By Laura Marks, Senior Vice President, Board of Deputies
The decision to stand for president of the Board of Deputies has not been an easy one. Ever since I was elected as senior vice president three years ago, people from every part of the community pressed me to stand: make the Board like Mitzvah Day! Break the glass ceiling for Jewish women! Show them the Board can change!
It is easy to get swept up in the tide of such enthusiasm and, of course, any one of us would be flattered and tempted by the title and the prestige that goes with the job.
But that’s not enough for me, nor a reason to stand. I have needed to consider the impact on my family (I am a mum with three demanding young adults); on Mitzvah Day, the charity that remains my passion; and on the many other projects and organisations to which I remain committed.
This is a huge job, not a reward for long service and – as with Mitzvah Day – I don’t take anything on without being fully committed.
So I have thought long and hard about the challenge. Yes, I have changed my mind, but this is because I understand the enormity and importance of the role.
And, having talked to my family and friends, I know I cannot walk away: there is just too much to do. It’s just not my style.
What’s more, how could I, as chair of the community’s Women in Leadership project, say the challenge of juggling the responsibilities of a mother and a wife and a successful social entrepreneur is too much – what kind of example would that set?
What do I see as important? First and foremost, we need to know our strengths and cherish them. We lead, we innovate, we nurture fine young people, we live as practicing Jews within a wider world, and we give back. That is, and always has been, our way, and it has made us resilient and robust even in times of turbulence. I would make that the core of our communal being, an inner strength from which to build.
But build we must. There are improvements to be made. We need to be more vocal. We need to be more strategic. We need to be faster and better at stamping on hatred and political bias, wherever we see it.
The Board can, and should, play a vital role here. It is uniquely placed to leverage the immense talents of British Jews, not just in London, but throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Many of those talents are as yet untapped in a community sense. The Board should help do so.
Looking outside our islands, the challenges particularly surrounding the support of Israel, are immense, and the way British Jewry responds to them will be crucial over the next three years. I intend to build bridges with communities across the world and borrow best practice wherever it is found, whether that be by enabling grassroots activity or through top-tier diplomacy.
I stand not just on promises but a record of action: Our new regional Jewish Connection project – delivered; an acclaimed report to the Holocaust Commission – delivered; a grassroots Closer to Israel campaign with the Israeli Embassy – delivered. On my watch, we have retained Ivrit in the curriculum, despite government opposition, introduced a scheme to promote equality across our community and established the fledgling Jewish-Muslim Women Network. These are all real and new achievements and sit alongside numerous media and personal appearances defending our practices and addressing anti-Semitism.
Through what kind of world will the next president lead the Jewish community? One that feels ominously threatening, I imagine. Parents are rightly concerned, security is tightening (and needs to do so) and we hear rhetoric hardening. Our instinct is to turn in. A leader needs to tell Jews to be brave and face out. That’s why my instinct, my Judaism and record all prioritise social action, so we do not isolate ourselves in the world, we must build friends and strong relationships.
Now more than ever we need to up our game, so that we can better plan, act and respond at the highest levels. To do that, I know we will need to revisit the Board’s structures, which are from another age. Sometimes evolution needs a nudge. Now is one of those times. Happily, that process has already begun, with our move out of Bloomsbury Square, our upgraded and enhanced staff team, our improved plenaries (athough these are still not good enough) and our skilled, expert new chief executive.
Above all, we need to be accountable to, and inclusive of, our stakeholders, the Jewish community through its democratically elected representatives, the Deputies. Last week, a governance report was completed on how to improve and modernise the organisation. I intend to take this agenda forward with vigour, and with eyes and ears wide open. Transparency, professionalism, accountability and inclusivity: that’s not just my vision for the Board, it’s my record and my promise.
I hope you will give me the opportunity to fulfil that promise.