Judaism and charity

In the third of our series on faith and charity, the chief executive of <em><a href="http://www.wjr.

As the years pass and I see my children become increasingly independent, I often marvel at how different their world is compared to when I was a child; from the tsunami to twitter, iPhones to IVF and GM foods to global warming. It is comforting though that some things remain the same. My children attend Cheder – Sunday school for young Jews. There they learn of Jewish history, culture and traditions; they are encouraged to interact with their peers and gain an understanding of the British Jewish community. While their learning methods may be computer-centric rather than under a cloud of chalk boards, the messages are the same. Each week, my children are encouraged to give a percentage of their pocket money to a worthy cause, via the Tzedakah (charity) box that circulates the classrooms. Traditionally, all Jews are obliged to give 10 per cent of their earnings to a charity or organisation that helps those more vulnerable than themselves.

Thus, the concept of charity is ingrained in the Jewish tradition from a very young age. Looking after our old, educating our children and providing for the vulnerable are all cornerstones of Judaism, the culture and the community. The fundamental value of being a "good Jew" lies in helping those less fortunate, along with the importance of family life and the continuation of Jewish traditions.

I am proud of my faith though honest enough to admit that my work for World Jewish Relief (WJR) is how I feel I can best express my Judaism. WJR's work is targeted at assisting the most vulnerable – saving lives and building livelihoods based on our own Jewish values. Our work seeks to provide sustenance and opportunity to those in desperate need who are unable to fend for themselves.

The vast majority of WJR’s work seeks to support the hidden Jewish communities of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that were ravaged first by the Holocaust and then under Soviet rule. There are over 1.2 million Jews in the region, including survivors of those who have faced decades of hardship in the Nazi and Communist eras. A huge percentage of these people also live far below the poverty line, struggling daily to feed their children and protect their elderly. In Ukraine alone, more than 100,000 Jewish people face the anguish of choosing between clothing their children, keeping their homes warm and buying medication. They are deprived of even the simple necessities of running water or appropriate footwear for the harsh winter months. As a son and a father, I cannot bear to imagine my family living in these conditions and I am therefore driven daily to better the lives of such families, in any small way that I can.

I travel to WJR’s recipient communities every few months and never cease to be at once saddened and inspired by what I see and those I speak to. Families who have to travel hundreds of miles to find work, who have been abandoned by relatives and live in what can only be described as hovels maintain a level of positivity and hope. Further, they are proud to be Jewish.

The Jewish faith promotes the Talmudic concept of ‘Tikkun Olam’ – healing the world. In this light, WJR looks beyond Jewish communities and the charity is proud of its global perspective, working both in the former Soviet Union and east and southern Africa to support non-Jewish communities. We recognise that particularity must lead to universality, not to inwardness and exclusion. Because as a community we recall our own historical pain, we become sensitised to other people's pain. We cannot eat in comfort while others go hungry. We cannot celebrate our riches while so many live in poverty. This is why, historically, those who follow Judaism have been among the leaders in the fight against injustice, poverty, homelessness and oppression. To be a Jew involves being true to your faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith.

Paul Anticoni is the Chief Executive of World Jewish Relief

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad