In the UK, Learning How to Build Jewish Community Resilience

For the past few years, the Leeds Jewish Community has been building structures for community resilience. Now, in a pandemic, they're putting their preparations to use and rising to the challenge.

By Lisa Baker - President, Leeds Jewish Representative Council | May 12, 2020

When you think of Jewish accents, Yorkshire isn’t the first one that comes to mind. 

Lisa Baker, speaking at Leeds Jewish Community Day in November.

But here in my community of Leeds, we have about 8,000-10,000 Jews, making us the third-largest Jewish community in the United Kingdom. The organization I lead — the Leeds Jewish Representative Council — serves as the convener for some 50 institutions and initiatives, spanning everything from multimillion-dollar social welfare organizations to social groups of just a dozen members. We also represent the community at civic events and with members of Parliament and other government officials. 

Leeds’s strength is the independence of each of those organizations, but over the past few years, our city’s Jewish community — in partnership with JDC as part of its European resilience building efforts — has shifted to working collaboratively. It’s a seismic shift, one that is now paying dividends as our community deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.

How did we get here? Two years ago, David Gidron (leading the resilience program for JDC), working in partnership with — and catalyzing the potential of — our amazing professional Susie Gordon, helped us bring together stakeholders from across our various institutions for a Community Voices survey and listening tour. We came away with  a better sense of our community’s needs, priorities, and values, and it’s helping us pioneer the right things to safeguard our future. 

We can’t say whether our community is growing or not; we don’t have the stats to back that up. Still, I do know we’ve got people working toward an eruv. We’ve got a youth campus, sheltered accommodation, and general needs accommodation. With JDC’s help, we’ve engaged in a crisis management planning process that hasn’t only strengthened our institutions but is a flagship model for the wider Leeds community. We’ve got community organizations working together like they’ve never done before. We’ve now got buy-in from the major players by showing we can achieve things, in an incremental, non-threatening way. 

Late last year, we held our first-ever Community Day, with some 150 people in attendance. While children engaged in entertaining and meaningful activities, members of our community came together in a safe environment to think holistically about a vision and strategy for the entire community, and where all of our individual institutions and organizations fit in. The day was a rousing success and has given us a platform to work to effect change. 

This came about from our Community Voices Project, made possible thanks to small seed funding  from JDC and the National Lottery in the UK. We have taken the outcomes from that and turned them into a successful £193,000 grant from the National Lottery. “Acorns to oak trees” springs to mind. 

These aren’t the signs of a community dying. These are signs of a community adapting and being resilient in the face of adversity. Now, in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis, all of our planning, preparation, and collaboration is being put to the test, and I’m proud of how our community has risen to the occasion.

These aren’t the signs of a community dying. These are signs of a community adapting and being resilient in the face of adversity.

Where once we would have seen every organization working in a silo, duplicating services and creating gaps in service provision, we are instead hosting meetings every Tuesday and Thursday for all our organizations, including lay and professional leaders, to share ideas, solve issues and ensure a cohesive response for us all. Out of these meetings came Jewish Leeds Online, a platform providing us a way to socially connect whilst physically distancing. Made possible not just through the tireless work of some of our professional leaders but also utilising some of the National Lottery money we secured for our community.

Where once people in need might have fallen through the cracks, instead the Leeds Jewish Welfare Board created a centralised database to ensure all the vulnerable members of our community receive the support they need. 

JDC has supported us in shifting the narrative. Today, we can say with confidence that Leeds truly is a strong community. When we have crises, we pull together. In the same way that we must weather a pandemic together, it’s the responsibility of the many, not the few, to ensure we have a Leeds Jewish community not just for our children but for our children’s children and our children’s children’s children. Now more than ever, I can see that future coming into focus. That’s what resilience means to me. 

Lisa Baker, a lawyer, is the president of the Leeds Jewish Representative Council, one of JDC’s partners in a community resilience pilot program in Leeds, Rome, and Athens.

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories