Irit Shillor standing proudly in the Harlow Jewish Community Synagogue

Rabbi Irit Shillor discusses Anti-Semitism, Prejudice, and Hope for Judaism in Harlow

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Investigative Reporter Lucy Parish delved into Jewish faith, discovering if anti-Semitism is still going on behind the scenes, and if Harlow is a Judaism friendly town.

JUDAISM is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world, and it has experienced a higher level of discrimination and prejudice over the last 100 years than most other religions, with the holocaust being a scar that refuses to heal. Even now, Jews are still on the receiving end of anti-Semitic behaviour daily.

The Community Security Trust (CST), a charity that’s aims to fight anti-Semitism, recorded roughly 727 anti-Semitic incidents in the first six months of 2018, with these mainly emerging from large cities like London and Manchester. This got me thinking: what about small towns like Harlow? What is going on in small boroughs where anti-Semitic attacks may not always be monitored?

To get to the bottom of the issue, I contacted Irit Shallor, a Rabbi at the Harlow Jewish Community (HJC) Synagogue, where she practices Reform Judaism. Irit has been a Rabbi at the HJC for 15 years.

“Before [becoming a Rabbi at the HJC], I was working with communities in Germany and in Austria for quite a long time and I was also working with a community in Leicester, so I’ve moved around a bit.”

Outside of the Harlow Jewish Community Synagogue

When it comes to discrimination, three quarters of the 727 incidents I referred to earlier ranged from anti-Semitic graffiti to hate mail and social media posts. When I inquired if the HJC received any discrimination, Irit informed me that “Maybe once or twice we got strange letters and we turned those over to the police. On the whole we haven’t had too many problems in Harlow.

“Myself and the community are really into interfaith work. The more people who work together I think reduces the danger… touch wood!”

This made me curious as to what God says about discrimination in the bible. It’s easy to forget that the entire point of Religion is to better yourself and your community. The discrimination cancels that out almost, it takes away the sole point of Judaism: to love God and to love each other.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of discrimination over the millennia. We learn to cope. In the reform and liberal world, we feel that interfaith work is very crucial and that also combats discrimination and prejudice. There are synagogues where it’s not seen quite that way and they feel more like they should keep to themselves. I believe of course in my way but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only way.

“But unfortunately, there’s so much prejudice and discrimination these days it’s not only against Jews it’s against strangers of all communities. So sometimes it’s against black people, sometimes against Pakistanis, sometimes against Polish people. It’s totally illogical. I believe we have to work to combat prejudice and combat discrimination. I’m an idealist in many ways!”

As a Rabbi, Irit is constantly giving advice. Below is her advice to any Jew who feels threatened or worried by society as a result of their faith.

“Find a community. Because a community is always supportive, and a community gives a Jewish person a home. It gives them a place to be Jewish without fear of discrimination. If they have encountered any hate crime, go immediately to the police. I think the more these things are made public, the more they are out in the open, the less likely they are to happen.”

She added: “I feel very safe in Harlow and that’s a lovely feeling. The police come by when we have services or when we have events and they monitor it from time to time. I know that in London, in most communities, they have people standing outside, guarding the doors. I’m glad that we don’t have to take these sorts of measures. Traditionally the Jews view is ‘out of sight, out of mind’, but I very much believe that the more visible we are, the more people see that we’re just like everybody else.”

Plaque outside the Harlow Jewish Community Synagogue

Essex County Council is responsible for a number of things, one of which includes safeguarding the faith in Essex. Sue Lissimore recently resigned from her role as the Essex County Councillor for culture and communities. As a councillor, one of her responsibilities included faith, so despite resigning, she still agreed to answer my questions.

Sue began by revealing she hadn’t had much experience with the Jewish community. Despite this, she informed me that members of other faiths often reached out to seek support.

“We would get lots of invitations to different events which was absolutely lovely and they’d also come to us when they were in desperate need of help so perhaps they’d lost the premises they worshipped in, that type of thing, and they’d turn to Essex County Council to see if we could help try and find a building for them to be in.”

Sue gave this advice to any Jews that feel unsafe or unsure about their faith: “Be open about your religion, to talk to others in the community that don’t share your faith. Try to help them understand what it means to be a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or whatever it may be. Don’t hide away within your own community but reach out to others.”

Researching Judaism in Harlow has pleasantly surprised me. Harlow is a town that is often seen as a dangerous, but what I’ve heard and seen has told me otherwise. I’m not claiming that there isn’t any anti-Semitism in this town, but there is a lot of positivity that shouldn’t go unmissed. Often the bad things shadow the goodness underneath.

If you’re Jewish and in need of any support, or are thinking about converting, the doors of the Harlow Jewish Community are open and ready to lend a helping hand. For further information go to: http://harlowjewishcommunity.org.uk/.

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