The first meeting of the new Jewish philanthropy network proved to be hub of activity. While organisers had feared that the credit crunch might depress turnout, the opportunity to hobnob with people of a similar wealth level had been too good to miss. As participants gathered in the splendour of the West London Synagogue, having rejected all others as ‘too cheap and shabby’, or in the case of Bevis Marks ‘Too fucking sephardic’, there was one key question on the agenda: How much do you have to be paid to be a Jew?
The notion that Judaism might be practised voluntarily was seen as being ‘seriously old fashioned’ by the cutting edge philanthropists, who hotly debated the amount required to pay Jews to practice Judaism. Amounts varied, from £80 per week for a young professional, to £300 per week for a family of 4. There was also geographical variation, while attending shul was worth £43.52 in West Hampstead, in Liverpool it only paid £27.60, in accordance with local wage rates. An awkward moment at the conference arose when one participant asked if Judaism was worth practising at all, but fortunately the silence was interrupted by the start of the champagne and smoked salmon reception.
Controversy arose when Sir Sigmund Duffield, of the Kesef Foundation, asked whether donors were really getting value for money. He noted that ‘Jewishness’ rates were particularly high in the North West London area and remarked “would it not be cheaper to pay Phillipinos to be Jewish instead?”. Although Phillipinos have no knowledge of Hebrew or Judaism, many Jews do not either. Judaism would fit seemlessly with their household duties – while shockeling they could prepare lunch”. “The community”, Sir Duffield concluded, “needs these people. Do we really think that the Israelites in the wilderness got by without domestic workers?”
The talks also ran into a difficult area when considering the idea of paying Jews to eat kosher. Whilst it was felt that this would be a positive step for most of the community, it was pointed out that the scheme was open to abuse. Many felt that by throwing open the doors of kosher restaurants and actually paying customers per dish consumed that some Jews might well never leave; it was even suggested that the combined appetites of the community’s biggest eaters could easily be enough to bankrupt the scheme within its first few weeks.
A small group of young Jewish leaders (a title they had gained by attending the UJIA’s Adam Science Programme) were in attendance to comment on how much funding had helped them. One, a ballerina, commented that while no ballet company would give her a job, thanks to Jewish philanthropy, she had a full time career as a ‘klezmer-hiphop animateur’. Another, who asked to remain anonymous, said that since her six figure salary with the Jewish Agency had begun she had “really found God”
A number of young Jews demonstrated outside the conference doors, having not yet received funding for their Jewish practices. ‘Binyamin’ from Cricklewood, was most forthright. “ I’ve been practising Judaism on a weekly basis for 3 months now. If I don’t get paid soon I’m going to have to start looking elsewhere”.