Stephen Oryszczuk goes behind the scenes to discover the people and places that make our vibrant community tick. This week, he is at UJIA…
Beside the canal, below the Board of Deputies (we all are), above the Tube and bordering the new Camden empire of Israeli millionaire Teddy Sagi sits UJIA, the undisputed connecter-in-chief of British Jewry to Israel. The open-plan office is, for the most part, bathed in natural light, which shows off the smiles.
These are strategic smiles, too. On the desks of the fundraising team sit several UJIA-approved mirrors prompting those about to make a call to “smile while you dial”. Rows of pearly whites explain the logic in unison. It’d be creepy were these not all such genuinely happy people.
So I settle on the idea that I’m sat in the midst of a benign cult instead. If cults aren’t your thing, don’t be put-off by the military precision of Gabs’ Year Planner – a huge wall of neat, colourful Post-its (“someone knocked February off yesterday”) – or by what some would call unnaturally tidy desks.
The one welcome exception to this sterility is the youth team, scruffy buggers, but on the whole the complete absence of ‘mess’ seems to be a thing here. Adrienne even has her own Flash wipes, and looks like she’d use them.
Delve a little deeper though, beyond the lab-like surfaces, and you find hidden naughties, like the tray of secret pastries I’m not meant supposed to mention. Sorry Etty, forgive me.
An entire flank of this long, thin office is geared towards getting money, although that’s probably not how they phrase it. Among those doing so are ‘Two-Screens Matt’ (analysing could-be givers and should-be givers), Jacqueline’s team of Ros, Elaine and Veronica, who woo the rich guys, and Emma’s team of Vikki, Frankie and Avi, engaging mere mortals. Special mention to Katie on maternity leave, described by one anonymous source as “the most caring person you’ll ever meet”. Through the middle is Communications, including press engagement enforcer Carmel, drama queen Clare (marketing) and graphic designer Jodie.
They all report to David Goldberg, whose knowledge and enthusiasm are infectious.
He in turn reports to chief executive Michael Wegier, who sits at the back in a little glass box, like some kind of social experiment. On the other side of the office, Scottish Anthony manages Scottish Sophie, English Cassie and a host of others in a team called Informal Education, which sounds like my formative years but which actually sits within Programming – a conglomerate stretching to such exotic realms as Israel and Manchester.
Upstairs, and largely ignored by an uncaring wider world, are HR, Finance and I.T. plus Mark and Katie’s team. Further special mention goes to Maxine, who has been stuffing envelopes for UJIA since the Yom Kippur War, and my mate Moishe, a fellow Man Utd fan and role model Kisharon user.
Unlike most offices, where people dribble in between 9.30-10, UJIA is packed and buzzing by my 9am arrival. At 10am there is a staff forum in the conference room, where the various Israel teams are connected via Skype.
Robin Moss, a born educator, kicks off by discussing the 700-year old birds-head haggadah and what it tells us about Jewish identity. Next up, ‘Maestro Joel’ spreads the word about the upcoming BBQ (“our vision is of smoke billowing from north-west London”); Eldan, who gives an update from the regions, and the youth brigade, who explain their four new committees to engage young City folk, entrepreneurs and the like.
Adrienne then talks about April’s Magic Moments tour, as half the room hums the song of the same name, while from Herzliya, Rachel tells us about filming the Equaliser project, which brings Arab and Jewish kids together through football. After an admirably focused forum, we’re off to Highgate with 23-year old Deborah, who runs a programme for Jewish kids in mainstream schools.
She did work experience at Jewish News, and is therefore of sound mind and judgement, which is just as well because the speaker (a Reform rabbi) doesn’t turn up, leaving 90 Jewish kids staring at an empty stage. Despite the fact that she’s not much older than them and not prepared, Deborah doesn’t flinch and – without notes – gives a pitch-perfect presentation on New York’s Jewish heritage.
I am as much in awe as the PR person is relieved. Back at base, the senior team meet in the library. Among other things, they discuss how to market the BBQ, with only a 10-day window between Pesach and Yom Ha’atzmut.
Clare suggests targeting the kosher delis with people dressed as burgers and hot-dogs. “Can we even have buns if it’s Pesach?” asks Harvey. “Find out how much it costs to get people dressed as burgers and hot-dogs,” says David, leading the meeting. “And find out which is cheapest.” In his glass cage, Michael meets the director of the Jewish Agency in the UK, who wants UJIA to cough up more money for a programme bringing Israeli shlichim (emissaries) to the UK.
He then meets the director of Programming to discuss how to increase the number of Jewish 18-year olds going to Israel for a gap year. Many young Jews take their gap year in Israel after university, but Michael now wants to double the number going before. “It’s a strategic decision,” he says, “because when they come back they’re active on campus and in youth movements.” It’s getting late and my stomach is rumbling.
I’ve had nothing but raspberries all day, and I’m starving. Somehow, office manager Etty picks up on this, and feeds me pitta and pastries from her secret stash. It brings me back to life. Every office needs an Etty. She feeds you, mothers you AND negotiates bulk discounts on stationery. I’ve heard there is a petition to clone her.
As trustees begin to arrive for an evening meeting (which I’m not allowed to attend), I take my cues to conclude.
Disclaimer: I’m biased. I love UJIA. How can you not love a Jewish organisation that spends several years and millions of pounds building a centre of excellence in Israel that benefits as many Arabs as it does Jews? I love what it’s about. I love the buzz, the vitality, and most of all, the people, those happy, smiley, Flash-wipe staff whose immense talents make this somewhere very visibly enjoyable to work. That said, I couldn’t work here. I’m as miserable as I am untidy, and the sight of myself in the mirror during phone calls would do my work performance no good at all. But I’ll love it from a distance, and hope most of the Jewish community does too.