More than 50 years ago, leading American anthropologist Margaret Mead made a powerful observation: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Rav Doron Perez, Chief Executive of the World Mizrachi Movement, happily uses that quote when talking about Jewish history, the miracle of Chanukah – and his own organisation – a small but mighty cause that strives to punch above its weight.
Mizrachi UK, also known as The Centre for Religious Zionism in the UK, comprising just six paid staff members, describes itself as the UK’s leading framework for religious Zionism and modern Orthodoxy and provides educational and community programmes to strengthen people’s connection to Israel and Judaism.
Mizrachi is an acronym for Merkaz Ruchani (spiritual centre) and the movement was founded in 1902 in Vilnius at a world conference of
The UK branch’s Chief Executive, Rabbi Andrew Shaw, says the global movement was the only religious movement to partner with Zionism.
“The Mizrachi founder wanted to create a movement that was both religious, Torah-based and Zionist, so he created religious Zionism, which supported Herzl in the Zionist dream, but also had a religious identity.”
So was born the global Mizrachi movement and today there are branches in the UK, Australia, South Africa, America and parts of South America. Mizrachi UK has had a presence since the 1950s, but there has been a resurgence in recent years with a new focus – it is now purely educational, dealing with the religious Zionist modern Orthodox
ideology. It is inspiring Anglo-Jewry with that ideology through schools, shuls, campuses, and communities.”
Mizrachi UK supporters embrace the modern world, but at the same time believe in an Orthodox framework for learning and observance, as well as a love for the state of Israel. While Mizrachi UK is independent and unaffiliated to other organisations, it works most closely with the United Synagogue.
The charity was delighted when the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, accepted the role of president of Mizrachi UK.
He wrote in one of its newsletters: “I [became president] because I believe that, as Jews, our eternal challenge is both straightforward and also awash with complexity: How can we sanctify the innovations of the modern world in accordance with our eternal Jewish values? In Mizrachi, I see a movement which strives to strike that ideal balance.”
Rabbi Shaw has 15 years’ experience as the community development Rabbi at Stanmore and Canons Park United Synagogue and also founded Tribe, the United Synagogue’s youth division as well as directing its educational arm – Living and Learning – for six years.
Explaining that Mizrachi UK believes Torah should be at the centre of Zionism, he says: “We see the Zionist dream as a religious obligation. We see Israel not just as a secular state that came into being. We believe it is a miracle that Hashem returned us to our land after 2,000 years.”
Looking more long-term, Mizrachi UK seeks to help create the UK’s next generation of modern Orthodox Zionist Jewish leaders. It is working with an organisation called Manhigut Toranit (Torah leadership) on a five-year accelerated programme in Jerusalem, taking top Israeli students fluent in English and giving them “an incredible level of Torah scholarship”.
These scholars are sent out into the diaspora to “inspire the community.” The first graduates – Rabbi Eliyahu and Yocheved Silverman – began work in the UK in September and are making a “huge impression” teaching in Hasmonean and in the wider community.
Shaw says: “We are also producing home-grown rabbis from the modern Orthodox background as well”. The organisation wants to create rabbis who have been raised in the modern Orthodox Zionist world, who have been to university and who very much live the Mizrachi ideology.
“There’s been a real gap in the creation of those types of leaders,” he says. “We want to create a conveyor belt of rabbinic leadership, with rabbis training in Israel, who will eventually be part of the United Synagogue, our schools, campuses and our communities.”
Mizrachi UK also works with various campuses because it believes the students who have been educated through Bnei Akiva or have been to
Israel on their gap year, are “tremendous leaders”.
“We want to motivate them to take on leadership roles on campus and in the wider community. They are students, part of the world we live in, and are passionate. We want them to share their passion, knowledge and experience while they’re on campus with their peers.”
Mizrachi UK is staging some major events in the near future. “We’re bringing over 13 of the top educators from Israel, and they’re being sent all over the country for Shabbat,” explains Shaw. “And on Sunday, 7 May, we’re bringing everyone together for a whole day of inspiration at Kinloss. It will be a massive event, engaging thousands of people across the community.”
The 50th anniversary of Yom Yerushalayim will be celebrated with
a range of events, including the facilitation of multiple celebrations across the UK, and a global celebration in Jerusalem coordinated by World Mizrachi. A competition will also see 50 lucky students awarded a subsidised trip to be part of this momentous occasion.
Shaw says Mizrachi UK is expanding and working with communities outside of London. It has recently appointed a youth couple to work in Leeds and hope to employ a rabbinic couple in Manchester this autumn.
“By July, we hope to have a national staff of 13 people, which is remarkable growth in the space of 18 months when we only had one!’
“We’ve got to strengthen our community, and we work very closely within it with schools, shuls and campuses.
“In 10 years’ time, we hope the community will have far more of a strong committed modern Orthodox and religious Zionist voice in our lay leadership, rabbinic leadership, school leadership and on campus.
“That’s the dream and we are on our way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”