A Discussion with Alex Goldberg
July 4, 2012
Background: This discussion (via Skype) between Alex Goldberg and Katherine Marshall focused on the roles of U.K. faith groups in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympics. He has been part of planning and events over a four-year period and will serve as a chaplain during the Games themselves. Long involved in interfaith work, Goldberg highlights the many activities that faith linked NGOs and communities have organized, and the special focus on assuring a lasting legacy for London’s East End, long one of the poorest and most troubled areas of the U.K.
How did you get involved in interfaith work in the first place?
I got involved through three separate routes. First, when I was 18 years old I was the leader of Jewish youth group, coming from a community where there was not a large Jewish population, and as part of that group was invited to go with Christians to a broader leadership event, that took place in Parliament. Canon Andrew White (though he was not then a Canon) convinced me on the spot to become more involved in interfaith work and I did. I went on to be part of the young leadership section of the Council of Christians and Jews organization in the U.K. and president of the international council’s young leadership section. That brought us into events around Abrahamic dialogue.
At the same time, I was pursuing my studies with a focus on religious and international matters, doing a degree in politics and religion. It was then the early 1990s, and I was told by many advisers to drop the subject who would ever need those topics? What possible relevance did religion and politics have for the twentieth century. They have since changed their minds, at least slightly, given the ferocious politics around religion that has become unmistakable since then. In any event I was convinced that there needed to be more knowledge and work on interfaith and cultural links and I have found my studies useful.
And third, I took inspiration from my family and roots. My grandparents were both Jewish, but came from different parts of Ireland, and thus had different identities and backgrounds. My grandmother came from Belfast and had gone to a Protestant school, while my grandfather came by a very different path and his formative years were spent in the leading Catholic school in Cork. Both worked to the end of their lives for cooperation in Ireland, through projects helping to span sectarian and religious divide in the island of Ireland whilst my grandfather promoted interfaith relations and human rights. Those are topics that still interest me.
And how did you get involved with the Olympics?
That was a simpler path! I was the chief executive of the London Jewish Forum. As it does in the United States, the U.K. Jewish community has councils for various cities, including London, and I was the chief executive. In that capacity I was invited onto the LOCOG [London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games] faith reference group. This was one of several groups that were focusing from several years ago on the equality and faith strands of the coming Olympic games. There were various groups, including, just as examples, for the Chinese, Irish, LGBT, and disability communities. They had an advisory role but also were concerned with getting messages out. So I was initially on the advisory committee, and was then asked to stay on as an advisor.
The groups had to answer a host of rather practical questions over the planning years. They included dietary and food issues, the needs for chaplaincy, the spiritual needs of athletes and journalists, issues around uniforms, modesty requirements involving different religious groups (turbans and hijabs, for example) and transportation.
What kinds of transportation issues?
There’s a lighter note there. Apart from identifying places of worship along Olympic routes and dealing with road closures, there were concerns around weddings. For some communities these involve very large groups of people and if there are many cars then issues of traffic control arise along Olympic routes so we worked with communities to avoid this. There are also issues around festivals in and around the games for much the same reasons. With Ramadan coinciding with the Olympic Games, the daily Iftar takes on importance especially for the large mosques and Muslim community centers. We have worked with London 2012 and Transport for London to try and ensure this all goes smoothly.
Are there Jewish Festivals and Commemorations?
For the Jewish community, the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Munich was a concern, to ensure that it is done in an appropriate way. This is the first time that the Olympic hosts are organizing a memorial. It will take place centrally (in Guildhall), during the first week of August, with Jewish leaders and the families of the athletes involved. Obviously this involves sensitive issues.
There is also a major fast day on the first Sunday of the Games so this has to be planned for staff, volunteers and athletes who wanted to fast and break their fast late on Sunday evening.
You will serve as a chaplain during the Olympics. How did that come about?
I am already the chaplain of the University of Surrey, and was asked to put my name forward by LOCOG (London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games). Each faith community handles their nominations somewhat differently, but for all the process involves endorsement by the community. In the case of all Jewish Chaplains, nominations had to be endorsed by a recognized Jewish religious body listed in the Jewish Yeabook. I was interviewed for suitability. The questions centered on whether or not candidates would be able to participate in a multifaith team, whether they had the experience and capacity to deal with public issues and above all to address the concerns of all faiths. At one level the position involves signposting: someone, say an athlete or a journalist, seeks information about faith advice and support, and, if the chaplain cannot address it themselves, perhaps because it involves a specialist’s knowledge specific to a faith other than their own, they will point the person in the right direction. We are a team. Having worked in a multi faith chaplaincy and with experience working with different faiths, this is something I am quite used to. So I got the job.
