The top table of the Board of Deputies has been transformed as women candidates triumphed in the elections on Sunday.
Marie van der Zyl, an employment lawyer, beat three other contenders to become only the second woman president in the Board’s 250-year history; and Sheila Gewolb has become senior vice-president, with Amanda Bowman and Edwin Shuker as the other two vice-presidents.
Stuart MacDonald was re-elected Board treasurer, unopposed.
Ms van der Zyl, 53, who became a deputy representing the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade, told the JN that her election was “an incredible honour. I will do everything possible to serve the community, and work to the very best of my ability.”
Alluding obliquely to the last-minute candidacy of one of her opponents, Simon Hochhauser, Ms van der Zyl said she was pleased that “democracy has now prevailed.” She had a challenging task ahead of her, she said, and, paying tribute to the outgoing president, Jonathan Arkush, said her first aim was “to unify the Board” and ratify her new team of honorary officers.
The results of the presidential election were announced fairly quickly after a last hustings in which Ms van der Zyl, Simon Hochhauser, Sheila Gewolb and Edwin Shuker all sought to convince a packed plenary session of deputies that they were the right candidates to lead the Board.
Deputies were given the opportunity to quiz the candidates for both the presidential and vice-presidential posts. All were clear on the main issues facing the community — fighting antisemitism, maintaining communal security, speaking out for Israel, and defending key matters such as shechitah and brit milah.
But not everyone agreed with some of the positions taken by the outgoing leadership. Asked by former honorary officer Laurence Brass, how she would have responded to the move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move which was greeted with a laudatory statement by Jonathan Arkush — Marie van der Zyl said she would not have made any statement on the issue. Mr Brass said he believed it had been “provocative” for the Board to take a position on the US embassy move.
She also warned deputies “not to expect a speedy response” in any future dealings with the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, though she acknowledged that it was necessary for more meetings to take place.
In contrast to the relatively speedy announcement of the winner of the presidential race, the voting for the three vice-presidential positions took a long time to untangle. Sheila Gewolb, who was one of the nine people vying for election as vice-president, was a clear front-runner in the first round and was named as senior vice-president.
But it took another six rounds of counting — using the single transferable vote system — before Amanda Bowman, a deputy for Hampstead Synagogue, and Edwin Shuker, who represents Woodside Park Synagogue, could be declared successful. One of the defeated candidates is believed to have lost by just three votes.
Jonathan Arkush and the outgoing senior vice-president, Richard Verber, were given a standing ovation and the gratitude of many deputies for the work they had out in over the last three years.
Now the new team —together with chief executive Gillian Merron — is due to sit together this week and devise strategies for dealing with the manifold problems facing the Jewish community. They know it is a tough road ahead.