Introduction/ Narrated by Harry Hurst
A podcast series compiled from oral histories and produced as part of a digital exhibition exploring how Liberal Judaism has evolved since it was co-founded by British visionary Lily Montagu in 1902.
This episode explores the theme of social Justice
Liberal Judaism champions social justice. In recent years, Liberal Jews have been involved in lobbying parliament about a number of campaigns. In this episode Liberal Jews share some their experiences in the search for social justice, locally and globally. Many of the activities described here are in partnership with other faith groups and non-faith groups and look beyond the needs of the Jewish community. At the same time participants debate whether the fight for social justice has been at the expense of Jewish learning and worship.
To what extent is social action an integral part of being Jewish? Should Liberal Jews be involved with politics?
“We have the same ideals, a lot of them started by Lily, Miss Lily…
Social justice, looking after other people, worrying about refugees, asylum seekers, looking after members of the congregation who you might not have seen for some months.”
“Mattuck understood in particular, that we we that was his congregation needed to hear about social issues and particularly when the people carrying out some of the immoral issues with Jews and he actually confronted them with it. He talked about Jewish landlords at one point, you know, and he was right. Don’t call yourself a Jew if you’re not doing certain things, right.
We were able to change a little bit with of course, the poor many, many other people. The vocabulary about Syrian refugees, but particularly the narrative. We haven’t done as well as Canada. I mean, in Canada narrative about people to come into the country is they will always bring something in. And it isn’t about bringing in disease, idleness, you know, cheap labour it’s about bringing in the things that a country needs to make it valuable which are about diverse experience diverse skills, new new ideas, new language new you know, that’s what it’s about. And I think liberal Judaism needs to go even further than I took it.”
Rabbi Danny Rich
“I think, for every rabbi at this time, it’s how we’re addressing the situation we’re in in this country at the moment – well, there are two big issues. There’s how we’re addressing the situation in the country and the sort of anxiety that we’re facing as a country, the uncertainty. The rise of racism, anti-Semitism, all those big issues. There’s climate change. I think, you know, we’ve really become aware in the last issue how big that is. And there are other social issues which get forgotten, things like homelessness and so on, you know, on the day-to-day news don’t get covered because we’re so occupied.
And I suppose what a rabbi’s role is is to say, “Well, what has it got to do with Judaism? What has Judaism got to say? How can it help us think about these things and do something about these things?” At the same time I always try to make at least some space over the holy days for something much more personal. Something that will give people hope and comfort and strength personally, so I always try to make a bit of time for that as well. But I think Judaism has got something to say about the world as it is. It’s finding the words that then are Jewish and not political. And not something, that could be said by a news commentator. It’s finding a way of doing things that comes from within Judaism.”
Rabbi Margaret Jacobi
“The other interest which has snowballed from my membership of a constituent members Liberal Judaism is the fight for social justice, despite my wife, wife and myself being very fortunate in our position in life, we have been very pleased to see that Liberal Judaism has striven to fight for social justice in, not only in the UK, but in the world and through our connection with the synagogue we have become members of the Citizens Brighton and Hove Alliance, which is a nonpartisan organisation, which tries to contribute to the well-being of members of the community which we live in. I do my best to help Citizens Brighton and Hove contribute to issues such as mental health and homelessness.”
“And I was in Durham, North Carolina, which is hardly a hotbed of Jews, and nonetheless turns out that if I was working in the soup kitchen or human rights watches, or on a protest of any kind, most of the people I met were Jewish. So, I went along to the local rabbi and said, “Hey, do you think this has anything to do with them being Jewish?” Because when I’d asked my friends, they said, “Yeah, it has everything to do with being Jewish. It has nothing to do with God.” And they were angry a lot of the time. But the rabbi said that, as far as he was concerned, those very people really were living out a Jewish story. He said that they’ve so internalised the Jewish story that they’ve forgotten it, because it’s a story of moving from slavery to freedom, to accepting responsibility, to saying, we were slaves, and not just that we shouldn’t be slaves again but that nobody should be slaves again, ‘cos that’s the trajectory of Judaism. And I thought, woo, I want to be part of this.”
Rabbi Janet Burden
“One of the founders, who again just suggested to me why did I not take on the role of social action. She was quick to realise that really was my cup of tea, at the end of the day, to me – if anything, my understanding of Judaism, if you want to be really simplistic, is just making the world a little bit of a better place.”
“So Tikkun Olam literally means repairing the world. So it’s really broad. I kind of did it on a more local scale and I wanted to kind of build instead of repair, if that makes sense. So kind of with with the project I did, I wanted to start something and which could later fix things. I wanted to do something that I could make, because I, I think I would feel more kind of satisfaction from that and more pride So I started off with a really, really kind of broad sense of what I wanted to do, which was to collect stories, about members of the community. I thought, you know, as I kind of grow older as my parents grow older, and as kind of the former members of the Chavurah grow I thought it’d be really nice to just have something that captured the kind of original members of the Chavurah and have former generations and this generation to be able to read it and look back on it and just kind of something to really remember people in the Chavurah that will be there forever.”
