After planting trees, JNF UK hopes to lay down Hebrew roots among British Jews
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'Hebrew binds us and Israel unites us'

After planting trees, JNF UK hopes to lay down Hebrew roots among British Jews

Britain’s oldest Israel charity is shifting its attention back home, where, amid a rise in anti-Semitism, learning the language of the Jewish state takes on new urgency

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Israeli actors from the Orna Porat theater perform in Hebrew for several Jewish schools in London, part of JNF UK's effort to bolster Israel and the Hebrew language as an antidote to anti-Semitism (Jessica Steinberg/ Times of Israel)
Israeli actors from the Orna Porat theater perform in Hebrew for several Jewish schools in London, part of JNF UK's effort to bolster Israel and the Hebrew language as an antidote to anti-Semitism (Jessica Steinberg/ Times of Israel)

LONDON, United Kingdom — Several rows of six, seven and eight-year-olds dressed in maroon and forest green school uniforms were seated on a lunchroom floor on a Monday morning, focusing intently as a pair of actors pulled faces, sang ditties, and played out their tale on a makeshift stage.

The students needed to concentrate, because the play was performed entirely in Hebrew.

Keren Meiri and Elad Mizrachi, members of Israel’s well-known Orna Porat theater group, were acting out one of their familiar stories for students from Rimon Jewish Primary School.

In Hebrew with the odd English expression thrown in, as well as dramatic facial expressions, tones and gestures, the actors conveyed the story of two (oversized) kids, one who was feeling nervous and edgy about a move back home, and the other who was trying to ease those concerns.

The message, however, was less important than the Hebrew language in which it was relayed.

That is the idea behind this performance and several others that recently took place in a series of London Jewish primary and secondary schools.

Keren Meiri (left) and Elad Mizrachi of the Orna Porat theater troupe perform their original play for several Jewish schools in London, part of a project funded by JNF UK (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

It is part of an Israel project currently funded by JNF UK, Britain’s oldest Israel charity, an organization that helps fund projects in Israel but is now partly turning its attention back to British Jewry with a desire to emphasize the community’s connection to Israel and its sense of Jewishness.

“As the UK’s oldest Israel charity, our focus is the growth and development of Israel,” said Yonatan Galon, CEO of JNF UK. “We work on projects aimed at improving all areas of life for Israelis of all backgrounds and ages.”

Now, however, the organization, best known for planting trees and subsidizing social and economic projects in Israel, is also deeply concerned about the future of Britain’s Jews amid a marked rise in anti-Semitism.

It wants to encourage British Jews to have a stronger connection to Israel. An affinity to, and comfort with, the Hebrew language is an important part of that.

Samuel Hayek (right), chair of JNF UK with Yonatan Galon, CEO of JNF UK. (Courtesy JNF UK)

“We’re making this effort with the schools because we saw a lessening of connection of Jews with Israel and we wanted to strengthen that connection,” said Samuel Hayek, chairman of JNF UK. “If there’s one thing that is the most important for the success of aliyah [Jewish immigration to Israel], I would say it’s the Hebrew language. The connection with Israel for someone who can understand the language is more intense than for someone who doesn’t.”

The Israel organization’s effort is backed by several local educators, including Rachel Fink, head teacher at JFS, a prominent Orthodox Jewish secondary school in London with more than 2,000 students. Fink, 49, lived, raised her family and worked in Israel for a decade before returning to London.

“I think that if every student could learn Hebrew, then you could go everywhere in the world and connect with other Hebrew speakers,” said Fink. “We’re brilliant at networking because we have a common language. They should be able to walk anywhere in the world and talk to anybody they find because Hebrew binds us and Israel unites us.”

It is not that JNF UK is pushing everyone to immigrate to Israel. But if a large swath of British Jews decided to do just that, they would be ahead of the game with this one effort.

“It’s a change that is a reality,” said Hayek on a recent afternoon in his Hendon office, referring to the organization’s pivot toward supporting Israel in the UK in order to battle anti-Semitism.

JNF UK brought two Israeli journalists to London for several days to see the Hebrew program in action and to speak to local activists, school administrators, students, and parents regarding their thoughts about anti-Semitism in London.

