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Stella Lucas: Still busy, still helping at nearly 101 years old

Stella Lucas celebrates her 101st birthday later this month. She tells Nadine Wojakovski about her life at the heart of the community

    Stella Lucas, with her late husband Victor
    Stella Lucas, with her late husband Victor

    You brought your own coffee,” she scolds, as I step into her home, takeaway cup in hand.“Sorry — I didn’t want to trouble you!”

    It would indeed have been no trouble. Stella Lucas wheels the trolley, filled with coffee and biscuits, into the living room of the St John’s Wood flat, as we embark on her life story on a sunny Friday morning. The room, with its lace tablecloth, bright plants and flowers, and silver candlesticks ready for Shabbat, is peaceful and charming. But it’s the coloured birthday cards and bunting that tell us that Stella is still celebrating her centenary, which she reached last July. Her 101st birthday is less than a month away.

    She recounts her story between a stream of phone calls from friends. Involved in community life since girlhood, Lucas is best known for launching the All Aboard charity shops in 1987.

    The idea came when volunteering on the central enquiry desk of the Board of Deputies. Many callers asked how to dispose of unwanted clothes.

    “I decided if Oxfam can do it for the non-Jewish community, I can do it for the Jewish community.” So she persuaded the Board of Deputies to be the bank guarantor (she’s never needed it) and kick-started the charity with a loan of a few thousand pounds from an individual supporter.

    “I needed rails. I needed an iron. I didn’t know what I needed. I had never run a charity shop.” She had never run any business, but was determined to make a success of it. Friends thought Stella, who had turned 70 that year, was mad. “Nobody was interested in helping me start it. I sat down and opened my diary. I phoned Alma; ‘I need you,’ ‘Judy, I need you’.”

    Stella Lucas outside one of the first All Aboard shops in 1987
    Stella Lucas outside one of the first All Aboard shops in 1987

    And so she opened her first shop in Swiss Cottage. It became her passion. A dinner out with friends always resulted in her coming home with an item she had prised from them, for one of the shops. The charity expanded into a chain of 19, raising funds for a variety of Jewish causes as well as some non-Jewish ones, such as hospices and Great Ormond Street Hospital.

    Lucas was born in Hackney to Bloema and Michael Waldman. Her father, a choirmaster at Poet’s Road Synagogue, was also mayor of Hackney and ran a Jewish Friendly Society. Taught from early on about the importance of social responsibility, she formed a junior branch of the Society aged 14, and put on shows to fundraise to send children from Whitechapel on seaside holidays.

    “You canvas your weakness and you poll your strength,” she says. “You know the people who are going to do something: you leave them alone, but you talk to the others.”

    Married in 1938, her late husband Victor went off to war, serving mainly in India. During this time, she worked for the Ministry of Health. After the war, Victor qualified as a surveyor. The couple set up home in Totteridge, near which her husband founded Woodside Park Synagogue, before becoming president of the United Synagogue in the mid 1980s.

    As an Orthodox girl growing up in the 1920s, Stella felt she was an integral part in her local community. Decades later, noticing that women in the community had little say, she set out to change things. She was disappointed that batmitzvahs were not formally recognised in the United Synagogue.

    Eventually, her husband managed to get it passed by the US council, albeit too late for Susan, their only child, who had reached the age of 12 in 1959.

    Devoted to giving women in the community a greater voice, Lucas set up the Association of United Synagogue Ladies Guilds, which later became the Association of United Synagogue Women. This enabled them to finally have a vote and seat on the US council.

    When Victor passed away in 1997, his grief-stricken widow remained in her flat for three months. Then she pulled herself together, took up bridge, and returned to active involvement in her causes, rewarded by her MBE in 2002.

    She moved to St John’s Wood in 1987, drawn by Lord’s Cricket Ground. Her love of cricket was nurtured by her brothers Ronnie and Stanley when they were growing up; they played, while she was the wicket-keeper and ball collector. She raised funds for the MCC for many years, selling tea and home-made cakes to send children abroad for cricket training.

    Earlier this year, she resigned from All Aboard in protest at the charity’s decision to open some shops on Shabbat, citing financial problems.

    “I am devastated, absolutely devastated,” she tells me. “I founded it and I worked there thirty years.”

    Being busy has helped her cope. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, and has other charity commitments. Her role as assistant grandmaster to the Women’s Freemasonry movement is important to her, after 62 years of involvement. “It is good for the brain and it’s good for charity.” She’s also life president of the British Women Friends of the Hebrew University, and of the Association of United Synagogue Women.

    “I am still keeping busy and that makes me happy,” she says. The phone rings yet again. Another friend, catching up.

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