By Anthony Silkoff
The consensus seems to to be that 2016 was a pretty bad year. So it came as a huge relief when Limmud conference – with its debates, dancing and doughnuts – came along and saved my year. Although as the organiser I might be biased, I felt the Board of Deputies’ interfaith tour at Limmud provided some of the most uplifting moments of all.
Despite the early start time, our coach filled up with a keen, smiling and diverse group of Limmudniks, including people from Britain, the USA, Denmark and Israel. The Limmud hotel and its adjacent lake have their charms, but the participants told me they were glad to escape “to see the real Birmingham”.
Given the year we had with rising hate crime, I felt it was important that our tour engaged with issues related to migration and diversity. So we went straight to the heart of multicultural Birmingham, an inner-city area called Lozells, to find out about some diaspora communities which have settled here. And as journalist and tour member Andrew Sillow-Carroll commented, at each place of worship we found ourselves in “a haven of calm”.
Our first stop was the Sikh gurdwara, Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, where we were greeted by Ajit Singh. Inside, Mr Singh gave us a whistlestop tour of the rich heritage of Sikh migration in Birmingham and the Black Country. Before moving on, we were treated to a visit to the shimmering prayer hall, and a taste of delicious Karah Parshad – a mixture of flour, ghee and sugar.
Next up was New Testament Church of God, Handsworth. I’ve been to quite a lot of churches in my time, but never one quite like this. NTCG is a huge Pentecostal church, complete with a stage set up for a rock band and a baptism pool right next to it. Annette Robinson, a church member and researcher of black history, guided us through its religious practice, including speaking in tongues and baptism with the Holy Spirit. Ms Robinson also answered questions about the African-Caribbean community, and the many challenges they have faced.
Finally, we arrived at Lozells Central Mosque, where we were warmly welcomed by Matloob Hussain. Mr Hussain gladly answered all the questions we could throw at him, on everything from the importance of interfaith work and Islamophobia, to unemployment, riots and jihad. Ruth Jacobs, Chair of the Representative Council of Birmingham & West Midlands Jewry, also took to the floor of the mosque to tell the story of Jewish Birmingham. The visit finished in true British style, with tea, biscuits and warm conversation with volunteers at the mosque.
Board of Deputies President Jonathan Arkush has made interfaith work – and engagement with Muslim communities in particular – a priority for our organisation and I’m proud of the steps we’re taking to bring communities closer together. Indeed, this tour was not the only interfaith engagement we facilitated at Limmud.
Back at the Hilton, on a panel chaired by Senior Vice-President Richard Verber, Akeela Ahmed spoke of her harrowing personal experience of Islamophobia and, together with Mike Whine of the Community Security Trust, discussed how the Muslim and Jewish communities can work together to tackle anti-Muslim and antisemitic hatred.
Given the events of 2016, it’s patently obvious that we need more of this work. The proliferation of inter-community tensions and hate crime – whether online, on public transport or on the street – is a scourge on our society and an affront to the values that make Britain a great place to live. I was grateful to end the year at Limmud, doing a little to turn the tide in the direction of solidarity and respect.
Anthony Silkoff is the Board of Deputies’ Interfaith and Social Action Officer