“We tried to work out what we actually wanted to say to students. And the students we were going to be talking to were year 10 that was when the school curriculum, broached the subject and it would either be as a result of religious studies or history or personal social development, or social issues. So there were various hats under which this programme is in schools was going to be presented. And we thought we could tap into that with our own storytellers and event recollections. We put together a programme based on our survivors and our refugees, some of whom were doing it anyway, some had already given testimony to the Wiener library, and had been involved with at the time, Schindler’s List, and had given testimony to the Schindler foundation. And slowly but surely, we encouraged people to come forward and spend time with students just telling them what it was like to be a teenager growing up with these highly unusual threatening circumstances and how they managed to cope and the lessons they wanted people to learn from it.”
“Having two parents who were steeped in the Jewish world but also only looking back do I realise that I was really lucky that I came home and my Dad was there. I always remember his sermons. I don’t know if he was a great preacher or not. But I always got a lot from his sermons, even as a child. And it’s also how I learnt something of his background, because sometimes he’d talk, for example, about his escape from Germany. And it would be the first I knew about it as a child. So I got a lot sense of social justice. There was once when I was saying, “Oh, it’s the rituals that make us Jewish.” And he was quite upset by that, and he said, “No, it’s not. It’s about what we do in the world that’s really important and the ethics that we live by”. He was very, in that sense, a true Progressive Jew because those were his priorities. In later years it was very much his refugee work. You know, that he came in contact with Lord Alf Dubs, who at the time was campaigning on behalf of the children in Calais. And he’d always had an interest in refugee issues. But this kind of brought it, really, to the forefront for him. Because we went to Calais with Lord Alf, myself and my brother. And he spent some time talking to the boys there and was really deeply moved and deeply shocked by what he’d seen. He said, you know, “What those boys go through” he said “was far worse than anything that I went through.” And so he continued campaigning. And that really became important to him. But other things, I mean, at one time there was an organisation called JONAH, which is Jews Organise for Nuclear Arms Halt. And he was one of the first rabbis to sign up for that as well. And he’d always support the work of JCORE, Jewish Council for Racial Equality. So a lot of interests, and some I probably don’t even know about.”
Rabbi Margaret Jacobi
“We have a community full of people who are sort of socially and politically active in the world. Actually, our community is funny because although on the one hand, there’s a lot of people with certainly progressive political ideas, I would say and quite a number of people with quite left wing ideas. On the other hand, we’re a community of people who do quite a lot of their social and political activism in their jobs, or in their spare time life that isn’t to do with Kehilah. So quite a number of those people come to Kehilah because they want a service to go to. They want a synagogue, and they often say, I don’t come to Kehilah to do social and political activism. I do that in the rest of my life. So interestingly, we’re a community that perhaps doesn’t, as a community do as much activism as some other communities, but we’re full of very active people. So it’s a bit of a paradox.”
“The good changes are that people are enthusiastic, they are committed, they are involved in all the social programmes. And I’m amazed at the number of people who take part in social programmes. One of my grandchildren came along and helped at the drop-in here and so forth, you know, that’s fine. But the interest in, the programmes of discussing Bible and the study of texts has dropped off completely. The knowledge of Bible is almost nil. It’s amazingly bad.”
“But we’ve moved very much more to the left as far as beliefs are concerned in that suddenly ecology, green, veganism, all those things are now playing a big part in NPLS certainly. We are now way out. We are almost an offshoot of the Green Party. But my views would be too right wing for them now.”
“I suppose I had a choice, really when I finished at the Student Union, I could have done what many of my colleagues done which is got a job in the trade union and become a labour Member of Parliament. That would have been the path. But For me, Judaism was important. And so I had to make a choice. And I made prob. You know, I think I made the right choice at the time, which was to try and combine my Jewish faith, my Jewish way of life with political activity. And I’ve walked that tightrope for some 30 years before I toppled off relatively recently. I believe that religious organization like liberal Judaism have to be political. Of course, not party political. And I tried to separate my own party political activities as a Labour Council member, respective labour parliamentary candidate with my religious duties as the head of the movement. And so, like every other thing that I’ve left, even though I remain, even though I’m well committed to it. I’ve walked away and looked at something new.”
Rabbi Danny Rich
“I feel religion and politics should be kept separate.”
“I don’t some see politics as, I mean, politics is about life as it is I think. I think so. I think so. I think there is a difficult line because if maybe be better if rabbis spoke about the issues as opposed to the party political side of it, if they spoke about poverty and homelessness and those things I think it could be done could be done so that by listening the congregant would then look to see what the policies, what the manifestos of the parties were and how that was affected. But it’s not a separate issue is it? Well I mean, politics is about life, as well. So yeah”
“I think I would just say generally, don’t be afraid to ask questions. And don’t be afraid to know yourself. And don’t be afraid to challenge things that don’t sit right.”
This podcast series of oral histories is part of the exhibition: Lily’s Legacy – Voices and Visions of Liberal Judaism, a project supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
It was produced by Miri Lawrence and Lucia Scazzocchio, Sound editing and design by Lucia Scazzocchio, and special thanks to all the contributors who agreed to share their stories. For more information about what you’ve just heard, do visit the exhibition website, www.lilyslegacyproject.com