For the Jewish News September 2019
If you could take Rabbi Naftali Schiff’s enthusiasm and bottle it, you might well have enough rocket fuel to serve the whole of British Jewry.
That, at any rate, is the over-riding impression after a fast-track gallop around the premises of Schiff’s Hendon “baby” — the multi-organisation headquarters of Jewish Futures.
Jewish Futures, which the energetic rabbi prefers to call a platform rather than an umbrella, is the collective name for the present 12 “alternative education” organisations housed in Hendon. They all grew out of Aish, the youth-focused educational charity with which London-born Schiff was primarily associated when he came back to the UK from Israel in 1993.
The “mother ship” of the organisations is, of course, Aish. The other 11 range from one of the newest, Ta’am, which tells the Jewish story through food, through to GIFT, a sort of “pay-it-forward” grouping that aims to inspire the next generation to become donors, through programmes for volunteering and education.
Schiff is the overall chief executive of Jewish Futures, but each of the participating groups has its own CEO. Nevertheless, the way in which Jewish Futures is set up means there is both independence and interdependence. All the groups, for example, can benefit from central services, such as a dedicated film studio. All the graphics and media — and the accounts — are similarly available to every organisation, in-house.
“It’s clear that in today’s world it’s not one size fits all,” says Schiff. So, although there is overlap — and an agreed set of basic core values to which all the organisations subscribe — there is a clear distinction about the services on offer.
For example, JRoots runs hugely popular educational tours, charting the “Jewish journey” in a variety of countries, particularly Poland. Its own educators accompany every trip and JRoots doesn’t just attract student age participants, but also works with Jewish communities whose members want to find out where their beginnings were.
Two of the most interesting of the Jewish Futures family are Chazon, which works with the strictly Orthodox community — students, parents and teachers — and Shelanu, billed as “Jewish connection for Israelis in the diaspora”, and which was running a successful summer camp for Israeli kids on the day Jewish News visited.
Meanwhile, Chazak focuses on the Sephardi part of the community, while the Forum for Jewish Leadership tries to identify and train a new generation of young leaders for the community.
None of this, of course, comes cheap. In 2018, Jewish Futures cost £9million to
provide its range of services, and most of that money comes from donors who believe, with Schiff, that there is more than one way to attract and retain the passions of young Jews.
Although he is an Orthodox rabbi, he is perhaps unusual in recognising that “not everyone wants to sit and learn”, but that there are other avenues which can be made available.
“There are many different experiences, there’s social responsibility there’s leadership, and basically we created these different organisations that talked to each of those pathways.”
He added: “What we are trying to do is help to propel and to empower.” (Actually, Schiff is also unique for having served in the IDF and studied at LSE, both key in the way he approaches informal education programmes.)
Jewish Futures has been set up so that — for example — the Ta’am, or foodie people — could get JRoots to devise a bespoke Jewish food culture tour, or the Chazak group, which works with Sephardim, could benefit from the programmes provided by GIFT.
“I live with a keen sense of the loss of Jews, physically and spiritually, the miracle of the state of Israel, and a sense of responsibility of what needs to be done”, says Schiff.
Jewish Futures, he hopes, will provide some of the solutions.