What I question is the duality itself. The Diaspora is not a coherent or cohesive bloc, it cannot and should not be reduced down to a singular entity, and that entity should not be captured or represented by the United States alone. If Jewish creativity can happen anywhere – and Limmud demonstrates that it can – we ought to develop a new kind of language that seeks to include Jewish communities everywhere, recognise their uniqueness, and empower them towards great things.

The language I believe we ought to adopt gives primacy to Jewish people over and above Jewish places, not least because our future may be far less reliant on ‘place’ than we often think. Place is not unimportant – it provides an environment within which Jewish creativity can either flourish or flounder – but ultimately it is the contribution of individuals or small groups of people that will propel us forward. Different places generate different responses in people, and it was precisely the stuffy and drowsy nature of the British Jewish community that prompted a group of British Jews to first create Limmud and then transform it from a small conference into an international phenomenon.

Language influences the way in which we view the world and ultimately shapes policy. The language of Israel-Diaspora diminishes our view of the Diaspora, and turns millions of vibrant, varied and valuable Jews living throughout the world into a singular and amorphous mass. That fails to capture who we are, the nature of our experience, and the possibilities we could create. Change the language, and we might just start to change the results.

Jonathan Boyd is Acting Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London.  A former Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Institute in Israel, he is the editor of The Sovereign and the Situated Self: Jewish Identity and Community in the 21st Century (Profile Books, 2003). This essay is being published in collaboration with Zeek.