By Andrew Gilbert, Trustee, London Jewish Forum
Jonathan Arkush is my guilty pleasure. While this might sound a strange line from one of Laura Marks’s campaign managers, it tells more about knowing Jonathan for some 30 years. While I am very sad that Laura did not win, she stands with head held high and can go on to great things elsewhere, or come back to lead the Board of Deputies in years to come.
While I have known Jonny since my student days, it was on the National Council for Soviet Jewry in the late 1980s where we first worked together. He was from an Orthodox mainstream background while I was the chair of the Reform Synagogues’ campaign RSGB Exodus.
When I joined the Board in 1991 Rabbi Maurice Michaels, whose place I took, told me that he was the key young person to watch and maybe work with. When I joined the Board’s executive in 1994, Jonny was around the table. When I campaigned to open pluralist schools in the 1990s, Jonny was there campaigning for Orthodox schools.
We often passionately disagree – he is tribally Orthodox and I am tribally Reform; he is passionately Conservative and I am passionately Labour. On political issues and on denominational matters we will respectfully disagree.
But Jonny always cares about our community. If we disagree on content and even tactics, we rarely differ on the bottom line that the needs of the community come first.
While I will urge him to soften a little his approach on Israel, and encourage him to work as a team, and as a friend with other communal organisations, including the Jewish Leadership Council, I also want him to continue to stand up. With his new honorary officers and the Board’s wonderful chief executive Gillian Merron (former Labour minister] it can stand strong. Their new honorary officer team is more balanced than any previous one.
In Richard Verber it has a 30-year-old senior vice president who has already chaired Limmud and works for World Jewish Relief. Surely the youngest vice president ever. Even Moses Montefiore did not get this role until his late 40s.
The two other vice presidents are both women – one Reform and one Orthodox with roots in Cardiff. Marie van der Zyl is a member of West London Synagogue but originates from Redbridge and Sheila Gewolb is a member of St Johns Wood United with ties to the Cardiff community. And the new treasurer, Stuart MacDonald, with finance, organisation and fundraising experience, is a member of LJS – the leading Liberal congregation.
While the Jewish Leadership Council, with its great leadership, has no Reform or Liberal trustees, the Board shows the path. Let us all hope that the Board and JLC build a respectful relationship and work together, neither competing nor undermining one another.
I am sure that they will build on the efforts of the outgoing president, Vivian Wineman, to move into the same building and gradually grow closer.
Over the last three years I have attended the Board’s executive. Its team of honorary officers worked together superbly well. I doubt we would have two women vice presidents and a vice president under the age of 30 without Laura Marks’ influence over the last three years.
I think this new team could work together well and they should be encouraged to put into effect proposals by Ruth Lesirge for bringing the governance of the Board of Deputies into the 21st century. The Board has been improving its representation and campaigning over recent years. We need a strong Board – Jonny can deliver just that.
It was an unusually brutal and nasty campaign, but Jonny looked presidential throughout, ignoring barbs and rocks thrown at him – at least in the public domain. One of the challenges facing the new leadership is to change the culture among some deputies to be adversarial and critical of one another.
Jonathan will become a very familiar face on radio and television. I hope he builds a wide tent on political issues and as president allows those with whom he personally does not always agree to be a core part of the communal challenge around Israel and anti-Semitism.
There will be challenges ahead. I may even regret this moment of euphoria, but I hope Jonathan Arkush will take this opportunity to be a visionary leader and urge him to step up and be the inclusive president of the Board of Deputies the community needs at this time.