Special report: Our generation of Gamechangers!

Special report: Our generation of Gamechangers!

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

After their 18-month training programme, Stephen Oryszczuk finds tomorrow’s community leaders in contemplative mood

Take 16 highly-charged, highly-motivated next-generation leaders of the Jewish community, put them in a room together, give them something contentious to talk about (like the future of the community) and try to get a word in edgeways.

That, in essence, is the social experiment-cum-leadership course called Gamechangers by LEAD, a programme of the Jewish Leadership Council, which recently said ‘class dismissed’ to its latest batch of graduates, following an 18-month course. “It’s full-on immersion,” says Marc Lester, one of the chosen few. “It can be quite overwhelming, the amount you’re exposed to. After you finish, you need time to process it all.”

We’ve spoken to three grads, including Lester, who heads an IT firm, Marie van der Zyl, the Board of Deputies’ vice-president, and Marc Levy, a partner in an accounting firm, to get a feel for them, their views on leadership and where our community is heading…

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‘Leaders should be diverse’ 

Solicitor Marie van der Zyl

Ask this mother-of-two how she spends her spare time, and you’re told that she has a full-time job and children aged nine and 11, but that she does still remember what “free time” is.

She was launched onto the national scene this year when elected the Board of Deputies’ vice-president, an employment solicitor campaigning on her “sober judgment” following three years on the council at West London Synagogue, which she says “opened up my eyes to what is needed to be a lay leader”. So what made her want to get involved at that level?

“Following a battle with cancer, I had a period of reflection which made me consider my role and place within my community,” she says. “It altered my perspective on my identity. It left me with the desire to give back to the community I feel so passionately about.”

Now she’s ensconced in the upper echelons, she says communal leadership needs to become “more inclusive and diverse” and that the Board is “under-representing the Charedi community [and] Jews from other countries, like Israel and France”. Her thoughts on leadership are evolving, but she looks to people like former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks for inspiration.“ A leader is not made overnight,” she says, after her 18-month course. “I see our leaders’ roles as utilising the assets, knowledge and skills of all those in our community, with everybody working together for a common aim.”

She says educating people about Israel, “changing patterns of giving” and sustaining the community by strengthening Jewish identity are priorities. “Everybody has their role to play.”

‘Stay focused on the future’ 

Marc Levy
Accountant Marc Levy

A chartered accountant originally from Leicester, Marc Levy, 38, from Waltham Abbey, is mad about sports.

When he’s not being a partner at a West End firm, where he specialises in charities, he’s on the rugby pitch coaching kids, or in the stands at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium with his 10-year old son, who could well be the club’s next striker, having notched up 49 goals last year.

Yet despite his age, Levy is no stranger to leadership, having held a board position at the age of 14 at Maccabi, which recognised something and sent him to Israel on the one-year Mahon programme.

Later, as chair of Newbury Park Synagogue, that training came in handy as he led merger talks with Clayhall to form Redbridge United Synagogue, which launched this year. “That was probably the most difficult thing I’ve done,” he says. “We had people who’d helped to buy the building 40 years ago, with huge emotional attachment. Managing those feelings and sentiments can be extremely difficult, and you’ll never please everyone, but as long as you believe you’re doing the right things for the right reasons, you see it through.”

Now he’s come full-circle as a trustee at Maccabi, where he spent his gap year, where he met his wife and where his son – who goes to a non-Jewish school – accesses a community his dad’s just spent months considering. “There’s great leadership but a lot of overlap too, an eagerness to do things but a tendency to focus on the negatives,” he says.

“Some look at the bigger picture, I look at the micro-level, and how I can help. That’s why I love Maccabi. You’re reaching out to kids – the future – to give them an access point.” Finally, what advice does he have?

“When I was young, I was told it was in my hands to make the most of my opportunities. That’s the message I pass on, too.”

‘We need new giving model’

IT boss Marc Lester
IT boss Marc Lester

If some leaders don’t say much, Marc Lester’s not one of them. Aged 38, a product of RSY Netzer, Lester’s the man you call when your computer won’t work, with an IT consultancy where he manages 15 staff.

When he’s not telling Jews to turn it on and off again, or kept busy by six-year-old Archie and five-year-old Rosie in Hampstead Garden Suburb, he’s immersed in local life, a taster for which came in his early years organising Edgware Reform youth club “with Matt Lucas and his Dr Martens”. Later, on camp and on tour, he fell in love with UJIA, where he set up Young Patrons. “I’ve always been entrepreneurial, and saw people going to university and losing contact, so I came up with the YP,” he says.

“We made it exclusive, with invites and premieres, for £50/month. It pulled in the young guys. Instead of them falling off, it kept them in the community, and it kept them connected to UJIA.”

In terms of leadership, he still remembers hearing Mick Davis speak about his life in business. “He was hard as nails, like a rock, totally committed to Israel,” he recalls. Citing other role models like Gerald Ronson and Trevor Chinn, he says: “The new generation doesn’t have the same relationship with Israel.

“They form their views of Israel based on the media, not from their parents, so if they want to give to the NSPCC, or Zimbabwe, they don’t think twice. It’s a huge threat. Take UJIA. They get 90 percent of their money from five percent of their donors. Who are the million-dollar donors of tomorrow? We need a new model, a crowd-sourcing model, to bring in those who don’t get invited to the annual dinners. We need to react to the way the community’s relationship to philanthropy is changing.”

Finally, what makes a good leader? “You can’t just tell. There are no off-the-shelf answers. Each person and situation is different.”

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