The Future of the Board of Deputies of British Jews

If you’ve seen the British edition of Hamodia recently, you might have noticed that the Board of Deputies has been front-page news for the last few weeks. Since this organization, roughly the equivalent of the World Jewish Congress, usually occupies an occasional paragraph on the Community News pages, you might be forgiven for wondering what has suddenly happened to change its status.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews was formally established in 1760, when the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community presented a loyal address on the occasion of the accession to the throne of George III. Following this, the Ashkenazi community began to meet with the Sephardim on a gradually increasing basis until 1817, when they united for representative purposes as a single body. Official recognition of the Board’s representing the political needs of the Jewish community in the UK came in 1836, when the Marriage Act named the president of the Board as the authority for certifying marriage secretaries of synagogues. This official recognition continues to this day and is reinforced by the constitutionally democratic and inclusive nature of the organization.

The roughly 265 deputies are elected by synagogues and communal organizations — 138 shuls and synagogues and 34 organizations, including youth movements, regional councils and social welfare charities. These come from the Central Orthodox sector of Anglo-Jewry and the Reform and Progressive movements; the chareidi kehillah disaffiliated itself from the Board in 1966, following the Board’s decision to recognize non-Orthodox (Reform and Progressive) “ecclesiastical authorities.”

Historically, the Board of Deputies has fought for the religious needs of the Jewish community to be recognized, assisting community members with work-related shemiras Shabbos or Yom Tov issues, and defending shechitah and milah against legislative attacks. Due to the respect in which the Board is held, the influence which it has with the government belies the small size of the Jewish community in the UK.

Their work to uphold religious principles has been made possible by the Central Orthodox ethos of the Board’s management, in a voluntary or professional capacity. The concern now is that this is about to change, with the senior vice president being an active member of a Reform community — as is the newly appointed interim chief of operations. It is widely expected that the senior vice president will assume the presidency when the current president steps down. If the majority of the leadership of the organization has Progressive leanings, this will greatly weaken the Board’s position when addressing religious issues with the government or other non-Jewish institutions.

It also brings into the forefront the position of the Orthodox synagogue movements and its continuing involvement with the Board. Whilst some of the Central Orthodox movements are represented and there are informal links with the chareidi community, it could be argued that the lack of input by these groups has allowed representatives of the Progressive movement to achieve their strong positions within the Board.

When an article to this effect was printed in Hamodia a couple of weeks ago, it prompted an immediate response from Mr. Vivian Wineman, the president of the Board. Mr. Wineman writes: “Our Senior Vice President is a member of a Reform synagogue and has always made a robust defense of all Jewish practices — and we and the community are proud to have her as part of our honorary officers.

“Needless to say, our 250-year-old commitment to defending mitzvos, Jewish values and practices remains unaffected with our continued involvement with shechitah UK, protection of Shabbos and Yom Tov observance for students and teachers, protection of Jewish burials, end-of-life care, post-mortem problems and countless other issues. We recently helped establish Milah UK to counter the threat to that practice.” He also issued an invitation to the chareidi kehillah to rejoin the Board.

On this issue, one wonders if he knows what he might be getting into. There are an estimated 140 shuls, batei medrash and shtieblach across the country, each of which would be allowed to elect one or two deputies. Then there are a number of organizations which take their direction from the chareidi rabbinate, and which are therefore not currently represented on the Board. Were they also to send deputies, the Board would include about 200 chareidim! This imbalance is probably not quite what Mr. Wineman has in mind, nor would it be an accurate representation of the Anglo-Jewish community.

The correct course of action for the Board of Deputies, which would benefit the whole community and ensure Jewish continuity, is not to allow any wing of the community to take control of the organization, whether chareidi or non-Orthodox. For the common good, it is imperative that it maintains the present balance with the community’s elected representative organization, with a leadership which practices and believes in core Jewish values, such as Shabbos and kashrus. In order to do this, the Central Orthodox movements must put forward young, dynamic and engaged candidates for the positions of leadership, who will be able to relate to, and work for the benefit of, the entire community. This candidate will be one around whom the community can unite.


 

Rabbi Avrohom Pinter is the principal of Yesodey Hatorah Schools and is regarded as a community leader in London. His opinion is frequently asked as a representative of the chareidi kehillah by both government and the media.