Life & Culture

Two desks, two leaders, one top communal job

Mathilde Frot speaks to the new joint CEOs of the Jewish Leadership Council


A Modern Orthodox foreign policy wonk and a former teacher who found a home in the progressive movement, Claudia Mendoza and Michelle Janes may on paper seem an unlikely double-act.

They sit at separate desks on either side of their office in Hendon during our socially-distanced interview. But while the Jewish Leadership Council’s new joint chief executive officers represent different sides of the community religiously, they have much in common — and are eager to stress the positives that come from working together.

“We come from similar stock but went in different-ish directions,” explains Mendoza, 37, a Hasmonean alumna. “It helps us when we’re dealing with an issue looking at things from slightly different perspectives.”

She had always aspired to work in the Jewish community, though she admits she didn’t expect it would happen quite as soon as it did. “From birth through to university it was kind of embedded in me,” she says. She was brought up in a traditional household of mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardi heritage.

Her mum, born in the Yemeni port city of Aden, arrived in the UK as a child refugee, aged 12, “escaping some quite dire circumstances in her country” and Mendoza grew up in a matriarchal household with a strong Sephardi influence.

The mother of two, whose children are aged four and six, maintained aspects of her early years in her family life. “When it’s up and running, we’re in synagogue every week with the kids.” Her husband, Alan Mendoza, is on the board of the Spanish and Portuguese community.

She has a strong interest in Israel, which stretches back to her time at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where she earned a postgraduate degree in Middle East studies. After university, she worked as a research analyst specialising in the region, joining the JLC in 2011, as director of policy and public affairs.

Janes was also active in the community early on, growing up in the RSY-Netzer youth movement, but never thought it would be her job. “It wasn’t something that I had thought about as a career.”

She started out as a teacher, heading a department in a London school and later “fell into” an operations director job at Masorti Judaism. “I just found a place and found I could use my skills. It felt very comfortable and it was a really wonderful environment to work in,” she recalls.

The opportunity was her first brush with Masorti Judaism, and it was a “kind of an exploration,” she says. She was born to an Egyptian dad and an Iraqi mum and grew up in Wembley and Edgware where she attended local schools. “Although my parents have been members of Wembley Sephardi synagogue, I found my home in the Reform movement and RSY.”

Her husband, Rabbi Neil Janes, 44, who is soon to join South Bucks Jewish Community, is “a very supportive partner”. She hopes her daughters, aged eight and ten, “see that I’m doing what I can do and that women can hold leadership responsibilities, as anybody can.”

She and Mendoza first met some years ago on a women’s leadership programme run by the JLC’s leadership division, Lead. “If you had told us six years ago that the two of us would be in the same office running the Jewish Leadership Council, we would have just probably laughed,” says Mendoza. But having that mutual history, Janes adds, prepared them for their joint role, giving them an in-depth understanding of each other’s specialities and working methods.

Their co-appointment to the JLC’s top role, in the wake of their predecessor Simon Johnson’s departure, was an unconventional arrangement, Janes admits. “It wasn’t something that we had anticipated eight months ago.”

“All of our organisations are under the most amount of pressure and we want to be as creative and skilful in our use of resources as possible.” They feel it is their “responsibility to be across all areas,” she adds. “So we’re working to our strengths. We’re also very conscious to push ourselves. I’m not just going to leave Claudia’s areas to Claudia. I have to make sure that I’m on top of that, to pass batons on, to develop my own leadership in ways that pushes and challenges me.”

On the criticism sometimes levelled at the JLC that it is a self-appointed, non-representative body, Mendoza is clear: “We only claim to represent our members. We don’t claim to represent the community.” The JLC brings together senior leadership across the biggest Jewish charities and organisations, including synagogues, care organisations, education charities and the Board of Deputies.

“I think we do reach a huge number of people in the community by virtue of the fact that they’re involved in those organisations. So when people say we’re unelected, we’re not seeking to represent the Jew in the pew.”

As lockdown took its toll on the community, the JLC was quick to act, something Mendoza describes as a “moment of pride”.

More than £2 million was raised for 235 families facing financial hardship and organisations protecting more than 15,000 vulnerable people in JLC-led initiatives. Another fund backed by the JLC raised more than £4 million for more than a dozen residential care homes for older people in the UK.

“We stopped things that we were doing or we did them on top of everything else,” says Janes.

“The way that we’ve worked as a team to do this has been incredible and a really special thing to be part of.”

The JLC convinced some of its member organisations to temporarily halt fund-raising during the initial phase of the pandemic so more funds could go to frontline charities. “Obviously it’s not sustainable or fair to ask people to do that beyond the initial period but it’s what many organisations recognise they need to do and we were very instrumental in being able to facilitate the funds for these key organisations,” Mendoza says.

“As an organisation we still need to survive. We still need to pay our staff but I think we put that to the side and we thought ‘who are our frontline activists in the community, the people who actually have to deal with the care homes and front line services’,” she adds.

Even shared, a senior job in the community tends to be full on and leave little time for anything else, they say. “When you work in a community you’re part of and you’re passionate about your job, you don’t really switch on and switch off,” Mendoza says. “You’re kind of on the whole time.”

Like Janes, she is an avid non-fiction reader and she tries to read as much as she can during her free time. But while Janes enjoys reading about leadership, Mendoza prefers policy tomes.

“Someone gifted me a novel over lockdown, and I’m like, ‘OK, when I finish these four policy books, I promise you as a treat to myself, I’m going to read a novel but I’m not hugely optimistic.”

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