Staring down anti-Semitism

Hayek is known as a strong supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and is close with many Israeli politicians, including Avigdor Liberman, whose Israeli son-in-law, Yonatan Galon, is now living in London as the CEO of JNF UK.

“The local Jewish community needs honest leadership,” said Hayek, who calls himself a “dominant” leader.” “We need to tell the community what is really going on. I think my friends on the board understand the size of this issue — why to take money and spend it on Jewish kids in Jewish schools here; they understood it immediately and supported it.”

Born in Israel, Hayek, 65, has lived in London since 1980, when he went there to earn a law degree and never left. He became a real estate magnate and avid art collector, with an eclectic and valuable collection hanging in his office as well as in his Hampstead home. He is married, with two school-age children.

Amid the strained atmosphere for the Jewish community given widespread complaints of anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s main opposition Labour Party, Hayek believes that British Jews feel threatened and live in deep fear of Corbyn becoming prime minister.

“Will there be an outburst of anti-Semitism if he is elected prime minister?” asked Hayek. “I don’t know. No one’s sure of anything. Anti-Semitic strains have always existed in Britain, but politics didn’t allow it to burst out. Now with Corbyn and Labour, it burst out in a serious way because it fits his way of looking at life.”

Britain’s main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is presented with flowers at the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, during his visit on the annual Mosque open day, March 3, 2019. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

Hayek believes that some Jews in Britain are thinking about the possibility of leaving. “You don’t see a lot of [publicly identifying] Jews on the train, because they don’t want to stand out,” he said. “They take off their kippah or Magen David [Star of David] because they don’t want to be out there. They take off their symbols of Judaism.”

According to a September 2018 poll in the Jewish Chronicle, nearly 40 percent of British Jews would “seriously consider emigrating” if Corbyn became prime minister.

In February, the Jewish Chronicle reported a record number of incidents involving anti-Jewish hate in the UK, a fact that comes down to “anti-Semitic politics” and “the deliberate excluding of Jews from anti-racist norms,” according to the Chief Executive of Community Security Trust.

Community Security Trust, or CST, is a charity that protects British Jews from anti-Semitism and related threats, with more than 90 full- and part-time staff providing security for Jewish synagogues and schools such as Rimon, Nancy Reuben and JFS.

A Community Security Trust guard keeping watch over a Hanukkah celebration in London in 2014. (Blake Ezra Photography via JTA)

CST figures showed 1,652 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in the UK in 2018, a 16% increase over the previous year; the incidents were mainly nonviolent.

A significant number of British Jews are looking for options outside of Britain, said Gideon Falter, chairman of the UK committee against anti-Semitism and a trustee of JNF UK. He pointed, as a precedent, to French Jews and their growing numbers outside France, including in England.

“It’s a very big step [to leave],” he said. “If you have the luxury of waiting, you say, ‘When the kids graduate, when I retire, I will go.’”

But British Jews are making plans, Falter said, and he believes there would be large influxes of British Jews to Israel, Canada and the US if Corbyn were to take power.

Gideon Falter, chair of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (Courtesy Natan Lilienfeld)

To many members of London’s Jewish community, Corbyn has allowed an atmosphere hostile to Jews to swell under his leadership.

“It seems to have become easier for people to say anti-Semitic things. potentially because of politics and Jeremy Corbyn,” said JFS’s Fink. “People seem to have more confidence to say unpleasant things.”

Britain, said Gideon, is a generally decent, tolerant society, and if there has been anti-Semitism, it did not manifest itself every day until now. But, he said, people use the debate about Israel to voice anti-Semitic ideas, and they are very difficult to differentiate from anti-Zionism.

There is a sense among the Jewish community that they have to get ready to fight, he added — a sea change from the feeling that Jews could always flourish in England without worry.

“Now the sentiment is that if we don’t fight now and hard, we will lose the fight for the future of British Jews,” said Falter. “JNF UK’s job is to promote the understanding of Israel in the UK and to promote projects in Israel to flourish and succeed. For one morning [with this program], Israel has come to their school and they loved it.”

Can Hebrew plays help foster pro-Zionist sentiment?

Later on the same day at the Rimon School, another Orna Porat actor performed a one-woman show about a teen grappling with the death of her mother, and her struggles in school and with friends. Again, the room full of pre-teens sat in rapt attention, laughing or silent at all of the appropriate moments.

“These are not plays that are made for performing abroad; they’re made for Israel,” said actor Elad Mizrahi. “The kids laugh at the slapstick, and it’s an idea that’s timeless. It talks about the old and new in our lives, that’s universal. You don’t have to explain every word.”

It may help that 25% of the students at Rimon speak Hebrew, many of them having temporarily moved from Israel to London with their families, often because of their parents’ work.

Rimon School’s head of Jewish and Ivrit Studies, Ora Solla (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Ora Solla is head of Jewish and Hebrew Studies at Rimon. She is an American raised in Los Angeles who has in London for 18 years. She uses Hebrew frequently when addressing Rimon students.

These parents want Hebrew and lessons about Jewish life and identity in their children’s school, even if they do not necessarily want a religiously Jewish life, she said.

Anat Glick, who has two children at Rimon, is from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Kerem. She said she was glad to have her kids in the Jewish school, where they have learned about being Jewish and feeling part of the community. It was a struggle, though, to get her kids to speak only Hebrew at home, she said.

“We’re proud to be Jewish,” said Glick, who has been in London for five years.

Rimon is a government-funded Jewish school that is considered Modern Orthodox because of its affiliation with the Golders Green synagogue, a United Synagogue institution. Parents do not have to state whether they are Jewish — although most of the kids have at least one parent who is Jewish, said Solla.

Six years after the school’s establishment in 2012, the administration realized that quite a few of the kids were from Israeli families, or families very supportive of Israel, and that they wanted lessons in Hebrew and Jewish life and identity. They even have the school website’s drop-down menu fully translated into Hebrew.

“We hired a modern Hebrew teacher, and we have proper Hebrew lessons,” said Solla.

Christine Samuels is a New Zealand Maori, and not Jewish, but she is now raising her Jewish — and Israeli — granddaughters, an 11-year-old who goes to Rimon and a baby, along with her husband of 30 years, Raphael.

She’s deeply connected to the Israeli community in London, among whom many are buying houses in Israel because “if Corbyn is elected, they’ll run away,” she said. Despite having experienced anti-Semitism, Samuels said, she and her husband would probably stay.

Israeli parent Anat Glick (second from left) with Christine Samuels (far right) and their respective children and grandchildren, who study at London’s Rimon School (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

At Nancy Reuben, another public Jewish school participating in the JNF UK Israel program, Hava Tourgeman, a Jerusalemite who has been living in London for three years with her husband and youngest son, said she wouldn’t stay in London if things took a turn for the worse.

“It’s great here, my son loves the school, we have everything we could want here,” said Tourgeman. “But if things get bad here, I won’t stay. There’s no safe place in the world for Jews. In Israel, at least you know it’s your home. When something happens here, you’re so aware that you’re not at home.”

Hava Tourgeman (left) and Dana Yacov, Israelis temporarily living in London and each sending their kids to a Jewish school. (Courtesy John Rivkin)

When her family travels on the London Underground, they wear their kippahs and tzitzit, or ritual fringes, “because we’re proud,”she said, although she has seen people looking at her son with his religious symbols on display. “I tell him not to worry, but sometimes my husband tells him to tuck them inside.”

David Tourgeman, her 10-year-old son, said that what he missed about Israel was being able to walk to the corner store by himself. “Kids don’t do that here,” he said.

Dana Yacov, another Nancy Reuben parent who moved with her husband and two young children to London nearly a year ago, said they do not generally speak Hebrew on the train, because they don’t want to stand out.

“We’re trying not to make problems,” said Yacov, holding her 7-month-old baby, Oliver, born during their first year in London.

One antidote to a possible weakening of Jewish identity in the face of anti-Semitism is the JNF UK program, noted Antony Wolfson, the head teacher at Nancy Reuben, who feels that his students have learned much more about Israel since participating in the activities and lessons created by their JNF UK representative, Sari Rubin.

Rubin is an Israeli woman who has been living in the UK for the last decade after meeting and marrying her English husband, Gary.

The aim, said Rubin, is to educate Jewish children for when they are older, teaching them what Israel has to offer and making sure they are grounded in facts and history.

