New UJIA CEO brings global vision to a challenging role

Having spent almost two decades in international development, Mandie Winston says: 'Sometimes you need to perceive [the Jewish community] from the outside to understand the potential'


There are probably few heads of major British Jewish organisations whose previous experience has included rebuilding schools in disaster zones, or helping to familiarise African farmers with new irrigation systems.

To describe new UJIA chief executive Mandie Winston as well-travelled would be an understatement. For the better part of two decades, she worked with the world’s most famous Jewish aid organisation, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), rising to become director of its international development arm.

Given her adventures abroad, you might wonder why the former Londoner, 47, who made aliyah in 1996, has opted for the relative calm of an office in Kentish Town.

“This is my community,” she said. “One of the things I felt doing international development work was that in a post-colonial society, all we really should be doing is helping local people have the resources and know-how to deliver solutions for their own community.

“I felt the time was right to go back to the place I come from. When you look at British Jewry from the outside, there is something incredible about this community. Sometimes you need to leave in order to perceive it from the outside and understand the potential.”

She grew up in LJY-Netzer, which she and a few others turned from being “a Liberal youth movement into a Zionist Liberal youth movement”. Her parents switched from the United Synagogue to Harrow and Wembley Progressive (now part of the Mosaic community) “because they wanted us to sit together”.

Ms Winston’s first visit to Israel was on a summer youth tour with LJY in 1988. “It was not an easy year — the Intifada had broken out.” But she recalls it as “an intensive educational experience” which left her with an indelible love of Israel.

That resulted in a post-school gap year in Israel including five months at Yahel, a Reform kibbutz in the Arava desert region.

“I spent my time packing fruits and vegetables, gardening and volunteering for extra shifts. There was a very profound work ethic in the kibbutz at that time. We were inspired by that.”

There was a further year of Israel as part of her degree in Jewish history at University College London, where contemporaries included JW3 chief executive Raymond Simonson. Although committed to moving to Israel, she felt it was “not the right thing to do immediately”, having been a recipient of UJIA and community funding and feeling a responsibility to give back.

Having already served as LJY mazkirah (secretary) while at university, she continued to do youth work. And when she did make aliyah at 24, she became an educator for the Jewish Agency, which took her to the former Soviet Union where Jewish communities were re-emerging after the collapse of Communism .

“It was an amazing time. I was head of camp for two summers in Belarus.”

Ms Winston continued working in the FSU after joining the JDC in 2001.

Then at the end of 2004, “the Indian Ocean tsumani happened. I was profoundly moved — not just because of the scale of the disaster in Sri Lanka, where 60,000 people were killed in a day and communities were decimated.

“But also by this notion that we as a Jewish people had an obligation to assist and we had expertise that was relevant to be able to help improve lives.”

For a year and a half, she was based in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, overseeing “$5 million of reconstruction work. We built schools, we gave grants to women who had lost everything to re-establish small businesses.”

The Sri Lankan project took until 2012 to complete, delayed because of the civil war that split the country. “We had commitments to build community centres in the north of the country but you couldn’t access it for some years due to the civil war.”

Her missions in the ensuing years took her to Russia, where she launched an education programme on breast cancer — and also to Haiti, where she was again involved in reconstruction efforts after the 2010 earthquake.

She became a deputy director, then director of two prongs of the JDC’s work. “One was for Jewish communities in Africa and Asia, which includes India, Morocco, Tunisia, China and Turkey. The other was leading aid and humanitarian development.

“We built up a fund called Tov [Tikkun Olam Ventures], which deploys Israeli technology to Africa for the benefit of smallholder farmers.”

Tov has provided capital, technology and Israeli know-how to Ethiopian farmers. “We started with hybrid seeds and drip irrigation. The reason drip is a game-changer is because it saves water and labour.

“The amazing thing is being in a country where Israel’s agricultural technology is the holy grail — and seeing the ability of Israelis to get down on their knees with farmers and dig, which is different from what other aid agencies do.”

