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Faith in Practice

Doing Whatever You Can

Hannah Kowszun

A barrister, human rights activist and Jewish Chaplain to the University of Surrey, Alex Goldberg advised the Olympics organising committee on faith issues. He is also the chair of the Football Association's Faith in Football initiative and will be an Olympic chaplain.

FiP.jpgFor the last four years I've been advising the organising committee of the Games on issues of dress and dietary needs, and things like prayer facilities, fasting and festivals during the Games. Also on how uniforms might be modified for different religions. I was representing the Jewish community.

The Olympics really is the greatest show on earth: it is the pinnacle of sporting achievement. However, it is different for the local area in terms of legacy because it is an opportunity to transform part of East London into a new city centre. When we were working with what was then the London Development Agency, we were thinking about 2040: what the Olympic park would look like in the future.

I don't get a free ticket. Nor was I lucky enough to get any paid-for tickets! My volunteering role is full time in any case.

I am also currently working with a UK coalition of faith organisations and community groups on the 2012 Hours Against Hate project: encouraging people to volunteer their time to combat religious, racial and gender-based hate and promoting communities working together. We're launching the Walk-A-Mile phone app, which will promote these aims whilst encouraging people to keep fit. You link to other walkers across the world. For instance you agree to walk with someone in Bangladesh or the US or Brazil, and the app tracks you and your partners' progress using a GPS device. We were recently awarded the International Olympic Truce mark and we are hoping this global community, which is committed to peace, tolerance and respect, will be a legacy of the Games.

I spend a lot of time in Guilford walking around and, while it has a growing ethnic population, it's still quite small compared to the rest of the country so I'm the only person in town wearing a yarmulke. I pray three times a day. I also express my faith through action: I'm also a volunteer chaplain at the University of Surrey, nominated by my community, I teach young people. Giving back to society is a very big thing in Judaism. It's rooted very much to where we are, our street, our neighbourhood and the welfare of our city, as it says in Jeremiah. So that's an important part of my life.

We have strict dietary rules, so when I pick up a piece of meat I need to know it's kosher. When I eat three times a day, I need to be sure I'm eating according to Jewish law. I also give thanks for that food, which I know a lot of people do in their faiths, it's probably akin to grace. Except that we have to pray longer at the end. We have a five minute end prayer for our food, which is slightly longer than grace!

I spend half the week in London and the other half in Paris, where my wife and my family are. In Paris I live in the historic Jewish quarter called the Marais, which is lovely. The British and French practice their Judaism differently. I think that in France there's more of a way of identifying religion in the street, so for instance in Paris we have double the Jewish population of London but 321 kosher restaurants compared to London, which has about 40. The Marais is exciting because there are a lot of strands of Judaism: there are are people who identify ethnically as Jewish but not religiously, there are those who identify religiously but may not be so worried about their ethnic identity. There's quite a mix of cultures.

I do love football. My relationship with the Football Association goes back six or seven years. We wanted to find a medium to bring young people together, which we did through football and pop music. This was a way in to get young people to open up and engage with public authorities. If you ask young people: come talk to us about social deprivation, gang issues, crime and education, I don't think they'd turn up. So we used football as a mechanism to open up these discussions.

A few years ago it became more serious. My colleague became chair of the Muslim police association at the FA and we became concerned with the rise of antisemitism and islamophobia in football, mainly chanting. You still get antisemitic chanting today, most of it aimed around Tottenham Hotspur, but not exclusively so. Recently, a match official was suspended by the local FA for grotesque antisemitic comments and this is not the only case of players in the local community receiving faith-based racial abuse. There was also evidence of islamophobic chanting and we wanted to do something about it. So we created a Commission on Islamophobia and Antisemitism, which was chaired by John Mann MP, which came up with a number of recommendations.

Out of that we have created a number of projects to encourage what we call Faith in Football. We have that schools project, we're still looking at antisemitism and we're looking at hard to reach parts of the community: there are many people of faith who feel there are obstacles to them playing the national game, for instance young women with issues around dress and modesty. I met last month top players in the game who are religious Christians, who were concerned that they were not allowed to practise their faith freely in the changing room. That's just wrong.

Some senior people at Chelsea got wind of my position as chair of Faith in Football and I told them four rounds ago that I thought this might be their year for the Champions League, I don't know why (In fact I support Arsenal) but as they carried on winning matches they started texting me asking me to keep on praying for them. So I think there may have been a misunderstanding there! We will have a go for Euro 2012, though I doubt prayer works like that.

Alex Goldberg was talking to Hannah Kowszun