A young United Synagogue employee who represented Judaism in a BBC Three TV series set in Wales that aired this week said she “learned a lot” about other religions in the process.
Hannah Gerson, 24, who works for the charity Chesed in London but spends Shabbat in her hometown of Cardiff, featured in the four-part ‘Young, Welsh and Pretty Religious’, now available on BBC iPlayer.
She appeared alongside a Hari Krishna monk, a niqab-wearing Muslim activist, a bi-sexual Christian and a transgender pagan, as the documentary-makers sought to showcase some of the 250,000 religious people in Wales under the age of 30.
The cameras filmed Hannah making challah before welcoming family and friends for a traditional Friday night dinner.
Programme-makers acknowledge that the Welsh Jewish community has always been small, once standing at 5,500 Jews living in 32 communities, but today it numbers less than 2,000, half of whom live in Cardiff.
“In Cardiff there are not so many younger people, a lot have moved away to London and Manchester because it is a lot easier to be Jewish,” she says. “There are kosher butchers, kosher restaurants, a lot more Jewish people.”
While recognising that the Jewish population of Wales is getting smaller, she says: “It is still very active. As long as there is someone who needs these events and needs to feel Jewish, it will always be there for them.”
In the first episode she explains Kiddush, benching and “how every Jewish person thinks their mother makes the best chicken soup,” adding that hers actually does “but don’t tell my grandma”. The second episode deals with intolerance of religion, and Gerson talked about her experience of antisemitism.
“I’ve been very lucky [in that] I don’t look like a stereotypical Jew,” she says. “I guess stereotypically Jews tend to have darker hair, curly hair, whereas I’m very pale and have straight blonde-brown hair. I think a lot of racism has to do with what you see.”
She added: “I personally haven’t experienced anything [antisemitic] but I know people who have been beaten up, had eggs thrown at their windows, had awful things said to them, just because they’re Jewish.”
Finally, she is shown working with refugees and asylum-seekers at drop-in centres, and explained how this relates to collective experience of Jews.
“As Jews we definitely have a very big history with refugees, war and persecution. My family were Holocaust survivors, my grandparents came over from Germany and Austria. If they weren’t welcomed with open arms I don’t know what would have happened to them. So I’m glad that I can help in a small way.”
Speaking after the show, she said: “I was a bit nervous about doing it. When the producers first came round to my house and asked ‘what it was like being Jewish’ I thought I’d better put the kettle on again. But I enjoyed doing it and learnt a lot about other religions, especially paganism, which I knew nothing about.”
She continued: “I think – hope – Judaism came across well. It struck me during the making of the programme what a social and community-focused religion it is. I was also pleased to show there was Jewish life in Wales. We’re small but very active.”