LONDON — It is the Shabbat morning after the night before. Only a handful of people in London’s Olympic park have made it to the Jewish prayer room for morning services – perhaps not surprising as the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics ended just nine hours ago. But by the end of davening, the room is buzzing with Olympic staffers – mainly journalists and broadcasting technicians – from several countries, waiting to sample the kiddush wine, which had to be brought into the Olympic park with a special dispensation, and nibbles. There are even a few clergymen from other religions.
“My fellow chaplains were very interested in the chocolate cake from a well-known Jewish baker in London,” says Alex Goldberg, who led the services that morning. “They were very happy to partake in this ancient Jewish ceremony!”
‘My fellow chaplains were very interested in the chocolate cake from a well-known Jewish baker in London’
Goldberg is one of under a dozen Jewish chaplains of all denominations who are working at the Olympics and Paralympics this summer. Together with some 180 other clergymen from eight other religions — Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Baha’i — they will provide pastoral services to anyone involved in the Games who desires it.
In addition to two million spectators, 16,000 athletes will be participating, covered by 25,000 journalists, and supported by 175,000 employees and volunteers. Of the athletes, perhaps a couple of hundred at most are Jewish. It is unclear how many Jews are working or volunteering at the Olympics, and visiting, but the numbers could easily reach the thousands.
The chaplains, however, are not there to cater just – or even primarily – to members of their own religious group. According to Rabbi Richard Jacobi of Woodford Liberal Synagogue, just a few miles from the Olympic stadium, they will be available to people looking for counsel “from their own faith, or from faith in general.”
This might include workers or athletes suffering from stress, undergoing a personal emergency, or perhaps even missing home.
The chaplains will also play a role in case of a large-scale incident, such as a terror attack or other disaster. In addition, they are responsible for conducting religious services. On alternate Shabbats, Orthodox and non-Orthodox prayers take place in the main Jewish prayer room, which contains a Torah scroll and ark. There are also other shared faith rooms with provisions for all religions.
This early in the games, some of the chaplains say that they are yet to see much “action,” and are concentrating on making themselves known to the inhabitants of the Olympic Park.
According to Rabbi Thomas Salamon of Westminster Synagogue, an independent shul in central London with ties to Reform and Liberal Judaism, no Jew has turned up yet to the prayer room during his shifts. However, a lot of Christians have attended their own services, as have Muslims, perhaps because it is currently Ramadan.
But Goldberg – who, while not a rabbi, is an Orthodox chaplain to students at the University of Surrey, a little south of London – has conducted a couple of Friday night and Shabbat services. Last week he even lit Shabbat candles in the Olympic park as the Royal Air Force’s aerobatic team, the Red Arrows, flew overhead, leaving behind them a trail of red, blue and white vapor.
He has so far met around 100 Jews, mostly members of the press in the media center, where he is spending much of his time. Their spiritual needs should not be underestimated, he said. They are working in high-stress environments and are often far from home.
‘People are identifying themselves to me, coming up and telling me which synagogue they go to or which synagogue they don’t go to’
“People are identifying themselves to me, coming up and telling me which synagogue they go to or which synagogue they don’t go to,” he says. “I’m feeling really well-received and well-looked after, although it should be the other way round!”
The planning for the religious side of the 2012 Olympics began early. Four years ago Goldberg, then chief executive of the London Jewish Forum, a group that advocates for Jews in the British capital, was asked to join a group advising on faith issues. Similar groups were set up by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games for ethnic minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and the disabled, among others.
Issues examined by the faith group included dietary needs, for example arranging kosher food. (Hermolis, a kosher food supplier, has provided a stock of 2,500 meals for those working in the park and visitors can buy kosher sandwiches and hot meals at canteens on site.)
They also had to find a compromise for religious workers or volunteers who were uncomfortable with their uniforms for modesty reasons, or who wanted to wear a headdress (they can wear black or white skirts instead of the standard-issue trousers and black or white yarmulkes or turbans).
In addition, the Olympics coincide this year with Ramadan and the Jewish fast of Tisha b’Av, which took place this Sunday. The kitchens had to be told when to expect a catering rush. And London transport chiefs wanted to know which large places of worship fell on the transport routes towards the Olympic Park, and when services took place, so that athletes would not be delayed on the way to competitions.
‘It’s the Olympics!’ said Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris, principal of Leo Baeck College, the largest non-Orthodox rabbinical college in Europe, as if volunteering was self-evident
Some work also centered around the needs of the chaplaincy team. Each religion was asked to nominate its own candidates and the British Jewish denominations – Orthodox, Masorti, Reform and Liberal – each put forward their own rabbis. Mostly, the Jewish chaplains volunteered, for different reasons. Several mentioned that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (“It’s the Olympics!” said Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris, principal of Leo Baeck College, the largest non-Orthodox rabbinical college in Europe, as if volunteering was self-evident). Rabbi Jacobi was one of four Jewish rabbis from across the denominational spectrum to volunteer from East London, where the Olympics are being held. They felt, as a group, that it was important that the core of the chaplaincy service was from the local area.
