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Clinical nutritionist Carmel Berke discusses taking up the mantle of UJIA Manchester chair and her vision to prove that charitable giving can be more than putting your hand in your pocket.

Carmel Berke with outgoing UJIA Manchester chair Nici Wertheim.

Hi Carmel, tell us how you became involved with UJIA.

I was born in Israel, but when I was six, my parents moved to Finland. We lived in a small village near Helsinki where you could count the number of Jewish families on one hand. It was hard growing up there as a Jewish teenager without that connection. I’ve learned in my time with UJIA what it can give to a child in terms of belief and identity. When people ask me why I became involved in the charity, it’s because I grew up without it.

I never wanted my kids to feel disconnected from their heritage, so much so that when I was 19, I moved back to Israel and volunteered in the air force, where I became a sergeant and was decorated twice for outstanding service. But to get to the top, your Hebrew needs to be flawless. Because my Ivrit wasn’t quite up to scratch, I attended Kibbutz Ulpan, where I met my husband from Prestwich.

When we moved to Manchester, my husband took me to a UJIA charity dinner, where Nici Wertheim, whose role I’m stepping into, gave the welcome speech. We sat right in the back corner because we’d never been to one before and didn’t know what to expect. But I remember when they sang the Hatikvah, I had tears rolling down my face and when Nici spoke so passionately Israel, I didn’t think it possible anyone else could feel so strongly about my mother country.

I remember sitting there half of the night crying because I missed Israel so much. I was so inspired by what Nici had said, I thought: ‘I want to be like her one day’ and that is something that has followed me throughout my life.

 

How does it feel to be given the role of Manchester chair?

It’s an absolute dream come true – I was so humbled and honoured to have been asked. As a young girl sitting at that dinner nine years ago, I would have thought: ‘what could I possibly offer them?’ But I am incredibly excited for the future.

While I want to continue Nici’s work to ensure UJIA remains a household name, my personal vision is to make people realise it is a charity for everyone. There are a lot of misconceptions about it being a big organisation for big donors. But that’s just not true; we need everybody, regardless of how much they can give. We do have very generous people that keep us going, but it’s not about the size of donations, it’s about taking that responsibility you have as a Jew to support those in need in whatever way you can.

 

What does the charity have lined up for 2021?

Last year for International Women’s Day, Jewish women from across the country participated in a sponsored hike in the Peak District. Obviously we can’t do that this year, so we wanted to do something a little bit different in releasing a podcast series with five 10-minute interviews. We’re asking women everywhere to go for a walk on International Women’s Day and listen to the podcast to create a kind of unity.

In one of the episodes, I give an insight into increasing immunity through what you eat. As a clinical nutritionist I deal a lot with the consequences of malnutrition. Believe it or not, it’s all too common here in the UK, and something on which COVID has had a massive impact. Living in Finland, foraging was a way of life that gave me a real understanding of how food gets to your table – a process that’s always fascinated me.

Then we have Nici talking about balancing a full-time career with her role at the UJIA while being a mum; a psychotherapist who is also a personal trainer talking about combining exercise with therapy to help combat lockdown anxiety; and our UJIA Israel director talking powerfully about the determined women in the organisation that really want to make a difference. It’s just something to keep us on the map while we can’t do the things that we would normally do, and it will hopefully inspire others to collective action, even if they can’t be together in person.

We’re still trying to organise our annual autumn dinner, hopefully a live event but even if we have to make it another online event (which I think people are tired of now), we’re going to do it in a way that people will remember, sharing the stories that will make them realise how lucky they are in a year during which the pandemic has taken away so much from so many.

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