Stephen Oryszczuk catches up with the Board of Deputies’ new energetic senior vice-president in Ukraine and finds a man not afraid to speak his mind about the Jewish community’s future
Chairing a cross-communal meeting on the refugee crisis, co-ordinating all manner of Jews on how best to support all manner of Muslims fleeing war in the Middle East, Richard Verber looks at home, when he should look like he’s herding cats.
Barely in his 30s, the Board of Deputies’ new (and youngest yet) senior vice-president, who is also campaigns manager for World Jewish Relief, is an interesting character, but if you want any real time with him you have to go to war-torn Ukraine where, at about 10pm, he’s winding down with a beer of dubious quality.
I know he’s a Manchester United fan, so assume he can’t be that bad and that, at the very least, he is blessed with sound judgement. We go-record, and he sees the little red light start flashing.
“My favourite Jewish newspaper is the Jewish Chronicle,” he says. “Oops, sorry… Can we start again?” He thinks he’s funny. He’s not. There are red lines you just don’t cross.
Total lack of judgement aside, I want to understand what motivates RV (or ‘The Verb’ as he’s now known), who – in May – stood for vice-president of the Board and won by a landslide, a margin never before seen.
He scooped up both primary and secondary points in this new system of ‘transferable voting,’ whereby a deputy’s second choice still counts if his or her first choice doesn’t finish the race, but because he got so many ‘first’ votes, a la Jeremy Corbyn, he didn’t need sloppy seconds. It made RV the SVP.
“Effectively I’m the deputy president, so if Jonny [Arkush] goes on holiday, or feels under the weather…” So, he’s the Nick Clegg? “Let’s hope I’m more successful. I’m certainly not going to alienate the student vote.”
At 30-something (just), Verber is a newly-married member of Golders Green United Synagogue, and exactly half the age of the average deputy and honorary officer, as calculated since records began.
After four years at the Union of Jewish Students, he chaired Limmud and set up ‘Changing the Board,’ a self-explanatory pressure group. It is from the latter that he is perhaps best-known. Since ill-will towards the Board ran high last year, was he the 2015 protest vote? Is he in fact more Nigel Farage than Nick Clegg?
“It was an overwhelming mandate for change, and it came from across the spectrum, that’s what made it interesting. In the run-up, people said ‘I’m not so sure, I don’t really believe in change.’ Many Deputies are comfortable with the Board as it is. They understand it, they can manipulate it. They don’t want it to be more open, inclusive and transparent. It suits their agenda to keep it opaque.”
People don’t know about the Board’s procedures and rules, he says, or how to get involved, yet surely this information is in the public realm?
“There’s a difference to it being available, if you can hunt it down, and actively saying this is what the Board is, this is what we do, this is what it means to be a Deputy, and this is how you become an affiliate member.” It’s partly an image problem, he says. “While the Board isn’t a cloak-and-daggers secret old-boys’ club, it has an element of that to it, so if we truly want to be the representative body, we’ve got to try a damned sight harder to be more open.
“We make a lot of play about being democratic, but if you look at how many Deputy elections are contested, I reckon most aren’t even elected. They’re selected.”
That might not mean it’s anti-democratic, he says, just that there’s not much interest in being a synagogue’s Deputy – and therein lies another problem. “There are plenty of people not currently represented because they’re not members of a synagogue. Even if you’re a proud donor to a Jewish charity, if that charity’s not represented at the Board, like Tzedek or JW3 for example, then your voice isn’t heard.”
His campaign emphasised the training of Deputies, and this summer, in an opinion piece for Jewish News describing Hamas as “barbarous, homophobic, fratricidal maniacs” and a “nihilist death cult,” he explained what this training might mean.
In the event of another war in Gaza, he says “our community should be in a better place to combat Hamas’ propaganda… We must be on the front foot when it is being discussed. This means making the point that the problem is not Israel… We need to expose the hypocrisy of Hamas apologists”.
All well and good, but is training an army of media-savvy pro-Israel analysts and commentators really where resources should be directed? Israel’s supporters more than held their own last year, both online and on-air, and there seemed no dearth of fluent arguers. Still, it’s a policy that will lose him very few votes.
Such a policy would come under what he calls “outward stuff” – fighting anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, protecting brit milah and shechita an so on – but in order for the Board to do that well it needs to put its own house in order, he says. “It’s no secret that the Board didn’t do particularly well last summer. And while I agree we can’t let this internal constitutional reform bog us down for three years, it will actually mean that we’re able to do that defending and protecting much better,” he says. “It’s not just navel-gazing.”
On talk of a merger between the Board and the JLC, he won’t be drawn, except to slam the “outrageous” duplication of resources.
Isn’t the JLC a bunch of unelected rich boys trying to barge in on the Board’s party? “That’s a simplistic view. Whether it’s the £25 shul fee, or a number of zeros on the end, it’s come from a hard-working member of the Jewish community, so doubling up is an outrageous waste of funds.”
So if that’s the simplistic view, what’s his view? He pauses. “There’s an unusual phenomenon in the Jewish world, an idea that those who give the money should set the strategic direction. I don’t think that’s right.” Few would disagree.