Time to right a grievous wrong

November 24, 2016 23:31

The news that the United Synagogue has sold the former official residence of its chief rabbi - 85 Hamilton Terrace, NW8 - for a sum reported to be not less than 10 million pounds is both good and not so good. The residence (through the hallowed portals of which I was privileged to pass on no less than four occasions) always struck me as overly pretentious. It is equally true that the centre of London Jewry had long since moved away from the St John's Wood area.

The US was right to off-load the property. But was it right to decide that the proceeds from this disposal are to be applied to what are termed "community capital projects," a phrase which apparently embraces not merely "US communities showing significant membership growth" but (would you believe?) a new chief rabbinical residence? Is there not a still more pressing need, overlooked by the present US leadership but still remembered by many of its former employees?

I refer, of course, to its pension arrangements.

In 2004, the United Synagogue announced that the pension arrangements then in force for its rabbis, chazans, administrators, secretaries and other staff were not merely to be closed to new members. They were to be entirely wound up.

This decision followed decades of poor - even reckless - supervision of its finances by successive US leaderships, whose record of blatant mismanagement was meticulously investigated by Stanley Kalms, then head of the Dixons retail chain, in 1991. Kalms found not merely that there had been blatant mismanagement, but that from the 1980s, as property prices fell, membership stagnated, and cash surpluses were wiped out and the organisation began to move towards insolvency, borrowings were made from the pension fund (and from the funeral expenses scheme) but that no provision whatsoever was made for the repayment of these loans.

The US was highly immoral and totally unethical

To put the matter bluntly, the entitlements of members of the US's pension scheme were cast aside, and their retirement plans were thrown into disarray.

I know the case of one rabbi whose pension was in fact halved, from £20,000 p. a. to around £10,000, on which - supplemented only by the state pension - he and his wife must now subsist. I know of another former US employee who had to continue working well into his late seventies just to make ends meet, and whose quality of life was practically destroyed in the process.

And it hardly needs emphasising that many, if not most, of those affected had little prospect of being able to make up the anticipated pension shortfall through other arrangements - especially when one takes into account their relatively low incomes and the limited number of years that remained of their working lives.

At the time, the US defended itself by pointing out that what it had done was lawful. That does not mean that what it did was right. It was, in fact, highly immoral and totally unethical.

I myself had lost sight of this scandal. But the Almighty works in mysterious ways. Asked by a media outlet at the beginning of this month whether, from a Jewish point of view, there was anything positive that might be said about the candidature of Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership of the Labour Party, I came across Early Day Motion number 1613, tabled at the House of Commons on 8 September 2004.

The Motion, sponsored by the then Labour MP for Hendon, Andrew Dismore, addressed the matter of United Synagogue pensions, and called upon the US to reconsider the closure of its pension scheme.

The US had been established by Act of Parliament in 1870, so Dismore was entirely right to bring the matter of its pension arrangements to the attention of fellow MPs. Among those Labour colleagues who signed Dismore's motion was none other than the Member for Islington, Mr Corbyn.

Even if it is argued that the closure of its pension scheme was a cruel necessity, the windfall income from the sale of 85 Hamilton Terrace now offers an opportunity to make amends.

Is it too much to hope that Chief Rabbi Mirvis will take the lead in demanding that an attempt should now be made to put right what was a grievous wrong?

November 24, 2016 23:31

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