Louise Jacobs, the former head of the London Jewish Cultural Centre who oversaw its merger with JW3, has been named as the new chair of UJIA.
Jacobs will be the first woman to take the post at what is generally regarded as the most powerful charity in the community.
Bill Benjamin, the American-born businessman who has led UJIA for five years, made the announcement to more than 850 people attending the charity’s annual fund-raising dinner in central London on Monday evening.
But as well as the unexpected elevation of Jacobs, who will formally take over the role in January when Benjamin steps down, the evening signalled a change in direction for UJIA.
The large numbers present of young people in their 20s and 30s were a clue: but as a short presentation made by Jacobs and the UJIA chief executive Michael Wegier made clear, the charity can no longer rely on automatic support from the younger generation, and has decided to woo them.
Jacobs told Jewish News: “UJIA is a very big organisation and as with every such organisation, we need to think how to remain relevant. Many different things make up the identity of young Jews today, and we particularly need to know how to connect young British Jews to Israel”.
Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, recalled a close friend from Australia who had served under the young soldier who was to become Israel’s chief of staff, Lt-Gen. Benny Gantz. All the soldiers in that unit, the ambassador said, had predicted, even 30 years ago, that their commander was destined for great things.
Lt-Gen Gantz served as the IDF chief of staff from 2011 to 2015, completing 38 years of military service. In a wide-ranging address to the UJIA audience, he warned of the dangers of Isis and Iran, and, though conceding that it was possible to negotiate with an enemy, dismissed Isis fighters as “sub-human creatures… we can’t compromise and we have to struggle until we fix this issue”.
The son of a Holocaust survivor who was rescued from Belsen by liberators from the British army, Lt-Gen Gantz also commended “strengthening moderate Islam”, because, he said, the “phenomenon of Isis comes from frustration”. If it was possible to offer hope for moderation, he said, that should be done.
Lt-Gen Gantz, like all Israeli generals today, is legally required to have a three-year “cooling-off” period before he is allowed to enter politics, and is now coming to the end of that time.
He is widely spoken of as a future politician, and so when he referred to Israel’s most serious issue not as its ability to defend itself, in which he has full confidence, but rather its “internal challenges”, such as the gaps in education, health and wealth on the “periphery of Israeli society”, there was little doubt that his next stage might be the Knesset.