LONDON — Andrew Percy is a successful Conservative politician. He’s a Member of Parliament and Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, a campaign to boost economic growth in Britain’s northern cities. As of March, he has also become Jewish.
Percy’s improbable story, he says, has come about because of his love of Israel.
The 39-year-old politician is full of good humor. He punctuates the conversation with frequent admonitions that “I am a northerner and we don’t like to talk about our feelings.”
But actually, Percy does talk about his feelings, albeit in a fairly shy way. He describes going home to his constituency after his final session in front of the Beth Din (rabbinical panel) of Liberal Judaism, and lighting his Shabbat candles.
“It was the first time I could say I feel properly Jewish,” he says.
The former history teacher knows all about taking examinations and feeling nervous in front of those who must judge both knowledge and commitment.
“They could have turned me down,” he says, adding that he had “felt really elated” once he knew he had been accepted by the Liberal rabbinate.
Percy is not just unusual as a politician-convert — his solo conversion, not for the benefit of a partner, is rare. And religious courts across the denominations acknowledge that conversion is much harder on one’s own.
The gregarious MP sits for a constituency called Brigg and Goole and the Isle of Axholme, which straddles Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. It’s about as un-Jewish a place as one could find in Britain, but Percy says he has a mezuzah up on the door of his Goole constituency home.
He says that when he was asked by someone “If [the mezuzah] was to protect my security as an MP, I said it was — sort of!”
But Brigg and Goole is just a hop and a skip over the Humber river on Britain’s east coast to Percy’s birthplace, Hull, which once upon a time was home to a large Jewish community.
Hull is a port city and was the stopping-off place for many thousands of Jews who fled Eastern Europe. Last month Hull, which is this year’s British City of Culture, celebrated 250 years of Orthodox Jewish settlement. At its peak Hull had nine synagogues. These days there are said to be around 100 Orthodox Jews in the city, and just one Reform congregation, founded in 1966.
Percy’s father was a foundry worker who lost his job, and the family went through some tough times before he found work as a market gardener. But Andrew Percy showed his singularity in a city which almost entirely supports Labour by becoming a Conservative councilor — one of only two on the city council — before going into Parliament in 2010.
He ascribes his Conservative leanings to his father, who had never been very keen on the trade unions in Hull.
‘One of my aunties always said the family was Jewish, way back, my other auntie said it was rubbish’
“He thought they were okay for benefits but he didn’t like the way they disrupted things with strikes. He would see other workers losing wages when the unions called a strike, but the union bosses still got paid. I think I was brought up like that, listening to him. Hull was a very Labour city, and I didn’t subscribe to their view of doing things,” says Percy.
So right from the start, Andrew Percy felt that “being a member of any minority, whether political or religious, is not unusual for me.”
While attending a tough school, the teenage Percy was often asked if he were Jewish — and it wasn’t asked in a complimentary fashion.
“I think maybe it was because I was big and fairly dark-skinned,” he says, but then remembers that “one of my aunties always said the family was Jewish, way back. She remembered going to synagogue with her mother. My other auntie said it was rubbish.”
Just the same, he was curious, did some research and found, somewhat to his amusement, that his father’s side of the family had once lived in a district in York called Jewbury.
“It was at the end of the 19th century and they ran a boarding house, but my auntie still said it was rubbish,” he says.
After York University and a brief stab at becoming a lawyer (he decided it was not for him), Percy went to work for a short time in the US, for the New Jersey State Senate. He supposes, looking back, that he must have encountered Jews there, but wasn’t paying much attention to people’s religion at the time.
He was, however, a strong supporter of Israel, even before he made his first visit in 2011.
‘One Labour member of the Hull council was really anti-Israel, and I always knew I was pro-Israel’
“For my birthday in 2009, one of the colleagues I taught with bought me a book about the Israel Defense Forces,” says Percy. “I’ve always been interested in modern world conflicts, World War II and the Holocaust at the center of that. But I was also interested in what happened after that, and the formation of the State of Israel. I was a natural supporter of Israel from the beginning, and felt connected to it. There was one Labour member of the Hull council who was really anti-Israel, and I always knew I was pro-Israel.”
