A new dawn for the Federation

February 9, 2012

I was born into the bosom of the Federation of Synagogues, and have grown up under its beneficent eye. My maternal grand- and great-grandparents were among its founders (or at least the founders of shtibls that formed themselves into a federation more than a century ago). My parents were married under its auspices, as were my in-laws and as was I.

At the Clapton Federation synagogue, my father was Leader of the Opposition - opposing anything and everything proposed by the honorary officers on the grounds that anyone calling himself an honorary officer must have sold out to the establishment. Yet, in spite of this jaundiced approach, he was a loyal Federation member, and so am I - the relationship having been cemented when I was appointed to write its official history.

A great deal of blood has passed under the Federation's bridge since. And, at a special meeting of its ruling council last month, the Federation took a controversial decision that is likely to have profound consequences for its future.

It decided, in principle, to abandon the constitution by which it has governed itself for the past 60 years, and to adopt instead a more "streamlined" mode of governance, more in keeping (we were assured) with modern times.

At present, power within the Federation rests with the Council - a body of some 60 people elected by constituent synagogues. All Council members have the status of Federation trustees and no decision of any significance can be taken by the honorary officers without Council approval. This ostensibly ultra-democratic structure was put in place in the late 1940s, following the scandalous rule of Morry Davis, who held the Federation presidency from 1928 until his imprisonment (on a matter unconnected with the Federation) in 1944.

Under Davis, the Federation dispensed with Council elections and transformed the Federation presidency into an unelected dictatorship. The present constitution was designed to prevent a repeat of this state of affairs. But, as the arguably even more scandalous presidency of Morry Lederman, later demonstrated, a constitution is only as good as those tasked with its enforcement: Lederman was able to hold the honorary presidency from 1951 to 1989 while drawing a salary and - like Davis, with the aid of dishonest cronies and unctuous sycophants - milked the Federation of millions (I doubt that the exact sum will ever be known) that ended up in discreet private bank accounts.

Yet the fact remains that under both, and against the odds, the Federation survived, and even flourished, after a fashion. Indeed the Federation has Davis to thank for the purchase of land at Rainham on which its present cemetery is located, and under which gravel has been found, the extraction royalties of which have in recent times transformed the Federation's balance sheet. And it was under Lederman that the Federation established its highly successful kashrut division and its own independent Beth Din.

Against all the odds, it survived and has even flourished

If the Charity Commission agrees, the Federation will soon have a constitution in which, save in defined circumstances, the honorary officers will be able to govern on a daily basis without the Council's approval. The Council will elect officers but will then retreat into the status of an advisory or consultative body. Significantly, it will enable women to become full Council members.

The Federation - as any regular reader of this column can confirm - has no greater critic than me. Its history is an object lesson in how an organisation can suffer from prolonged poor leadership and yet remain successful. Corrupt presidents. Indifferent management. Imprudent property transactions. Bungled funerals. The Federation can boast all these and more. Yet, set against this, it can sustain flourishing synagogues and an expanding membership (it has even sponsored its first synagogue in Manchester). It is an essential (if not always well-preserved or well-projected) voice of independent mainstream Orthodoxy in this country.

Alongside the constitutional changes now in train, the Federation is undertaking a strategic review, which in my view is the more urgent necessity. Throughout its history, the Federation has made a habit of allowing opportunities to pass it by. This habit must be broken.

Last updated: 11:33am, February 9 2012