Stephen Oryszczuk discovers the people and places that make our community tick. This week he’s at the Board of Deputies…
It’s big, white and looks like an aircraft hangar, she says. You can’t miss it, she says. I reach the bridge over Camden Lock and it’s still nowhere to be seen. I turn around, an obviously frustrated look on my face. It’s behind me. I’ve just missed it.
I trudge back down, consoling myself that others must also have missed it, given the complete lack of any indication that this might be the home of British Jewry, or indeed, anywhere else important.
I’d been warned security is tight. After the razor wire, electric gate, cavity-search, bag x-ray, iris recognition and MRI scan, I’m let in, through the first of four sets of steel doors, to be greeted by an Israeli tank. I’m going to call him ‘Biff’, despite it being highly unlikely that this is his actual name.
Sharp-eyed receptionist colleague Etty is altogether less threatening (sorry Etty, but it’s true). She offers coffee. It was a late finish in the JN newsroom last night, so this wins lots of points.
As the fancy machine whirs into life, I’m told who lives here. UJIA has the (much bigger) lower floor. The Board has half the attic, with the other half taken by UJIA finance people and a sub-division of rival/partner community leadership organisation, JLC. Armed with a cup of black caffeinated medicine, I venture up. It’s open-plan, corporate and deathly quiet. I’m gutted. This is the chalk to the imperious cheese that was the Board’s previous HQ, on the corner of Bloomsbury Square, in Disraeli’s old house.
Sure, it probably wasn’t “fit for purpose,” or whatever phrase they chose to justify the sale, but still… With its original features, dusty libraries, grand staircases and high, corniced ceilings, the Board’s old home spoke of history and heritage, dignity and diligence.
You knew you were somewhere special when you there. As you should.
Not as big as you’d think, and not all present when I visited, those doing the Board’s bidding include the young and old, the new and the not-so. Most arrive early, heading straight upstairs, without much/any interaction with UJIA.
Some faces I recognise. There’s Colin (former head of education, now something I don’t understand), Bernice (assistant to the chief executive and anyone else who asks nicely), Martin (money man) and Natan (Mr Interfaith, who feeds me oranges and other organic things whenever he sees me).
New(ish) faces include David (international affairs, knows how to dress), Simon (press man who spent 20 years at the Jewish Chronicle, poor man!) and chief executive Gillian, who – on limited inspection – seems sharp and amiable.
Among the significant others are Sara and Jackie, whose empire includes tours and exhibitions, Sam, who works with the enemy/partner JLC on leadership, and Sophie who, at the tender age of 28, is much wiser than her years. She is definitely one to watch.
What exactly does the Board do? It was the question on many a restless Jew’s lips this summer, and since. The Board has PR people to respond to that. My own answer, based on my Thursday visit, is as follows.
The clock strikes 9.30am and press officer Simon is writing this week’s community briefing. He’s just taken a call from Sky News, which wants to know if Ed Miliband will be the first or second Jewish prime minister if he wins the keys to Number 10 in May. “What did you say?” I ask. “I told them it wasn’t clear-cut,” he says, in reference to Disraeli. “It depends what you mean by Jewish.”
David, with his sickeningly waistcoat-friendly waistline, saunters in and starts bothering European parliamentarians about something vital. He’s just back from Paris, where he met French Jewish leaders. “It was disturbing,” he says. “The president of CRIF [the French equivalent of the Board] has six armed guards at all times, and can’t drive a car any more. He has the same level of security as French cabinet ministers.”
It shows just how bad things are across the Channel. Jackie, in matching purple hat and necklace, also has France on her mind. She’s recruiting volunteers to guide French Jewish schoolchildren around London, after they picked up the phone and said they wanted to come over. She’s also doing something on Pichuach (or ‘picachooch,’ as I keep mistakenly calling it), but I’m led astray with tales of Jackie’s former life as a TV editor on Shameless and Prime Suspect. If you ever get chance, ask her about working with Dame Helen Mirren.
Meanwhile, Gillian and Sophie are dashing off to twist some Westminster arms, and senior vice-president Laura Marks is jumping in a taxi, heading off to a central London mosque for the start of an interfaith march. I jump in and we catch up. She’s shattered, working evenings and Sundays, but she’s here anyway. “It’s important for faith and community leaders to build links, now more than ever,” she says. Fair comment.
We arrive just as Masorti Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg grabs the megaphone and tells the crowd about the importance and symbolism of the march. There’s an icy chill, so everyone’s glad when we set off on our “pilgrimage”, during which 11-year-old Yousef tells me about his new school and his mum tells me how she converted to Islam from Christianity at the age of 21, when she married a Muslim. “So, what faith are you?” she asks finally. Oh God. I hate this question.
Later in the afternoon, back in the office, Sam is sending out a newsletter and launching a Jewish-Muslim Women’s Network, while Colin is in a meeting about the communal levy, through which the Board gets its money.
Up front, Bernice is planning
Gillian’s attendance at the AIPAC conference in the US and Board president Vivian’s attendance at a commemoration service in Copenhagen, while her neighbour Martin is organising election paperwork and updating the communal diary.
There’s a relaxed atmosphere, the right mix of chat and work. Before I know it the clock strikes 4pm, and as the computers are turned off and coats are put on I start thinking about a conclusion. I know the Board has plenty of critics. Most would probably criticise it whatever it did. For me, it does a lot of good, and is great to have, but it nevertheless is suffering from an acute identity crisis, and the ill-fitting new building doesn’t help.
With Jewish organisations now specialising in areas such as leadership, security, anti-Semitism, brit milah, education, shechita, social action and everything else you care to imagine, I wondered whether I’d leave with a better idea about what the Board was about these days. I didn’t.
If it is all things to all Jews, then it is woefully under-resourced, and its toes have not so much been trodden on as ground to a pulp. If, however, it still has a niche but important role to play, then this should be defined and communicated, so everyone knows what has devolved, and to what extent. Until it does this, it will – to my mind anyway – remain easy to miss.