Living in sleepy town led ‘proud’ Alex to explore interfaith work

PERHAPS it was his upbringing in a sleepy Surrey town which prompted Alex Goldberg to become one of the country’s leading interfaith and community relations expert.

And that is only one of the many strings on his considerably large bow.

For Alex is also a qualified barrister, a consultant and adviser on community relations, a chief executive, a university chaplain and a radio presenter, among other positions.

And, in the next few months, he will gain his semicha and become a rabbi.

Add to that, he also regularly presents BBC Radio Surrey’s Sunday Breakfast Show and, in the past six months, he has become a regular on Radio 2’s Pause for Thought team.

Alex was raised in Guildford, a town with a small Jewish population.

He told me: “At the secondary school I went to, there were six Jewish pupils, 12 from the Asian subcontinent, a few from the Far East and one of Afro-Caribbean background.

“An evangelical preacher once told us in assembly that if we didn’t believe in Christianity, then we would be going to a place ‘worse than Auschwitz’.”

He also had pennies thrown at him and endured other antisemitic epithets.

But his eyes were opened when a liberal Christian visited his school and said he did not believe that non-Christians would be heading for damnation.

“It encouraged me to engage with others more and got me into interfaith dialogue while, at the same time, remaining proud of my Jewish identity,” he said.

In his later teenage years, Alex, who celebrates his 44th birthday today, formed a local chapter of the Association of Jewish Sixth-Formers, with his brother, Joe.

He read politics and religion at the University of Manchester, a city which is part of his roots as his maternal grandmother, Annie Silverman, was raised in the Cheetham Hill part of the city.

Alex’s mother, Valerie, is from Bristol, while his father, Theodore, emigrated to the UK from Cork, Eire.

After university, he went to work for the Glasgow Jewish Continuity Group, which was funded by UJIA, and was then poached by the European Council of Jewish Communities, where he helped develop social welfare, school and heritage networks.

Alex said: “It was in the mid-1990s, so it was post the break-up of communism and we helped the fledgling Jewish communities which were behind the Iron Bloc re-establish themselves.”

It was while working for ECJ that he met his German-born wife, lawyer Silke, while they were both attending a conference in the Greek city of Thessaloniki.

They have two children, Yoel, 14, and 17-year-old Hannah.

After leaving his post with ECJ, Alex studied at the College of Law in Guildford and London and was called to the Bar in 2001.

It led to him becoming executive co-ordinator of the General Council of the Bar of England and Wales’ Bar Policy and Research Group, where he set up and co-ordinated the Bar Council’s think-tank.

Alex went on to work as a senior policy officer at the Commission for Racial Equality and directed community issues at the Board of Deputies before he became, in 2008, the chief executive of the London Jewish Forum.

He laughed: “I arrived at the same time as Boris Johnson was elected Mayor of London, so I was paid to stalk him!”

While there, he developed the Mayor of London’s Faith Conference and set up Faiths Forum for London at the request of faith communities and the government.

Alex also developed, with Mr Johnson, Jewish Cultural Month, and oversaw the annual Chanucah in the Square event in the capital.

An Arsenal supporter, in 2010 he and Dal Babu, a high-ranking Muslim police officer, asked the Football Association to launch a Commission on Antisemitism and Islamophobia and recommended that the anti-racist campaigner, MP John Mann, chair it.

Alex, who now chairs the FA’s Faith in Football group, said: “When I worked at the Commission for Racial Quality, one of the things I had to do was to drill down into what was causing tensions among different young groups of people.

“We organised, together with various public agencies, to discuss issues with them and, so they would be interested, we held these meetings at football stadia and I got the Football Foundation to support our work.

“It led to me becoming involved with the FA’s equalities team.

“Slowly but surely the FA realised that something had to be done about antisemitism in football.

“When there has been an issue regarding major players, they have come to the right result and they have pushed clubs and the police into implementing our report, as well as implementing better training of club stewards on antisemitism and working with Kick It Out.”

As well as being the official chaplain and interfaith advisor to the 2012 London Olympics, he has, since 2003, been chaplain to the University of Surrey, where he was involved with developing a new multifaith centre and developed an interfaith study tour to Auschwitz.

Since 2009, Alex has been chief executive of the Carob Tree Project, which specialises in community development, heritage projects and community relations projects.

And, as part of that, he developed a strategic plan for the United Synagogue and raised £2 million for a heritage project and hundreds of thousands of pounds for other projects.

But has slowed down his work with Carob Tree lately as he prepares to gain semicha following six years of study through London’s Judith Lady Montefiore College.

But will he seek a ministerial position?

Alex continued: “That is the million dollar question and something which I have discussed with my wife.

“Whenever I was at meetings to do with human rights or community relations, the person across from me was always a cardinal, bishop or imam.

“I thought to move on in that line of work, it was only right for me to gain a rabbinical position.

“I have been encouraged by a lot of people and it has been an invaluable process which I have enjoyed.”

As a co-founder, in 1999, of the Rene Cassin charity, he believes it essential that Jews are involved with human rights.

Alex said: “My understanding of Judaism is simple.

“It goes back to Bereshit and the fact that we are all created in the same image and in the image of God.

“Therefore, the thought of desecrating that image in terms of another human being tortured, starved or suffering is wrong.

“It is imperative for me to interact with other human beings because I am a Jew.

“We do have inward religious traditions which are important to ground us in who we are, but if we are going to act as a halachic person, then we need to treat others with decency and respect.”

© 2018 Jewish Telegraph