While Hebrew has always been taught at the primary school, the opportunity to work with JNF, which began in September, has increased the degree of engagement of the students.

They are twinned with a school in the south of Israel, and have had video chats with children in its classes. “They look much bigger than we do,” said one of the students.

A good number of the school’s students have visited Israel.

JFS head teacher Rachel Fink, discussing the effects of growing anti-Semitism on the school’s curriculum and direction (Courtesy John Fink)

Israel itself is important in establishing the children’s Jewish identity, said JFS’s Rachel Fink.

“I think there is something to be said for the modern approach of making Judaism and making Jewish people relevant, through Israel,” she said. “It matters; a Jewish life devoid of Israel is poorer, much poorer.”

“Israel is central to who we are as a Jewish people, I really believe that,” said Fink. “And for some people, if that’s their connection to the Jewish community, then that is a way for it to be stronger.”

For these young Jewish British students, anti-Semitism is not something that is discussed much or felt. Two 11-year-olds at Rimon, Dalia Segal and Charlie Gonzalez Esteban, noted that they liked learning about famous Jews, such as Golda Meir and Hannah Senesh, but haven’t experienced any downside to being Jewish in their own lives.

Still, “you’re always different here,” acknowledged Segal, an Israeli-born Rimon student who said she lives in a mostly non-Jewish neighborhood.

Gonzalez, who was born in Spain and began attending Rimon last year when his mother married and settled in London, said that learning about Jewish heroes like Senesh made him stop and think about hardships in life. “Nothing like that happens to me,” he said.

It is the high school kids who sense something different in the air, perhaps because many of them use public transportation to get to school, and because they have friends outside of their Jewish school. There have also been a spate of muggings in the neighborhood near JFS, and several students have had their phones stolen while going to and from school.

The school tries to prepare them for these incidents, and for their future lives at university, where they could have to deal with higher levels of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. They spend a portion of ninth grade in Israel, an experience that one student said was nothing like she had ever known before.

That is why Fink makes a point of teaching the basics about Israel, including the map of Israel, history and Hebrew.

“I want our students to begin with knowing the basics about Israel, such as being able to locate places on a map. In my head, that’s my founding principle for Israel education here,” she said. “If they want to have an opinion, it needs to be an informed opinion and not based just on what they see and read in the media. The students need to understand Israel and Israelis to challenge views they hear in the media.”

Who’s really worried about anti-Semitic acts?

When asked, some London Jews say there is nothing to worry about. They are still lining up on Friday mornings outside Daniel’s, a popular Finchley bakery.

Yoav Kurtzbard, an Israeli investment banker who has lived in London and raised his family there for more than 25 years (Courtesy John Rivkin)

Life is pretty easy in London, said Yoav Kurtzbard, an investment banker who has been living in London for more than 20 years, with his Israeli wife, Dorli, and their four children, ranging in age from 9 to 19.

The Kurtzbards are more Jewishly identified than they might have been in Israel, attending synagogue and sending their kids to Jewish school as well as a Sunday school where they learn how to read and write in Hebrew.

“We wanted our kids to feel like they belonged and have Jewish friends,” said Yoav Kurtzbard, who was born in Israel but spent part of his childhood in the US, attending Modern Orthodox day school Ramaz and later studying at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “It’s a kind of incubator here, it’s nice for kids to have that surrounding cushion.”

Until now, said Dorli Kurtzbard.

Her husband, however, is not all that worried.

“Corbyn is not really an anti-Semitic issue; the real problem is what will happen to this country financially [if and when it leaves the EU under Brexit],” he said. “He wants to nationalize this country and to bring it back to the dark ages. That might be traumatic.”

While anti-Semitism is not what the Kurtzbards worry about, there are certain rules in their family: Their three sons are not allowed to wear yarmulkes outside, ever.

Dorli Kurtzbard (middle) with her four children, all living in London and planning for an eventual return to Israel (Courtesy John Rivkin)

“There is what you do at home, and what you do in the street,” said Yoav Kurtzbard.

And for them, there is always the Israel plan, their home country where they will retire.

“I want to make sure they have an amazing future in Israel; the creative forces in Israel are amazing,” he said. “All Israelis end up going back.”

The writer was hosted in London by JNF UK.

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