That support translated into something more tangible once Percy became an MP in 2010. The Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) is particularly adept at approaching new MPs and Percy was an eager recruit, making his first visit to Israel with a CFI group the following year.
Though he had been baptized in the Church of England, Percy was not enthused by the Christian sites the group visited in Israel.
But, he says, “I was excited when we visited the Jewish sites. And I remember walking back to our hotel in Tel Aviv one night, with the breeze coming in from the Mediterranean, and thinking about the survivors of the Holocaust who had arrived there. You feel the vibrant city all around you and there is a sensation of hope being restored, of promise being fulfilled.”
On that same first visit, the group went to Yad Vashem and Percy wondered to himself, what if his aunt had been right and there was a Jewish connection in the family?
“Does that mean some of my relatives were involved in the Holocaust, victims that I never knew I was connected to?” he says. “It felt very moving, very special.”
But the new MP — as befits a former teacher — decided he needed to educate himself in order to advocate for Israel. He began to immerse himself in Jewish culture, visiting Israel both with CFI and privately, making friends and making a real effort to learn Hebrew, too, “because it didn’t make sense to me not to be able to exchange a few words with the Israelis I was meeting.”
He became an outspoken advocate for Israel in Parliament, coming back from one CFI visit with a repellent “Hamas doll” which he had found being used in some Palestinian schools, and asking fellow MPs to denounce the so-called “toy.” So confrontational did things get on social media, however, that Percy deleted his Twitter account because of the level of anti-Semitism.
He also began to make friends with the nearest Jewish community to Brigg and Goole — located in his old stomping grounds of Hull.
“I realized that I wasn’t just feeling a connection to Israel, but to the whole Jewish community.” he says. “I had an opportunity to go to a service at the Reform synagogue in Hull, and they were pleased to see me and asked me to return whenever I liked. So I started going to services and I really enjoyed them.”
By this stage, Percy had started to think carefully about his inner spiritual life. He makes it clear that while Israel led him to Judaism, for him they were two separate paths. As an MP he spends a great deal of time in London, so he sought out the synagogue nearest to Parliament, Westminster Synagogue.
Westminster is an independent congregation, but leans towards the Progressive. It offers conversion classes via both the Reform and Liberal tracks. Percy spoke to the rabbi, Thomas Salamon, and said he was considering converting.
“He was lovely and welcoming. He said, ‘We do these conversion classes, so come along, see how you feel.’ To begin with, I wasn’t sure. I wondered if I was turning my back on my heritage, but very quickly I felt that this was a community I wanted to be a part of, and that I wanted to do the whole conversion process,” Percy says.
‘I wondered if I was turning my back on my heritage, but very quickly I felt that this was a community I wanted to be a part of’
The classes ran on Wednesday nights and Percy told the Conservative Whips’ Office (the political office in the Commons which ensures MPs take part in debates and votes) in order to make sure he could be free. They were, he says, wonderfully supportive, as were his parents, who stood by whatever decision their son wanted to make.
For his conversion, he had to write essays about why he was drawn towards Judaism, and about the festivals.
“I said my favorite was Shavuot, because it used the Book of Ruth, who was, of course, a convert,” he says, and adds, laughing, “Plus, of course, there’s cheesecake. But actually, as a convert, I’ve learned the importance of food which seems to underpin the entire faith. I think that’s a principle wholly agreed by Orthodox, Reform and Liberal.”
His whole philosophy, he says, “is to take things and people head-on. They can throw anything they want at me, it won’t make any difference to me.”
Percy says that he never questioned what he was getting himself into, but that “because of my support for Israel, people naturally assumed I was Jewish anyway.”
He completed his conversion to Judaism in mid-March and spent Passover in Israel.
With a mischievous grin he asks why the interview hasn’t touched on one of the most common questions he’s asked — how he dealt with the issue of circumcision.
“It was traditional in our family, I was already done,” he volunteers.
Upon reflection, perhaps his aunt wasn’t spouting rubbish, after all.