“East London can sometimes feel like the forgotten relatives in the London Jewish community,” he says. The majority of London’s 200,000-odd Jews live in the northern suburbs.
He was also eager to help present a positive picture of London in general, and of British Jewry, in particular. He is conscious, he says, that many foreigners believe the city to be riddled with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and wanted to show that people mostly enjoy being Jewish in London.
Successful candidates had to pass a criminal background check and an interview, and then undergo several training sessions. Now that the Games have begun, they are divided into teams which are assigned to different sites and which operate on different shifts.
The amount of effort and thought put into the faith aspect of the Games is impressive, says Rabbi Jacobi.
“Several people who have been to the Olympics before have said that this is a more welcoming atmosphere. It is much more multi-faith and there is much more space for all faiths.
‘The Olympic movement is gradually coming to be more comfortable with faith communities’
“It is interesting because London is relatively secular,” he adds. “The Olympic movement is gradually coming to be more comfortable with faith communities.” However, he cautions that the chaplains must be very careful not to evangelise or approach the athletes inappropriately.
“This has been a problem in past games. People whose Jewish faith is passive in other contexts seeking to activate that – this isn’t the place. We have to be very respectful of that.”
Agrees Rabbi Kahn-Harris, “My sense is that we need to have modest goals – the Olympics not about religion, it’s about athletes and sports.”
Perhaps as a result, the Jewish chaplains seem to exude caution when discussing their relationship with the Israeli team.
Rabbi Salamon says that he did not manage to catch the busy head of the Israeli delegation, but “they are there to compete, not to interact with me.”
Most international Olympic teams, he added, came with their own religious chaplain.
“What surprised me that that there was no rabbi with the Israeli team. It might give us an opportunity to interact if they wish. But we are not there to interfere or involve ourselves unless the leaders of the team ask us.”
Rabbi Jacobi says he has fielded one inquiry from an Israeli media team looking for a place to pray on Shabbat in London’s West End. But he too adds, “we are trying not to bother [the Israeli delegation].”
So far, one of the most exciting relationship that many of the chaplains have developed is with their colleagues from other religions.
‘It has been the most amazing interaction. I’ve been learning in particular about Ramadan’
“It has been the most amazing interaction,” says Rabbi Salamon. “I’ve been learning in particular about Ramadan: it’s been a real opportunity to see how it works. Athletes who travel certain distances, for example, are exempted from fasting in order to compete, although they can keep it if they wish. It’s fantastic to learn.”
The other chaplains, meanwhile, have shown a keen interest in his Judaism.
“They want to know how our communities work. They have to do fundraising just as rabbis do, they have joys and difficulties with committees just like us – so much is common.
“They are interested in finding out about the differences between the factions. They see me without a kippa but putting a hat on when I pray.”
One symbolic moment took place last Friday at 11am, as many Jews across the UK held a moment of silence in memory of the 11 Israeli athletes murdered during the Munich Olympics 40 years ago. At that exact time, says Rabbi Jacobi, who was on duty that day, “chaplains of all faiths joined their Jewish comrades in the prayer room and shared a moment’s silence in memory of the Munich 11. It was a very moving moment for all.”
They also recited a prayer for a peaceful Olympics, composed by Rabbi Jacobi himself.
Yet the chaplains are aware that the Munich massacre remains a sensitive point, in view of the row over whether there should have been a moment of silence in memory of the victims at the opening ceremony last Friday.
“It will be a question that comes up,” says Rabbi Kahn-Harris, adding that as a Jew, a Munich commemoration is of utmost importance to her. “We will have to deal with it delicately and professionally during the course of the Games.”
For some of the rabbis, the Games may open up new professional avenues. Goldberg, who is a university chaplain, says he has been interested to watch the work of other specialists.
“In addition to ‘regular’ chaplains, we have hospital, broadcasting and police chaplains. It is interesting to hear their styles. There are also sports chaplains, although no one’s ever done an event as big as this.”
‘Perhaps we as rabbis need to see if we can get involved in sports chaplaincy’
“Perhaps we as rabbis need to see if we can get involved in sports chaplaincy,” says Rabbi Salamon. “This opens up a new opportunity, it has revealed something I never thought existed.”
One thing many of the chaplains will not get to experience in the course of their duties? The sports.
“My brother is stealing me off this week to watch some volleyball,” says Alex Goldberg. “We might try and see some other sports too.”
It’s his day off.