The chaplaincy is a volunteer job, and mine is actually two. During the Olympic Games, I will be based in the international media center, where the 25,000 journalists will be based, and during the Paralympic Games I will be in one of satellite Olympic villages. I look forward to it.
How many chaplains are there?
There are 180 chaplaincy positions, but many have taken up two positions, so there are probably 100 people in all.
The IOC [International Olympic Committee] recognizes five religions (most things in the Olympics tend to come in five and were decided upon by Baron de Courbetin: five rings, five colours, five continents—despite their being six, etc.). The religions are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. In the U.K. interfaith circles, nine world religions are recognized: the five plus Sikhism, Zoroastrians, Jainism, and the Baha’i so for this Games the other four religions have Chaplains too. We all wear the same uniform and are part of the same time and are known as Olympic Chaplains.
Apart from signposting and pastoral support, are the chaplains there to play a crisis management function?
That is not central to the job description, but the question has been asked. When, as is expected, some two million people come together, there are the more attractive, pleasant elements: welcoming people, eating together etc. But as with all such large events there will also inevitably be individual traumas. These are general Chaplaincy issues that I sometimes get at my University too: as well all circumstances where it is natural for someone to come to a chaplain and we might get immigration and asylum issues. There is a roaming chaplaincy service too whose function it to be prepared to deal with illness and other problems that can arise from those in the park.
The numbers and the pressures are huge: apart from the two million visitors, 16,000 athletes will be there, 25,000 journalists, and 100,000 LOCOG employees and 75,000 volunteers. As with a university chaplaincy, the chaplains will deal with issues as they come. But what is distinctive is that we will be dealing with people who are under unusual levels of stress. I have spent four years preparing for the Olympics, but many of the athletes have spent their entire lives preparing. Starting from very very young, they are in their 20s and 30s, at the pinnacle of their sporting life, and they usually have one chance, perhaps a few seconds for their chance at a silver or gold medal. They often need some care. I work a lot with sportspeople in football and many of the top professionals can be superstitious (some go through routines of throwing a glove or wearing a lucky charm or wrist band or whatever they believe works for them to get them into the right frame of mind) and prepare themselves through routines. For the religious athletes many turn to the power of prayer as a necessary part of their mental preparations. The athletes want body and mind to be fit and have a positive mental attitude so they can go out and perform to their best. There is often a very spiritual dimension to this.
What are the likely numbers involved? Is the religious composition of the athletes known?
Yes, the numbers are known, in a tradition that goes back to the first modern games. Athletes are always asked their religious identity as part of the accreditation process. Journalists are not asked, I believe.
For the Beijing Olympics the numbers were roughly as follows: of some 14,000 athletes, about 8,000 were Christian, 4,000 Muslim, with the next largest group Hindu. There were 100 to 200 Jews; they came from 12 to 15 countries, the largest numbers from Israel and the United States, then a few mainly from the larger Jewish communities in the U.K., France, Canada, Australia, and Argentina.
As part of the buildup to the Olympics, what events have faith groups and communities organized?
London 2012 has tried to get community groups to put on sporting, cultural, and other community activities inspired by the London Games. I am working with a coalition a coalition of U.K. faith-linked NGOs called 2012 Hours Against Hate and for Unity, with support from London 2012l the International Olympic Truce movement, Hilary Clinton and the mayor of London. The prime minister, David Cameron, has contributed a video too and Ban Ki-Moon has agreed to come to one of our events. There are seven main NGO projects. The Three Faiths Forum involving some 40 London schools has put one project together. The Faith Forum for London has a project that has encouraged community members to volunteer in communities other than their own. Cohorts of two or three people are working together over the summer. The Islamic Society of Britain is encouraging community interaction and dialogue through its Ramadan Festival.
What kinds of issues are addressed?
Xenophobia is an example. Another project is looking at human rights education in faith communities.
A final project is “Walk a mile,” and it uses social media to link young people across the world. The aim is to get them walking together, say someone in Brazil linked to someone from a different faith or ethnic group in London. The program’s aim is to combat religious, racial, and gender discrimination. We are linking up with other social projects around the globe with the launch of the Walk-A-Mile app that has the endorsement and support of faith communities, artists, musicians and sports persons. It is hoped tens of thousands of community activists will link through this.
The U..S State Department has supported and cooperated with this program, under the leadership of Farah Pandith [U.S. State Department, special representative to Muslim communities]. Hannah Rosenthal [special envoy to monitor and combat anti-semitism] has also been involved, as well as Judith Heumann, who is the U.S. special advisor on international disability. They have worked with the U.K. NGOs. In an effort to integrate some rewards and publicity, international artists, painters, and authors are involved, and some have donated songs and time to the Walk a Mile project. There are concerts and live feeds, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and Richard Branson are coming to one of our events. We have been invited to open the London stock exchange in the week before the Games, in an effort to involve business and will be hosting an event in Parliament.
