A global Jewish effort to ameliorate the long-term effects of climate change is being coordinated by a long-established organization called the Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC). Like the commonwealth itself, the CJC is an aspect of contemporary life that most people know little about, but which has the potential to exert an enormous power for good.
When the UK’s Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1952, the commonwealth consisted of just seven nations.
Today it is a voluntary association of 53 independent sovereign states with a combined population of some 2.4 billion people, almost a third of the world’s inhabitants. Most, but not all, of the member states were once part of the now defunct British Empire, which explains why the queen is head of the organization, and her son, Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, has been voted by its members to succeed her.
But what unites this diverse group of nations, beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, are strong trade links and the association’s 16 core values set out in the Commonwealth Charter. These “commonwealth values” commit the organization to promoting world peace, democracy, individual liberty, environmental sustainability, equality in terms of race and gender, free trade and the fight against poverty, ignorance and disease.
The Commonwealth Jewish Council was created in 1982 by Jewish leaders from 16 commonwealth countries, but it now includes the Jewish communities of 37 countries. Hong Kong has observer status; Israel is not represented, even though Israel boasts an “Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association,” (IBCA) a body formed as far back as 1953 with the aim of encouraging, developing and extending social, cultural and economic relations between Israel and the commonwealth.
The CJC, a charitable trust funded by donations and subscriptions, is dedicated to helping Jewish communities throughout the commonwealth enhance the Jewish life of their members and contribute to the wider society in which they live. It aims to foster links between Jewish communities by facilitating the creation of a network through which shared interests and mutual support can be nurtured. Its prime objectives include supporting the interests of Jewish communities and the regions in which they live and work. Its work includes relieving poverty and supporting education and religious activities.
Its work extends across the world. Two recent examples are centered in Africa.
Mozambique, facing the Indian Ocean down a great stretch of south-east Africa, had no connection with the UK and was never part of the British empire, but it applied to join the commonwealth in 2009. Its capital, Maputo, has a small, but active Jewish community and boasts a purpose-built synagogue, which serves also as a cheder most Sunday mornings. The CJC has financially supported its educational program for the past two years.
The curriculum encompasses both Hebrew language lessons and Jewish studies. The Hebrew lessons are conducted solely in Hebrew in order to build the children’s vocabulary. Jewish studies are based on the “Ten Paths to God” program (entry level) of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi. A group of parents has volunteered to act as teachers. One writes: “By the time we did our community seder in the synagogue this year, we had 20 kids lustily belting out the Ma Nishtanah.” Speaking of the CJC educational grant, the parent-teacher says: “The stimulus it gave us to do the research and discover a workable approach for our community was key. Now that Hebrew school is established, it is clear that the weekend would be incomplete without it. This is also a great way to strengthen ties among our families and give our children other ways to connect with each other and with their Judaism.” The CJC sees its role as the promotion of Judaism within the commonwealth. In fulfilling this function the charity is non-prescriptive and non-judgmental, and it has extended its support to the Abayudaya community of Uganda.
The Abayudaya have a comparatively short, but nonetheless violent, history. They were founded in 1919 by Semei Kakungulu, a charismatic local leader who proclaimed himself a Jew. He instituted strict adherence to Jewish custom and practice among his followers, the “yudaya” element in their name declaring their affiliation.
When he died in 1928, his community had grown to about 2,000 members, but by the time the brutal and bloodthirsty Idi Amin came to power in 1971, dissension, apostasy and inter-marriage had reduced it to about 300. One of Amin’s first acts was to outlaw Judaism and destroy all the synagogues.
In 1979, when Milton Obote overthrew Amin and freedom of religion was reinstated in Uganda, a new synagogue was constructed in Namutumba. The community today numbers around 1,000. The chief rabbi of the Abayudaya, Gershom Sizomu, was educated at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, and on graduation was ordained as a Conservative rabbi.
The Abayudaya are committed to Jewish practice and belief. They have been recognized by the Jewish Agency. American synagogues send them money and donate Torah scrolls. However, because neither their founder nor their community have been converted under Orthodox rabbis, they are not recognized as Jews by Israel’s Interior Ministry.
Nevertheles the CJC, in conjunction with the World Jewish Relief Organization and other donors, sponsored a summit in Uganda in March 2020 aimed at helping tackle the considerable problems facing the country’s Jewish communities. They identified the need for greater unity, improved facilities for Jewish education, and an increased emphasis on social and health provision – the basis of a program to support and strengthen the Abayudaya into the future.
In 2019 the CJC launched a new initiative – “Small Islands: Big Challenges” – on behalf of small island nations around the world, many of whom are already adversely affected by the accelerating impact of climate change. The launch, in central London, was attended by a dozen High Commissions from around the world together with senior representatives of the UK Jewish community, leaders of Britain’s environmental movement, Jewish youth movements in the UK, representatives from the Israeli embassy and senior officers of the commonwealth itself.
They heard Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis assert the importance of Jews playing their part in tackling the potential catastrophe of climate change. The keynote speaker was Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the British government and now a universally acknowledged leader in the field.
King, who played a central role in the Paris Agreement on climate change, outlined the scientific rationale for urgent global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if potentially devastating consequences for the planet and for human life were to be averted.
The emphasis was on the CJC’s intention to advocate action on behalf of the small island nations. Climate change was already impacting them, and in a sense their experience was making them the “canaries in the coal mine” on behalf of the rest of the world – its early warning system. Already some Pacific island nations were planning for their disappearance beneath the waves, several Caribbean islands were being increasingly devastated by extreme weather, and Mediterranean islands by pollution.
The council’s CEO, Clive Lawton, urged Jews in the UK and throughout the 37 member communities to support the CJC’s initiative. “Jews know what it’s like to live precariously. Jews know what it’s like to have to leave their home. Jews know what it’s like to feel friendless.” He urged all to make sure that is not the experience of the small island nations.
The aim of the campaign “Small Islands, Big Challenges,” he said, was to ask all the countries of the commonwealth to redouble their efforts to seek to diminish the impact of climate change on the vulnerable island nations. Where that cannot be achieved, he said, it was to help them in mitigating the impact.
“Please do what you can,” said Lawton, “to encourage your government to play its part in improving conditions for small island nations. And if it’s already doing a lot, take the chance to congratulate them and let them know that it’s noticed and appreciated. We Jews know what it’s like to try to live without a homeland and we should not stand by as others face this prospect, without befriending them or standing up for them.” The “Small Islands, Big Challenges” campaign, led by a Jewish body affiliated to the Commonwealth, is promoting an objective which reflects the aims of the commonwealth itself.
By raising the profile of the CJC, special campaigns like this help it to promote its basic purpose – to support Jewish communities throughout the commonwealth and strengthen the Jewish life of their members.