The Jewish community she has returned to “is not the one I left”. Its character is more diverse and, while synagogues remain important institutions, “I think platforms like Limmud and the UJIA as well allow people to understand what community is in its larger sense.”

Though increasing numbers of Jewish children have opted for Jewish schools, “that doesn’t mean we should take their Jewish education for granted. That is an opportunity to ensure they get a brilliant, quality education about Jewish history, about what Israel is today.”

And while once many 16-year-olds like her might have had their first encounter with Israel on the summer experience tour, “I don’t think rites of passage exist in the same way. People travel to Israel — it’s not affordable for everybody but it is more accessible than it was maybe 30 years ago and we need to be looking at all the different age groups where people have an Israel experience.”

Gap years have declined since her day, forcing UJIA to come up with new ideas. It launched Onward Israel last year — “a long-term summer programme. People have internships, they live in a normal apartment building, meet normal Israelis.” Numbers have grown to 25 this year and there is a waiting list.

People consumed Israel either through the news, “which is not necessarily the most positive way to engage with Israel, or it can be on a nice holiday on a beach in Netanya. That’s also not enough to engage people in what Israel is.

“Therefore, what we are trying to do is to create experiences that enable people to deal with the complexity and the reality, the culture and the vibrancy of the country.”

In 2018, UJIA spent more on its Israel-linked UK programmes, £3,274,000, than on its Israel projects, £3,164,000, reflecting a belief that identification with Israel is vital to ensure Jewish continuity among diaspora Jewry.

“It’s clear that engaging with Israel is a much more difficult proposition than it was in the 1980s and 1990s when I was growing up,” she said. “And we need to tackle that.

“Israel is a more divisive issue than it has ever been. I think our role here is to create a platform and a space for people to have respectful conversations about what Israel means to them.”

She cites the Si3, Social Investment in Israel, programme UJIA launched three years ago as an example of an initiative that “is engaging a lot of people in the UK”. It has made 20 loans to Ethiopian-Israeli entrepreneurs, for example, and supported Games for Peace, video games that connect Jewish and Arab children.

“The idea is those loans are returned to the UJIA, which get recycled. If you’re a philanthropist, your money is not just spent well, but spent multiple times. And social businesses are already paying back.”

UJIA has also had to adapt to a tougher fundraising climate. While it still raises considerable sums, its 2018 yield of £8.98 million was its lowest in 20 years and much less than the £14-15 million a year it regularly raised in the first decade of the 2000s.

Charity research nationally has shown that people are “giving less everywhere”. That there are many Israel-oriented charities competing for donors “in some way reflects UJIA’s success, because if you look at the people who are leading those charities, they are products of UJIA programmes.

“Competition is not a bad thing, it’s healthy,” Ms Winston maintained. “I think it helps every one of our agencies to be more focused on impact.”

She wants UJIA to be “bold and try new things” and intends to “inculcate a sense of innovation”.

While hi-tech Israel may be doing well in some ways according the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), in others it faces challenges.

“If you are a poor child and live in Tel Aviv, there is a path for you to be able to access opportunity. That is not true for the periphery.”

And she knows something about the periphery outside the cities. Before coming here, she, her Israeli husband and their two children, now five and nine, lived in Mitzpe Ramon, a small town of 3,000 people in the Negev.

“It’s a very interesting place. You have Russian speakers, people who moved to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, you have a new population moving in who are in the creative industries but have been priced out of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There are ex-settlers, there are Bedouins from the unrecognised villages around and a Black Hebrew congregation.

“It remains one of those places where you can really understand the breadth and depth of Israel.”

Her message is that “if we want a strong Israel, we have to invest in the under-served populations and that is a job the government alone cannot do.

“We need to talk about the fact that Charedim should work in an environment that suits their cultural norms. We need to talk about the fact that Arab women need to be employed in well paid work.

“If you look at the long-term future of Israel, the country cannot survive without those populations being trained and at work.

“And if you look at the periphery, it needs to be strengthened. The gap between rich and poor in Israel is a real issue and you can’t crow about the success of the start-up without feeling committed to closing some of those gaps.”

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