A Cambridge student who volunteered in Ghana as part of the Chief Rabbi’s Ben Azzai programme is leading the introduction of Social Responsibility Week in Britain’s Jewish community, despite “resistance” from some quarters.
George Rosenfeld, 19, is heading a team of past participants from trips to Africa and India who felt they could help the Jewish community turn “outwards” to embrace the need to help some of the world’s poorest people.
He said they felt there was an opportunity to design educational resources – such as lesson or assembly plans for schools – to explain the kind of poverty they had seen and what could be done relatively easily to help.
The idea gave rise to the Social Responsibility Week (SRW), the first of which will be held this month from 14-20 January, jointly run with Jewish international development charity Tzedek and involving activities and events across the country, with more than 30 communal institutions supporting it.
Rosenfeld, a second-year Cambridge undergraduate studying Russian and Arabic, was elected to lead the project last year after a trip to Ghana, and told Jewish News that his determination to see the new SRW succeed in part stems from some “resistance” to global responsibilities he had encountered in the community.
“Many on the programme encountered a resistance to global responsibility,” he said. “The first time I saw it was for my bar mitzvah. I went round raising money for an international charity, Water Aid, and someone asked why do Africans need water if they don’t need the Torah?
“I remember it vividly. For a 13-year old stood on a doorstep, hearing that kind of thing for the first time, it was a shock, but we encountered that attitude several times, and constantly had to explain why social action was important.”
The teenager, who also volunteered in Zambia on a different programme, said: “That resistance made me ashamed, but seeing the attitudes and actions of my peers on the Ben Azzai programme made me proud.
The Chief Rabbi is fully behind the initiative and happy to support it.”
His project team has been working not only with the Chief Rabbi but with Liberal and Reform shuls, and he said the idea of SRW was to “put poverty on people’s radars,” adding: “We saw first-hand how far just a little goes in places like Ghana.”
Operating with no budget and no website, the SRW team have been earmarking events using the Ben Azzai Facebook page, with 2,000 people expected to get involved, but Rosenfeld said people should not assume it was “another Mitzvah Day,” in reference to the Jewish social action charity now in its tenth year.
“The messages are different,” he said. “The message of the Ben Azzai programme is that, as Jews, we have a responsibility to those most in need all around the world regardless of their nationality or religion.
“It’s about looking to some of the bigger challenges around the world. Mitzvah Day has a more local focus, about what someone can physically do on any given day, but SRW is about international development and challenging the discourse. We need to look outward and embrace the idea that this is a central pillar of our Judaism.”