How not to choose our leaders

By Geoffrey Alderman, January 5, 2012

I've said it before. I'll say it again. The Jewish communities of the UK are run by some of the best brains in the land: captains of industry; giants of commerce; leading lights of the learned professions; men and women who are at the tops of their respective trees. But when it comes to running the affairs of British Jewry this experience and wisdom disappears, to be replaced by (at best) cack-handedness of a high order or (at worst) plain unadulterated foolishness of the rarest vintage.

Take the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation, whose leadership (the women and men of the ruling Mahamad) could not have made a more perfect mess of the appointment of a spiritual head if they had set out with the express intention of creating one and then wantonly wallowing in it.

The current spiritual leader is Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, son of an illustrious Gibraltarian family and much esteemed (though not - to be frank - universally so) amongst the venerable S and P families, some of whom can trace their own descent to the Iberian Jewish refugees permitted to dwell here by Oliver Cromwell. Levy is not only a consummate religious leader. He is also a shrewd businessman and a most successful fundraiser. But the highly successful Naima preparatory school which he created in west London is not formally part of the S and P's "cathedral" synagogue at Lauderdale Road, nor is his prestigious semicha programme. Levy will reach his contractual retirement age as spiritual leader, but not as head of the school or the semicha programme, in two-to-three years. Until then he is the S and P's sitting tenant: immoveable, well beyond the Mahamad's control. Nor should we forget that Lauderdale Road has its own synagogal head, Rabbi Israel Elia - another hard-working and widely-respected sitting-tenant.

Was it wise, therefore, for the Mahamad to have sought to appoint a successor to Levy - and, moreover, to have sought for this Rabbi David Bassous, around whom controversy appears to swirl like a whirlpool? A sizeable section of the paid-up S and P membership evidently thought not. In the recent electoral process Bassous attracted not quite the requisite two-thirds of valid votes. A prudent Mahamad would have withdrawn his nomination. Instead his supporters are trying to steam-roller him through, which will do no good and which will surely arouse only further enmity from the Levy camp.

Let's turn to the United Synagogue - or, more correctly, to the United Hebrew Congregations, who are about to start the process of choosing Lord Sacks' successor. You'll be relieved to know that I am not going to weary you with a list of the probables and possibles. I want instead to highlight some little-noticed features of the appointment process. The relevant procedural document speaks of "consultative sessions", after which a working group will "sift" the applications and interview applicants and a consulting group "will endorse" the working group's recommendation. Somewhere in this labyrinth sits the representative group - effectively the Chief Rabbinate Council. And a public-relations programme "will run alongside the entire process to keep the community and the media informed".

But if you thought that these intertwined groups - to say nothing of the PR programme designed to keep us all informed - mean that the process will be an open one you couldn't be more wrong. All members of the groups are being obliged to sign confidentiality agreements. So the entire proceedings will be conducted behind firmly closed doors, surely a recipe for rumour-mongering and mischief-making. And there is a rather large fly in this particular ointment. The United Hebrew Congregations also have a sitting tenant - Lord Sacks, who from the vantage point of his seat in the House of Lord is certainly not going to go away even though he may have contractually retired. I note with bemusement that the "preferred candidate" will be obliged to meet Lord Sacks, and that Lord Sacks' views will be relayed back to the working group. So the incumbent will play a part and have a say in the appointment of his successor.

They are trying to stream-roller him through

This is never a good idea in any business. Here it seems to me very ill-advised indeed.

Last updated: 11:43am, January 5 2012