It is one of Anglo-Jewry’s most recognisable and dependable “brands” — AJEX, or the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women.
It was founded almost 90 years ago, in 1929, to serve the needs of Jewish veterans of the First World War. Fifty-five thousand Jews served with British forces during the conflict; five were awarded the Victoria Cross.
A further 60,000 British Jews served in the Second World War, three of whom won a VC.
But today, with the annual parade at the Cenotaph in Whitehall this weekend, long-time executive director Jacques Weisser is retiring after 24 years in post and a huge rebranding exercise is taking place led by his successor, Major Danny Yank.
The first step has been to rename the organisation itself. It will now be known as AJEX – The Jewish Military Association UK.
Weisser and Yank are now in an affable handover process and discussed the changes in AJEX’s Hendon offices.
“We used to be a volunteer organisation, split into branches”, Weisser explains. “But as people get older, many of the branches are not sustainable so we are merging membership into a central branch, although the individual ones can carry on where it is feasible.”
Both men say it is a mistake to assume AJEX relates only to those who served in the Second World War or those who have done National Service. Association members today may well have seen service in more recent areas of conflict such as Korea, Kenya, Malaysia, Cyprus, Iraq, the Falklands and Afghanistan.
“We’re not all about membership”, Yank says, “though we are still seeking members. Instead, we’ve gone back to our roots. We are trying to focus on what we were founded for – education, welfare and remembrance”.
Since its founding, AJEX has been providing money for Jewish veterans of the armed forces, and their dependents, for a variety of welfare needs. “That has now been expanded”, Yank says. “We spend about £50,000 a year on welfare and from this year we are going to help serving members of the armed forces, too, and their dependents. It’s a significant change”.
Why would serving members of the military require AJEX’S help? “There are a host of reasons. It could be marital problems, it could be post-traumatic stress from an operation, it could be financial issues, disability – we think we should be looking after these people, which we haven’t done in the past.”
Weisser adds: “We have a lot of support from other military charities and we pool funds when someone needs items like a wheelchair, or things adapted in their homes. And though £50,000 is a lot of money, we do get money left to us in legacies.”
Looking at AJEX’s other two strands of work, education and remembrance, Yank admits the association had “neglected education for a long time”. But that, too, is going to change, as the organisation is employing a professional historian as its education officer, and will spread the message “that UK Jews played an active role in the military, and have done for more than 300 years”.
Part of the education programme, too, will be to show that service in the military is still a viable career option for young British Jews.
“I can only go by my personal story”, Yank says, going on to relate how he was born and brought up in north-west London and was 26 and working in Belgium before he decided to join the army.
He acknowledges that he had initially told no one in his community of his decision and that when he did finally tell his parents “it was not well received”.
Nevertheless, he says he looks on it “as the best decision I ever made. There are not enough Jews in the army, and one of the reasons, I think, is that people don’t see it as a viable career choice. There’s no shortage of young men and women out there, with amazing skills and talents, who would have the best time in the army or the other services.
“But they don’t see it as an option, and perhaps their parents don’t see it as an option. We have to change that. Even now, when I meet someone and I say I’m in the army, they say ‘Oh, you’re in the IDF?’ And I say, no, I’m in the British army. This is my country. I’m British. I’ve fought for this country, I’m a reservist and I would do so again.”
He is adamant there is “no glass ceiling” in the armed forces for young Jews, noting there is today at least one air commodore and a brigadier-general who are Jewish.
Remembrance is the strand that almost sells itself, though besides the annual parade, now frequently marched in by the children and grandchildren of former servicemen and women, AJEX takes great pride in its Jewish Military Museum and its other annual parade at the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, near Lichfield in Staffordshire.
The museum collection is housed in the Jewish Museum in Camden Town and the parade, say Weisser and Yank, “will stay as long as is possible. We are the only faith group to have its own parade and we think there is support for it across the community”.
Weisser retires officially on 29 November, but it is clear he will be on hand to offer help and advice where needed.
And AJEX, having re-invented itself, is looking forward to a glorious future.