For the Jewish Chronicle posted March 30 2017
The Conservative MP Andrew Percy went home two weeks ago after a typically busy week in the House of Commons — and lit his Shabbat candles. Because on March 16, Mr Percy converted to Judaism, and as he said, “It was the first time I could say, I feel properly Jewish”.
The 39-year-old politician recounts his extraordinary journey in a typical, matter-of-fact way, with much laughter and frequent reminders that “I am a northerner and we don’t like to talk about our feelings”.
But he will allow that he “felt really elated” after his appearance before the Liberal Beth Din, about which he admits he felt really nervous. They could have turned him down, he confided. No-one who has spoken to him, however, could doubt his sincerity and genuine commitment, which finds its expression on two fronts.
The first, which led him ultimately to his becoming Jewish, is a wholehearted commitment to support of Israel. And the second is a bona fide, private sense of spiritual fulfilment when he talks about Judaism.
Andrew Percy’s start in life could not have been more removed from the mainstream Jewish community if he had planned it. He was born in Hull, the son of a school secretary mother and a foundry worker father. “My dad lost his job and for nearly 18 months we [he has an older sister] were on benefits and social security until he found another job as a market gardener. It was much less pay, but he only retired a couple of years ago at the age of 70. He’s just a really hard worker”.
The future Minister for the Northern Powerhouse went to “a tough school” — Hull’s William Gee comprehensive — and says that he was often asked if he were Jewish when he was there. “I think maybe it was because I was big and fairly dark-skinned”, he says, but then remembers that “one of my aunties always said the family was Jewish way back. She remembered going to synagogue with her mother. My other auntie said it was rubbish.”
Just the same, he was curious, did some research and found, somewhat to his amusement, that his father’s side of the family had once lived in a district in York called Jewbury. “It was at the end of the 19th century and they ran a boarding house, but my auntie still said it was rubbish.”
Being a member “of any minority, whether political or religious, is not unusual for me”, he says with some feeling. This is because when he became a Hull city councillor, he was one of only two Tories “out of 60”. What had attracted him to the Conservatives?
It was, says Mr Percy, to do with his father, who had never been very keen on the trade unions in Hull. “He thought they were ok for benefits but he didn’t like the way they disrupted things with strikes. He would see other workers losing wages when the unions called a strike, but the union bosses still got paid. I think I was brought up like that, listening to him; and Hull was a very Labour city, and I didn’t subscribe to their view of doing things.”
He has, he says, a simple political philosophy, some of which emanates from seeing other kids at the William Gee school disrupting lessons and not working. His belief is “that you work hard, you reward people fairly, and you punish wrongdoers.”
Andrew Percy read politics at York University, followed by a law conversion course in Leeds. His original ambition had been to become a barrister, “but I thought it would take too much money, so I decided to be a solicitor.”
But he realised, he says, that the law was not for him. Instead he decided to pursue his passion for history, and became a history teacher, after a brief stint working in the US for the New Jersey state senate. He supposes, looking back, that he must have encountered Jews there, but wasn’t paying much attention to people’s religion at the time.
Nevertheless, “I was always conscious of the Jewish community in Hull. The leader of the council, before I was born, was Sir Leo Schultz, a towering figure and the son of Jewish immigrants. [Sir Leo led the council from 1945 to 1979 with a two year break]. And there’s lots of Jewish heritage in Hull, it’s part of the Jewish migration trail.”. He even remembers learning about Chanucah in primary school, but agrees that in his part of east Yorkshire, you can probably count the Jewish population on the fingers of one hand.
With great relish he tells me that he has a mezuzah up on his Goole constituency home and was asked by someone “if it was to protect my security as an MP. I said it was, sort of!”
Mr Percy says he was frequently mistaken for Jewish long before his conversion. And, long before he ever visited Israel — his first visit was with the Conservative Friends of Israel in 2011 — he was a supporter of the Jewish state.
“For my birthday in 2009, one of the colleagues I taught with bought me a book about the Israel Defence Forces. I’ve always been interested in modern world conflicts, the Second World War and the Holocaust at the centre of that. But I was also interested in what happened after that, and the formation of the state of Israel. I was a natural supporter of Israel from the beginning, and felt connected to it. There was one Labour member of the Hull council who was really anti-Israel, and I always knew I was pro-Israel”.
In 2010, Mr Percy became MP for the Yorkshire constituency of Brigg and Goole and the Isle of Axholme, beating the Labour incumbent by a 5,000 majority, which he has now increased to 11,000. Once he entered parliament he gravitated towards the Conservative Friends of Israel and visited for the first time in 2011 — “and I fell in love with the place immediately”.