The final event will be on July 25, in Tottenham, the most diverse post code in the U.K. and the place where London’s riots last year began and were concentrated. The events will involve many sports people and personalities. Schools will be involved, and the Olympic torch relay will be there that day.
The idea is to reclaim London’s poorest borough with the faith of the Olympic spirit.
Speaking as an individual, a faith leader rather than a Games Chaplain, is there a downside to the Games such as the growth of the commercialization of the Games and perhaps a move away from the original Olympic spirit and amateur ideals?
First, I love the Olympic values and the Olympics. I see huge potential for good. There are obviously potential for down sides and issues. I can only speak here as an individual and not as a Chaplain.
I love the values of the original Olympics, the amateur who does his or her best. But sports has moved on, far, from that ideal. The reality is that if you want to become a top athlete today at a world level it is a full time job. So we are looking for a balance between the sporting professionalism that goes with the realities of competition, and the spirit of the Olympic Games, which is about coming together for the betterment of the world.
Some faith leaders are also concerned about the commercialism that surrounds the Games (and many other sporting events) but the Games do have to be paid for. Londoners are paying an additional special Olympic tax at the moment so householders probably welcome anything that reduces this burden during these difficult economic times. In short, my view is that the social and housing benefits we are seeing outweigh the commercialism that is a necessary and inevitable part, given that everything does need to be paid for. I think it all depends how the sponsors use their branding. I applaud those who taken the opportunity to give something back to communities as part of their sponsorship deal. We are seeing some good Corporate Social Responsibility. Obvious some do this whilst others have not used the opportunity to do this.
After four years of reflecting on the values and realities of the Olympics, what do you see as priority issues and areas of inspiration?
Faith leaders have been and remain above all concerned about the legacy for the people involved and especially those who live in and around the Olympic Park. It is located in one of the poorest parts of London. They ask not how it will be used in 2012 but in 2040. The hope is that it will be a new city center, the East end version of the West End. Olympic Park will be the largest green park space in London (larger than Hyde Park). There has been a large focus on social housing and some of the development has been undertaken in relation to a Community Land Trust. Some housing is given into the possession of housing associations, where people pay only for bricks and mortar and not for land. London Citizens have campaigned strongly for these purposes, and faith and trade unions have worked together.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (who plays a special role in the U.K. faith community) has also engaged with the Games, and has been part of More than Gold, which is a Christian coalition. Its purpose is to ensure that there is a spiritual element to the games. He has written about the economic situation, and worked to see that the money spent on infrastructure will benefit the poorest communities and those living there.
And it seems to be working. I see the transformation of East London as having a huge positive impact.
What about the Paralympics?
I love Olympic values but I love the Paralympic values even more. I have worked to build a program around them, with the principle that everyone should aim to do best they can do, and should be enabled to do it. The able bodied and the disabled should work together in this spirit. The disability rights groups have been actively engaged and there are many positives coming out of the process in terms of disability rights.
And the Olympic Truce?
Indeed, one of the U.K. government’s great successes turns around the Olympic Truce. For the first time ever all countries signed the proposed motion put forward to the UN General Assembly on the Truce. Needless to say, they all voted to endorse it too. There are a variety of global peace initiatives. The 2012 Hours project I mentioned before has been given special recognition by the Olympic Truce body in Greece. Also, London 2012 is working with schools in less developed countries. This has a powerful potential. The educational campaigns have already proved a huge asset to teachers and schools, offering opportunities to thousands of young people.
As a last question, what is the role of the Faith Forum?
It was set up and funded by the Government to promote faith relations in London. I have been involved, for example, in the Mayor’s Faith Conference in 2011. Launched in 2010, the Faiths Forum for London seeks to enable religious communities to work together for a better London. Its four main functions include:
- Providing a platform and channel for communication between nine faith communities and London’s regional authorities, business and the academy.
- Promoting inter faith engagement throughout London, particularly celebrating the contribution of local inter faith groups.
- Offering opportunities for faith communities to share best practice on issues of common concern.
- Celebrating and highlighting the positive contribution of religious groups in London to the common good.
It is governed by a Council of 27 faith leaders from nine faith traditions, who meet regularly to discuss issues facing London and the religious groups within it. We invite leaders from London’s public authorities, NGOs and the media to engage with this group and share ideas. We proactively seek opportunities to work together with such groups to advance shared goals. In recent months these have included events on the London riots, social action, London 2012, and political extremism.