Next week’s election for president of the Board of Deputies could define the direction of the community for years to come.
Jenni Frazer profiles the three distinctly different candidates vying for the top job…
Barrister Jonathan Arkush has the dubious distinction of being the longest-serving deputy of the three presidential candidates – a staggering 33 years of communal service, representing first Hendon and latterly Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogues.
With some wryness, Arkush, 60 – who is also a mediator and a Chancery Master – acknowledges that for nearly 20 of those 33 years he was one of the youngest deputies. “But six years ago, when I became vice president,” says Arkush, “I pushed for the inclusion of youth organisations and doubled the representation of the Union of Jewish Students. And that, and other improvements, has lowered the age profile.” [This year’s intake is expected to be the youngest ever in the Board’s history.]
He is not, he says, ambitious, or a politician. So why does he want to be the Board’s president?
“When you have done a range of communal posts, you are in the frame whether you choose it or not. And I guess I am doing this out of a sense of communal responsibility, because the potential pool of candidates [for Board office] is quite small. And I think there are important things that need to be done for the community, and that I am one of the people capable of doing them.”
What is the next president’s greatest challenge?
“External threats. We are confronted with growing anti-Semitism. With every outbreak of conflict in the Middle East, it ratchets up the level of virulence of the anti-Semitism, and it is clear to me that some racist anti-Semites out there feel empowered by what has gone before, and when the next spike in violence happens, they put it up to a new level. Last summer we saw blatantly anti-Semitic slogans, such as ‘Hitler was right’ going viral on social media. I fear that next time there is a conflict in the Middle East some people will take that, not as the end point, but as the starting point. I hope, as president, I can lead the community’s fightback.”
The person who leads the Board, says Arkush, has to be “clear-thinking and able to articulate the concerns of our community. He has to be a solid performer on the media, and he has to be able to inspire and lead a team, including our amazing staff, to drive the Board forward. I have faith in myself – look at my track record on brit milah and shechita – and I have been right in the thick of it, as chairman of the defence committee for six years. I think that was the best possible training for being president.” He has no intention of giving up his legal practice and does not think a Board president should sit in its offices 10 hours a day, “micromanaging,” adding, “I’m not a retiring sort.”
Himself modern Orthodox, Arkush regrets the failure of the strictly Orthodox to join the Board. “If I can persuade them to come into the Board, no one would be happier than me. I’m not the one with the red lines – they are. If, for example, they wish to sit only with men, gezunte heit. But no, of course I wouldn’t agree to them only coming to a plenary session if everyone were separated. I have to recognise that the Board represents a spectrum of Jews in our community. It has to be tolerant, and the tolerance has to be mutual.”
Arkush, who has a reputation for shooting from the lip, got into trouble three years ago with critical remarks about the JLC.
Today, he says his views “are identical with those of Alex and Laura – and I know that because we have been dealing with the issue as close colleagues. In the face of increasing JLC encroachment on the work of the Board, I was absolutely right to speak out, though it was unpopular at the time. In the subsequent internal Board discussions, I was actually considerably more moderate towards the JLC. “But that is history – I have excellent relations with Mick Davis and Leo Noe. If elected we will have a constructive relationship. But we should be moving towards harmonising what we do. The representative body of our community must have democratic legitimacy and accountability. People will not accept anything less.”
Laura Marks a woman in a hurry – and she’s keen for everyone to know it. The 54-year-old, made an OBE in the New Year’s Honours list for her service to interfaith relations, hit the headlines when she founded Mitzvah Day in the UK, an idea which was enthusiastically embraced like bushfire.
She only became a deputy in January 2012, representing the Movement for Reform Judaism. In just four short months she astonished the community – though, one suspects, not herself – by shooting to the top of the poll to become the Board’s senior vice president.
Three years later Marks’ “can-do” attitude has many in the community clustering around her well-shod heels. She was thought to be a shoo-in to stand as president but announced in February this year that she was not going to stand. Fast forward to April and Marks had changed her mind, a quality that she maintains is in her favour – “if you get more information and things change, surely that’s a good thing, not a bad one.”
So Marks is running for president, using, she says, the qualities that helped her make Mitzvah Day such a success and spearheading the Jewish Leadership Council’s Women in Leadership campaign.
