An interview with the NEW Director of Mavar North

This winter, Mavar announced the formation of Mavar North, an expansion of all our programmes into the northern part of the UK. Until now, we’ve only be able to offer a limited level of support to callers beyond London, but we know from experience that face-to-face support is essential, so we’re delighted to finally have a team ‘on the ground’.  We’re recruiting and training mentors, and identifying tutors, counsellors, befrienders and a full network of pro bono professionals.

To introduce our work in the North we’ll have a series of posts in the next months, but first up, here’s an interview with the new Director of Mavar North, Sally Halon.

 

Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background?

I come from a Sephardi/Ashkenazi background although my roots are deeper in the Sephardi tradition having grown up in the Didsbury Sephardi community.  My father’s family are from Aleppo and growing up we spent all the chagim with them. We kept a traditional kind of Judaism with a kosher home, and were regular shul-goers on Shabbat and festivals. My husband Gerald is Ashkenazi but our kids still feel strong links to their Sephardi heritage

For the first 10 years of our married life we lived in Kingston upon Thames in South London, before moving to Manchester to be closer to our parents and to the local Jewish school. I am a lifelong vegetarian.

I have had a very varied career; having graduated in social sciences from Nottingham University I then worked in telemarketing for a while before having our two older children. I then took a diploma at the Vegetarian Society and became a Cordon Vert cook. Subsequently, I taught vegetarian cookery to adults at night classes while the children were small. After moving to Manchester and having our youngest child I joined my father in his small textile business. After 14 years at the helm I sold the business and moved to UJIA where I was UK Programme Director for the Manchester office for 10.5 years, leaving the post in July 2018.

Do you have a personal connection to ultra-orthodox Judaism?

I grew up in a very middle of the road community but I understand that my Polish great grandparents were very religious although I am not sure if they were ultra-Orthodox. However in my early years at UJIA we facilitated training courses for aspiring Kodesh (Jewish Studies) teachers and that brought me into contact with members of the Charedi community. I remember a young man coming along to a fact-finding session and asking me about teacher training. He did not possess any GCSEs so I directed him to the local college in order to begin the process as I explained to him that without GCSE qualifications he would struggle. I don’t know what happened to him and whether he was in the process of going “off the derech” (leaving the Charedi community) and I do hope he was successful in his ambitions to become a teacher. Many of the young people now growing up in that community lack basic skills due to the restricted curriculum at school and without those qualifications, it can be very hard to navigate the world outside the ultra-Orthodox bubble.

How did you first discover Mavar’s work?

I got to know Mavar as a result of the Manchester Leadership Programme because we try to understand different aspects of the Jewish community, including the Charedi community (which now comprises 25% of the Jewish population of Manchester).  I invited the Director, Linda Turner, to speak to the group about the important work that Mavar is doing in supporting those who are in the process of leaving ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and I was very impressed by the professionalism of the organisation despite being almost entirely volunteer-led. Having attended a variety of talks at Limmud Conference on the topic of “going off the derech” last December I decided that this was where I wanted to put my energies once I had reduced my working hours at UJIA.

What is it about Mavar that appealed to you as an organisation and are there any areas of Mavar’s work which you find particularly inspiring?

Having now had an insight into some particularly difficult personal stories of those who have been supported by Mavar I feel that the work that the organisation does is extremely valuable. Those who seek to leave the Charedi community are often demonised by those in authority and indeed their own families, who judge them to be “apikores” (apostates) and threaten to cast them out if they dare to even think of leaving.  In its non-judgemental approach Mavar guides and supports those who come to them, signposting them to the right resources and helping them to find their way to wherever they hope to be religiously and also in terms of building a career and becoming financially self-sufficient. There is a whole raft of professionals available to give their time on a pro-bono basis should they be called upon to assist. Mavar is non proselytising and never seeks to influence anyone to leave the Charedi community, it is there only for those who seek it and for me that is one of its main strengths.

What made you want to start Mavar North?

Until I came along Mavar did not have the resources to branch out and offer support to members of the Charedi community outside London. Given the size of the Charedi community in Manchester and also in Gateshead, we are sure that there are members of the Charedi community who will take advantage of the fact that we are now up and running and more accessible than having to travel to London. In fact we are already helping 4 individuals who have been waiting for this to happen.

What are your future plans for Mavar North?

We are looking to expand the number of volunteers we have in the north, in terms of mentors who will offer regular support and also professionals including English language teachers, professionally qualified counsellors and therapists, and particularly access to emergency housing to call upon in case of need.

 Anything you’re especially excited about getting going with Mavar North?

I relish a challenge! I can see that I will not be idle and the fact that we are providing such a worthwhile and needed support network to those in need makes it worth putting all the effort to get this going and to make a difference to people’s lives. We have had a very positive response to this initiative from individuals and organisations in the mainstream community which is very gratifying and I hope we can do a good job.

What would a successful Mavar North look like to you in three years?

That we have helped individuals along the way to making successes of their lives – after all everyone should have the right to self-determination and nobody should be subjected to a lifestyle which they did not choose if they decide it is not for them. And it isn’t a numbers game – if we only help one individual that should be enough. But we know there are more out there.

Anything else you’d like to say?

If anyone in the Jewish community in the North of England would like to offer their support and assistance in this exciting new venture, or who is planning to leave ultra-Orthodox Judaism and is in need of our help and assistance please contact sally@mavar.org.uk.