At Nancy Reuben, another public Jewish school participating in the JNF UK Israel program, Hava Tourgeman, a Jerusalemite who has been living in London for three years with her husband and youngest son, said she wouldn’t stay in London if things took a turn for the worse.
“It’s great here, my son loves the school, we have everything we could want here,” said Tourgeman. “But if things get bad here, I won’t stay. There’s no safe place in the world for Jews. In Israel, at least you know it’s your home. When something happens here, you’re so aware that you’re not at home.”
When her family travels on the London Underground, they wear their kippahs and tzitzit, or ritual fringes, “because we’re proud,”she said, although she has seen people looking at her son with his religious symbols on display. “I tell him not to worry, but sometimes my husband tells him to tuck them inside.”
David Tourgeman, her 10-year-old son, said that what he missed about Israel was being able to walk to the corner store by himself. “Kids don’t do that here,” he said.
Dana Yacov, another Nancy Reuben parent who moved with her husband and two young children to London nearly a year ago, said they do not generally speak Hebrew on the train, because they don’t want to stand out.
“We’re trying not to make problems,” said Yacov, holding her 7-month-old baby, Oliver, born during their first year in London.
One antidote to a possible weakening of Jewish identity in the face of anti-Semitism is the JNF UK program, noted Antony Wolfson, the head teacher at Nancy Reuben, who feels that his students have learned much more about Israel since participating in the activities and lessons created by their JNF UK representative, Sari Rubin.
Rubin is an Israeli woman who has been living in the UK for the last decade after meeting and marrying her English husband, Gary.
The aim, said Rubin, is to educate Jewish children for when they are older, teaching them what Israel has to offer and making sure they are grounded in facts and history.
While Hebrew has always been taught at the primary school, the opportunity to work with JNF, which began in September, has increased the degree of engagement of the students.
They are twinned with a school in the south of Israel, and have had video chats with children in its classes. “They look much bigger than we do,” said one of the students.
A good number of the school’s students have visited Israel.
Israel itself is important in establishing the children’s Jewish identity, said JFS’s Rachel Fink.
“I think there is something to be said for the modern approach of making Judaism and making Jewish people relevant, through Israel,” she said. “It matters; a Jewish life devoid of Israel is poorer, much poorer.”
“Israel is central to who we are as a Jewish people, I really believe that,” said Fink. “And for some people, if that’s their connection to the Jewish community, then that is a way for it to be stronger.”
For these young Jewish British students, anti-Semitism is not something that is discussed much or felt. Two 11-year-olds at Rimon, Dalia Segal and Charlie Gonzalez Esteban, noted that they liked learning about famous Jews, such as Golda Meir and Hannah Senesh, but haven’t experienced any downside to being Jewish in their own lives.
Still, “you’re always different here,” acknowledged Segal, an Israeli-born Rimon student who said she lives in a mostly non-Jewish neighborhood.
Gonzalez, who was born in Spain and began attending Rimon last year when his mother married and settled in London, said that learning about Jewish heroes like Senesh made him stop and think about hardships in life. “Nothing like that happens to me,” he said.
It is the high school kids who sense something different in the air, perhaps because many of them use public transportation to get to school, and because they have friends outside of their Jewish school. There have also been a spate of muggings in the neighborhood near JFS, and several students have had their phones stolen while going to and from school.
The school tries to prepare them for these incidents, and for their future lives at university, where they could have to deal with higher levels of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. They spend a portion of ninth grade in Israel, an experience that one student said was nothing like she had ever known before.
That is why Fink makes a point of teaching the basics about Israel, including the map of Israel, history and Hebrew.
“I want our students to begin with knowing the basics about Israel, such as being able to locate places on a map. In my head, that’s my founding principle for Israel education here,” she said. “If they want to have an opinion, it needs to be an informed opinion and not based just on what they see and read in the media. The students need to understand Israel and Israelis to challenge views they hear in the media.”
Who’s really worried about anti-Semitic acts?
When asked, some London Jews say there is nothing to worry about. They are still lining up on Friday mornings outside Daniel’s, a popular Finchley bakery.
Life is pretty easy in London, said Yoav Kurtzbard, an investment banker who has been living in London for more than 20 years, with his Israeli wife, Dorli, and their four children, ranging in age from 9 to 19.
The Kurtzbards are more Jewishly identified than they might have been in Israel, attending synagogue and sending their kids to Jewish school as well as a Sunday school where they learn how to read and write in Hebrew.
“We wanted our kids to feel like they belonged and have Jewish friends,” said Yoav Kurtzbard, who was born in Israel but spent part of his childhood in the US, attending Modern Orthodox day school Ramaz and later studying at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “It’s a kind of incubator here, it’s nice for kids to have that surrounding cushion.”
Until now, said Dorli Kurtzbard.
Her husband, however, is not all that worried.
“Corbyn is not really an anti-Semitic issue; the real problem is what will happen to this country financially [if and when it leaves the EU under Brexit],” he said. “He wants to nationalize this country and to bring it back to the dark ages. That might be traumatic.”
While anti-Semitism is not what the Kurtzbards worry about, there are certain rules in their family: Their three sons are not allowed to wear yarmulkes outside, ever.
“There is what you do at home, and what you do in the street,” said Yoav Kurtzbard.
And for them, there is always the Israel plan, their home country where they will retire.
“I want to make sure they have an amazing future in Israel; the creative forces in Israel are amazing,” he said. “All Israelis end up going back.”