Life & Culture

Jewish Care charity chair steps out of the shadows

Steven Lewis on 'broigus', leadership, charity and a determination to succeed


Steven Lewis, the chairman of Jewish Care and a trustee of the Jewish Leadership Council, does not like the limelight - he never has.

But after an "off-the-record" chat at a fundraiser and a nudge from his press representative, he agrees to an interview at the charity's flagship campus in Golders Green, north-west London.

Speaking over an early morning coffee before he heads to his central London office, Lewis reveals his frustration with rows among communal heads and says British Jewry has become more "selfish".

That is why he has agreed to meet. Behind his booming laugh, lies a serious agenda.

"I can't say Steven Lewis wants to be in the background all the time. I'm beginning to realise that I have a serious role in the community and my job is to engage others," says the 51-year-old, who believes that British Jews do not donate enough time or money to communal organisations.

I can't be in the background all the time - my job is to engage

He says: "We live in a society that is materialistic, which has become more selfish.

"I know a lot of people who don't give tzedakah - time or money. They give a few quid here or there and think they've done their bit. They have lavish barmitzvahs and unbelievable holidays. I find that unacceptable.

"Unless we, as Jewish people, look after our own institutions, they won't be there.

"I was always told that 10 per cent is the level you give to tzedakah. It's fair to say that if everyone gave 10 per cent of what they earned, we would have far more vibrant organisations."

Lewis, who sits on the liaison group between the Board of Deputies and the JLC, says discord between senior figures is unnecessary and "upsetting".

This year, he signed a letter denouncing JNF UK head Samuel Hayek, after Hayek publicly condemned JLC chairman Mick Davis for criticising the Israeli government in the JC.

He says: "We're a very small community and should find common themes to work together, not against each other.

"That's why I get upset when some of the big machers in the community have a row. I say, 'you're the good people - argue with people who sit on the sidelines and do nothing'.

"It's so easy to find areas where we can just have broigus the whole time."

He also believes more gender diversity in communal leadership would be "fantastic" and has backed a campaign by Women in Jewish Leadership, to bar all-male panels at communal events.

Lewis's frustrations stem from his long-term active involvement in the community. As a teenager, he spent Sunday mornings teaching Hebrew classes to 10 and 11-year-olds in Stanmore, where he grew up. From 1990 to 1994, he chaired Young Jewish Care. His uncle David was the first chairman of Jewish Care and instrumental in the merger of the Jewish Blind Society with the Jewish Welfare Board but "that was more of a coincidence than the reason I got involved," he says.

"Jewishness" motivated Lewis, who lays tefillin every morning, to make time for the community. The self-described traditional Jew, a member of the Orthodox Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, says: "Being Jewish taught me about giving back to others.

"We are a club, a group of people.

"It's nothing to do with being Liberal, Reform, United or Charedi - it's the Jewishness in us. "

Lewis's involvement in Jewish Care began in 1988. He was balancing three evening classes a week at the Polytechnic of Central London; completing a correspondence course at the College of Estate Management in Reading; working five days a week at a property group; and still attended charity committee meetings.

Lewis, a chartered surveyor, says YJC charity events were an opportunity for networking, as well as a shidduch: "My career path was developing. I was meeting people who were either successful or going to be successful in the industry.

"I was always very determined to succeed."

While Lewis is happy to promote his communal work, he shies away from discussion of his business Lewis & Partners, of which he is a senior partner and commercial property advisor.

"I don't like people knowing how well I'm doing or not doing," he says.

"I just don't see why anyone needs to understand how you're doing.

"I'm not interested in winning awards - I always reject them. People find that surprising."

The father-of-four leads by example. Just as he was inspired by communal leaders from Lord Levy to Gerald Ronson, he hopes to encourage the new generation to get involved.

He says: "I have shown that you can have a successful business, but still find time for others. Things I've achieved in the business world have always been in line with my community work.

"I'm scared to not do my community work - it helps me. I would find it impossible to do one without the other."

For now, Lewis, a Tottenham Hotspur supporter who lives in Highgate, north London, continues to juggle his responsibilities with 5.30am wake-up-calls and the support of his "fantastic wife" Alicia - who he met at a Jewish Chronicle dance.

He says: "I was 20 and she was 19. I'm very lucky, and I get told that regularly."

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