There is, she says, a “very small pool of people within the Board who are suitable to become president – you really have to have been a vice president.”
If the diminutive former advertising and marketing executive has a buzzword, it is “collaboration”, her way of persuading hitherto immovable forces to get things done. She is pragmatic; though she came on to the Board representing the Reform Movement, she has recently taken out membership of Highgate United Synagogue, and brushes aside United Synagogue president Stephen Pack’s suggestion that hers, if successful, would be a “divisive” presidency.
Besides her commitment to collaboration, Marks says she is “incisive” and that her hallmark is “I deliver. If I say I will get something done, I deliver it.”
Unlike the other candidates, Marks does not have a full-time job, which she might have to set aside if she becomes Board president. But she says that Mitzvah Day takes up most of her time and recognising this, the charity has recently launched a search for its first chief executive.
Marks believes that being president of the Board of Deputies is a full-time commitment, to be carried out in conjunction with the organisation’s chief executive (currently Gillian Merron). Marks is sparky and upbeat, even when it comes to discussing what for her must be a bigger elephant in the room than for the other candidates – the strictly Orthodox community.
She wants, she says, to bring the Charedi community in to the Board and claims that “in some ways, being a woman helps” in discussions with the strictly Orthodox. “There are some fantastic women working in the Charedi community”, she says, adding that she is keen to deploy people with specialist knowledge in many areas of the Board’s work – from shechita, to brit milah, to countering boycotts and securing time off work for religious observance.
Nor does the briskly-spoken Marks have any problem with the Jewish Leadership Council, adding that she hopes to harness the expertise of many of its members to aid the Board in its essential work representing and defending the community.
A Marks presidency would change the attitude of the Board of Deputies “from battening down the hatches and being inward-looking, to being outward-looking and showing what our community has to offer,” she says. “
We are a fantastic community and we lead the way in multi-faith organisations in the UK. We do that by being part of British society.”
An award-winning financial journalist – he is city editor of the Daily Mail and a former associate editor of The Guardian – Alex Brummer, 65, has been a deputy for 12 years, chosen originally to represent the central United Synagogue by the US Council.
A long-standing member of Richmond Synagogue, where he was warden and chairman of the cheder, Brighton-born Brummer has had a high profile on the Board, serving on its finance and organisation division and nine years on the international division, which he currently chairs. Now a vice president, Brummer’s buzzword in his bid to be president is “collegiate”.
He offers, he says, “strong, firm, collegiate and steady leadership. I believe I have the support of community leaders – and I think my day job [which he has no intention of curtailing if he becomes president] has given me access to political and business figures at the highest level. I am able to talk and deal with these people as an equal.”
Few candidates for the Board, one would guess, have had the backing of the editor of the Daily Mail, who has said he will do everything he can to ensure Brummer could carry out his role as president effectively. And if he is not successful, Brummer says he has already had approaches from at least two communal organisations which would like him to join their ranks. But failure is not on Brummer’s agenda. He says the challenges for the Board are greater than it has faced since the 1930s.
He explains: “There are the forces of Islamic extremism, Iran, and the toxic mix in Europe of traditional anti-Semitism, growing out of economic dislocation.” He says he would like to bring in the strictly Orthodox community, among whom he has “great personal contacts”.
The Board already provides this community with help on education, housing and social welfare, he says, but he would be “delighted” if that could be improved – although he is aware there is “no miracle cure” for those who simply do not want to sit with the Progressive elements of the community. Domestic challenges are the same as those faced internationally, he believes. “We need to get this right and I don’t think we did last summer during Operation Protective Edge,” he says.
“We didn’t really address the needs of the community. On the issue of boycott, we need to be more organised. I would like to see a stronger regional presence, but they need a bit of central direction and help.” As for the JLC, Brummer is keen on an eventual merger – but he advocates a fairly slow path to this union, saying that the first step must be for physical proximity in the same building, together with Bicom.
In any merger, Brummer says, “it is critical to maintain the democratic nature of the Board.” Neither body, he thinks, “is anywhere close to merging the two roles just yet”. Again, Brummer recommends his “collegiate” way of working, adding that he brings “calmness, steadiness, and an ability to operate at the highest level of government” to his presidential bid.