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Interview: Laura Marks, interfaith social activist

08 May 2020

‘I see interfaith harmony as the obvious and positive way forward for our faith communities’

My husband, Dan, is a television producer, and went to work in Los Angeles for three years. Because we could only find places for our three children in the Jewish schools, which tend to be attached to synagogues, and I wasn’t working, I got involved in things like school fêtes, synagogue events, Jewish social action. It led to a profound re-evaluation of my relationship with my Judaism.

Los Angeles has a vibrant Jewish life, different from anything I had seen before. In that city alone, there are 600,000 Jews, whereas there are fewer than 300,000 in the UK. In that society, which grew up multicultural and distanced from the Holocaust, it was easier for Jewish communities over the past century to become confident and outward-facing.

I came home changed. Previously, I had been the planning director of a major advertising agency, working in the area of communications and brand building. I felt there was more to life than selling more cars or baked beans.

I set up Mitzvah Day, I chair the Jewish Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, and I set up an interfaith forum for Jewish and Muslim women. My earlier work was invaluable training for setting up and developing brands in the area of community and the faith groups, and taught me the need to understand, value, and respect people’s feelings and beliefs.

I see interfaith harmony as the obvious and positive way forward for our faith communities. There are many untold theological as well as social, practical, and attitudinal similarities, and not to share and celebrate them is a travesty. There are differences between us — many political — which can lead to conflict, but which shouldn’t tear us apart if we have strong relationships, respect, and a willingness to connect.

I grew up just outside the north-west London core of the Jewish world, and attended a C of E primary school, but was very definitely a part of Jewish family and communal life. My time at St Nicholas’s was extremely useful in helping me understand the basics of Christianity, and I deeply respect it. I married a Jewish man, and we tried to bring up children who are respectful both of Jewish traditions, but outward-facing, accepting others, and living and working in wider society. Our dog, Basel, has a limited understanding of any of this.

Mitzvah Day was established in 2005, and became a charity in 2008. It’s a faith-led day of social action, and it runs now in nearly 30 countries. It’s built on the shared belief in giving back to society — and that, by giving back together, we highlight our similarities, build local relationships, and make a real difference.

On Mitzvah Day, this year on 15 November, thousands of people will come together locally to do hands-on projects for charities, such as collecting for foodbanks, singing to elderly people, or planting trees.

It’s a Jewish-initiated event that actively, deliberately, and joyfully reaches out to our non-Jewish neighbours to share the projects together. All the Jewish communities join in — we’re staunchly committed to cross-communalism — except the Charedi (strictly Orthodox) Jews, who have such a strong care-network within their community that it’s perhaps difficult for them to think about taking on anything else.

Nisa-Nashim, which means “women” in Arabic and Hebrew, has groups in 25 areas across the UK, each chaired by a Jewish and a Muslim woman. Our groups aim to lead social change together, and part of that is breaking down stereotypes and hatred — both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred, and prejudice against other groups — and teaching women how to understand the roots and “tropes” of racial and religious hatred, which are all different.

I am 60 this year, and fourth-generation British. My grandparents climbed out of the East End, my parents went to medical school. Most of our Jewish Nisa-Nashim co-chairs have similar backgrounds to me, while many Muslim women our age, who came to Britain in the past 20, 30, 40 years, have had fewer advantages. Most of our Muslim co-chairs are a bit younger, were born and educated here, and, like the highly integrated Jewish community, are now focused on building relationships with people from other faiths and backgrounds for the good of us all.

Another difference between our communities relates to visible prejudice. Hijab-wearing Muslim women often face overt prejudice, both as Muslims and also, like us, as women. Over half of non-online Islamophobic attacks are on Muslim women. Anti-Semitism is different, and plays out in other ways.

There’s a big difference between assimilation and integration. Integration is positive, and Jews have mostly done this well. Assimilation tends to be a disaster: you lose your cultural, historical, and religious identity. As a community, you want to be part of local society, part of its structures, giving and receiving, but retaining your cultural difference. I can’t speak for Muslims and how they would see this, but, for most people with a strong cultural or religious identity, holding on to this is very important.

There is nothing good about the pandemic, but some good things have come out of the responses. This week, we had a Zoom meeting of Nisa-Nashim co-chairs to talk about the Uighur Muslims in China. It would have been just a small meeting, but, by Zoom, members from places as distant as Newcastle, Birmingham, and Bournemouth could all join in.

And I’ve been to six Shivas — the gatherings we hold each day for a week after a death — since the pandemic. The Jewish community has been very badly hit. My own uncle Norman died last week: it’s the passing of an era for my mum and our family, and, although his family were very secular, they decided to have a Shiva online. We could all click in, with cousins from Israel and America, too, and my sister made a PowerPoint about Uncle Norman. I hope these new ways are with us to stay. The more Orthodox communities do not allow Kaddish to be said via Zoom, and not being able to say this prayer for the dead is a challenging issue for many mourners.

Mitzvah Day is about to launch a campaign about helping your neighbours now: Every Mitzvah Matters. More than 750,000 signed up to help the NHS, and, as an expert in volunteer management, I know that’s just not possible to organise. But it’s amazing that so many people want to help, and this campaign aims to show people how to help your neighbour without it being complicated.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s award — the Hubert Walter Award for Reconciliation and Interfaith Cooperation — came out of the blue, and was a real and genuine honour. By recognising individuals who are working to bring people together from other faith groups, the Archbishop is challenging the introspective way that faith groups tend to operate, and literally opening the doors to greater understanding and real relationships. The ceremony at Lambeth Palace was warm — other than the room, which was freezing — encouraging, generous, and inclusive. I was thrilled to take Dan and my mum, in her 90th year, with me.

I can’t imagine a time when I’ll feel that everything’s been done. There’s a key Jewish text, the Ethics of the Fathers: “You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” I think I need to do just a bit more to bring people together and to leave the world safer and better.

My family are what make me angry — but they’re also what makes me happiest.

The determination of young people gives me hope, including my own three offspring, Louis, Sally, and Raphi. I see so much creativity, hard work, and love in young adults which I hope will see us through.

When I was in Los Angeles, I had an adult bat mitzvah. Girls didn’t really do this when I was 13, and still don’t in some more Orthodox communities, and I was keen to engage in the learning and ritual which separates child from adult.

As part of this, each of my adult classmates sat in the synagogue totally alone one day holding the Sefer Torah: the scroll with the five books of Moses. I was overwhelmed with the weight of responsibility this represented, its long and ancient history, and also the recognition that, in my family, I was the very first woman ever to be able to hold the Torah scrolls.


Laura Marks was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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