Oddly, for someone who had been baptised in the Church of England and who had attended a United Reform Sunday school, the Christian sites in Israel left Mr Percy feeling somewhat unmoved. “But I was excited when we visited the Jewish sites. And I remember walking back to our hotel in Tel Aviv one night, with the breeze coming in from the Mediterranean, and thinking about the survivors of the Holocaust who had arrived there. You feel the vibrant city all around you and there is a sensation of hope being restored, of promise being fulfilled.”
On the same trip, the group went to Yad Vashem. “I had all these thoughts swirling around in my head, I thought, what if my auntie was right and we were Jewish, does that mean some of my relatives were involved in the Holocaust, victims that I never knew I was connected to? It felt very moving, very special”.
At that stage, however, the furthest thing from Andrew Percy’s mind was conversion to Judaism. “I thought, I need to come back and advocate for Israel, deal with some of the ignorance, be prepared to put myself out there.”
He believed that it was necessary to be as well-informed as possible to deal with the “one-sided debate” on Israel. “I started to tweet but the hate and the vitriol out there…” He tails off, and somewhat ruefully reveals that he was on the receiving end of antisemitic abuse, even before becoming Jewish.
Undeterred, the MP began to be more and more connected to Israel, visiting frequently, sometimes with CFI and sometimes extending his time in the country, making private visits and travelling from north to south. He also, unusually, began learning Hebrew, “because it didn’t make sense to me not to be able to exchange a few words with the Israelis I was meeting”.
After a time, he says, “I realised that I wasn’t just feeling a connection to Israel, but to the whole Jewish community. I had an opportunity to go to a service at the Reform synagogue in Hull, and they were pleased to see me and asked me to return whenever I liked. So I started going to services and I really enjoyed them.”
By degrees, he found himself immersed in Jewish culture and thinking about his inner spiritual life. He realised, he says, that he missed Israel when he was not there — but he is also deeply committed to serving his constituency.
Because he spends so much time in London he decided to contact Westminster Synagogue and told its rabbi, Thomas Salamon, that he was considering converting. “He was lovely and welcoming. He said, we do these conversion classes, so come along, see how you feel. To begin with, I wasn’t sure: I wondered if I were turning my back on my heritage, but very quickly I felt that this was a community I wanted to be a part of, and that I wanted to do the whole conversion process.”
His parents, says Mr Percy, were “wonderfully supportive” of his decision. “Once I’d decided, that was it.”
At Westminster, because it is an independent synagogue, converts can choose whether to take a Liberal or a Reform course. Mr Percy was attracted by the Liberal route, but overall liked the message being sent out by Progressive Judaism. “I liked the idea of men and women together, and I also liked Progressive views on social issues, on same-sex marriage, on converts — those values just spoke to me. And the questioning nature, the questioning of yourself, of religion and how it fits in the modern era, I am like that in politics and I wanted to be like that in every aspect of my life”.
He told the Conservative Whips’ Office because he needed to be free on Wednesday nights, and he says they were immensely helpful. He also mentioned it to the few members of his constituency who are Jewish, but thinks that most of the rest will be supremely unbothered by his choice.
For his conversion, he was obliged to write essays about why he was drawn towards Judaism, and about the festivals. “I said my favourite was Shavuot, because it used the Book of Ruth, who was, of course, a convert.” Laughing, he adds: “Plus, of course, there’s cheesecake. But actually, as a convert, I’ve learned the importance of food which seems to underpin the entire faith. I think that’s a principle wholly agreed by Orthodox, Reform and Liberal.”
His whole philosophy, he says, “is to take things and people head-on. They can throw anything they want at me, it won’t make any difference to me”. At no stage did he think, what am I getting myself into? Instead, says Mr Percy, “because of my support for Israel, people naturally assumed I was Jewish anyway”.
As a lone convert (Mr Percy is single), he does not have, so far, the instant Jewish family network available to those in his conversion class who were marrying Jews. But he is sure of one thing: if he does have children, “I want them to be brought up Jewish”.
He is very clear that his support for Israel is separate from his decision to embrace Judaism, though one grew out of the other. And, full of mischief to the end, he asks me: “You haven’t asked me the question. Everyone I tell about my conversion, they are very nice, and then you can see the thought moving across their faces. What about…?”
I tell him that I have assumed that if he had something to tell me about brit mila, the issue at hand, he would have said so by now. Andrew Percy bursts out laughing. “I tell people, don’t worry, it was a long-standing tradition in our family.” He arrived at the doors of Judaism ready for anything — in every sense. Our community’s newest recruit is a very happy man.