New Board president says British Jewry is ‘at inflection point’

Phil Rosenberg, 38, makes history as the Board’s youngest-ever president and sets out his vision for his term in office


On Sunday morning Phil Rosenberg knew the election for Board of Deputies president hung in the balance and he would have one last chance later that day to convince waverers. But there was a problem. “When I woke up, I’d had lost my voice,” he said. “I thought of asking my wife to give my speech.”

After an “overdose of lozenges”, he recovered enough vocal power to take the mic at the final hustings, eventually defeating his closest rival, Board vice-president Amanda Bowman, by 124 votes to 106. The Board’s former public affairs director is, at 38, believed to be the youngest to hold the office in its 264-year history, more than 25 years younger than the median age of the deputies he leads.

An elder Board statesman had predicted that victory would go “to whoever wants it most”. Rosenberg had been first out of the blocks to declare his candidacy and contested the two-month campaign  - in what must be the longest democratic exercise in recent communal history - with boundless energy and confidence, proving adept on his feet at hustings.

His manifesto contained a raft of no less than 43 pledges. A fellow-candidate suggested they would stretch far beyond the capacity of the Board’s finances.

To which he responded, in an interview with the JC the day after his election, “The Board only has limited funds if you have limited ambition. I say, let’s go for growth.”

In his first month alone he has pledged to begin recruiting a new officer to address media and social media bias, launch a commission on antisemitism and a review of hate crime legislation.

He believes he has two advantages over some other incoming presidents. Having spent most of his professional career in the Board’s professional service, “I know where the [organisation’s] levers are, so I know where not to waste time and where an intervention will make a difference.” Also, “I don’t need to build from scratch relationships across politics, media, faith and dipolmacy - I have a lot of those relationships already. So this is roaming in the world I roam in already.”

He comes from a family who were “communally active” at Barnet United Synagogue. His paternal great-grandfather, after whom he is named, and grandfather were choirmasters in the United Synagogue; three of his maternal great-grandparents were from India’s Iraqi community and the fourth from Cochin. Family get-togethers were a joyful blend of “curry and rice, and salt beef… I am possibly the first part-Mizrachi president.”

Since then both his parents and siblings have made aliyah; his sister works for the Jewish Agency and his brother, who has rabbinic ordination, in communications.

At school - City of London - “I developed a real passion for languages and building bridges”. He studied German, Italian, Spanish and French at GCSE and then Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish at Oxford. In Hebrew, “I can get by”, his Arabic is rustier - “I used to be be able to have a half an hour conversation.” Not so long ago he could manage interviews in Spanish with an Argentinian radio station, Radio Jai (pronounced “Chai”).

In Israel for a pre-university summer of yeshivah study, he recalled “one hairy experience. I was walking through the Old City and wanted to walk the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, which I thought it would be interesting to understand, when I accidentally got caught up in a Hamas rally - in my yeshivah outfit.”

But the incident did not deter him from accompanying a journalist to meet Palestinians in the West Bank when he returned to Israel for a year at the Hebrew University as part of his university course. At Oxford, he became “very passionate” about interfaith dialogue, particularly with Muslim students.

“A lot of interfaith doesn’t speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. “My view is we had to speak about it because it otherwise remains an elephant in the room. But it shouldn’t be the only thing we talk about.”

After an internship at the Foreign Office and a brief temporary job at the Ministry of Defence, he was made the Board’s interfaith officer and got “paid to do my hobby… What an amazing thing for a 22-year-old to represent the Jewish community on a national level with archbishops and so on.”

From there, he went to be director of the Faiths Forum for London, where “Having represented one multi-faceted faith community, I then had nine faith communities, 27 different denominations and a lot of politics between them”. Having reached a “ceiling” in the interfaith world, after a few years he was back at the Board in the public affairs role, confronting among things antisemitism in the Labour Party and Covid.

During the campaign, he was accused of having held meetings with Jeremy Corbyn’s office against the other advice of other Jewish organisations. He acknowledges “some minor tactical differences” and “a bit of elbowing” between organisations but he “never broke ranks” with what the Board was doing and stands by his record. “I came up with the Ten Pledges campaign that would define the Labour leadership election [after Corbyn] from the Jewish community perspective,” he said.

A handwritten letter of thanks from Sir Keir Starmer for helping to push back antisemitism is a treasured possession. As a Labour councillor in Camden for for years from 2014, he had experienced some of the problems in the party at local level.

He left the Board to work at the PR Office and last year moved on to Fleetwood Strategy, a public policy and communications company founded by Isaac Levido, who masterminded the Conservatives 2019 election campaign.

Key to his presidential plans for the next three years is mobilising the efforts of his 300 deputies as ambassadors to local MP, councillors, faith leaders. Some deputies are already doing this, some may need “arm-twisting”. But “this is the way we change the game in terms of making our community punch its weight or well above it… Suddenly the voice of the Jewish community is pulsed around the country. No other Jewish organisation can do that.”

He is optimistic that at the end of his term “it will be a different Board”.

Clearly, it is “ a challenging time” for the community and “we are at an inflection point. But I think this country has long been a brilliant place to be Jewish and still has many of those facets there. But we must own and ensure those things remain.

“That is what I see my job as doing - embracing everything that’s great about this country and ensuring that it remains to be the wonderful place it has been to Jews since the return under Cromwell.”

While interfaith relations may be more difficult now, he believes “there are a lot of people” in the Muslim community “who we can work with”. There is common ground in wanting to marginalise extremism and helping to strengthen Britain’s “moderate middle” At the end of the day, “Muslim extremists pose a greater threat perhaps to the Muslim community than to us,” he said.

“I think we need to build an optimistic alliance for an inclusive, respectful society, where we work together on many issues, where we try to disagree…more agreeably on the things we can’t agree about and then marginalise the people on the extremes who are causing trouble.”

Internally, he acknowledges differences of views on Israel inside the community and “I embrace that diversity. If we listen to each other better, we’ll all learn something. The so-called right and the so-called left, generally speaking, are all saying relatively sensible things…

“But I also say as good as it is to disagree l’shem shamayim [for the sake of heaven], it is even better to agree l’shem shamayim, and on the issues on which we agree, which are lots of things - whether it’s the hostages, fighting back against Iran or promoting the Abraham Accords and peace in the region - that’s what we should push for together.”

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