Top Marx is commonsense Reformer


One institution you might not expect the Reform movement to highlight is the mikveh. But its new chairman enthuses about the prospective renovation of the ritual bath at its Sternberg Centre headquarters in Finchley.

"If you have got something to celebrate, go and immerse yourself," Geoffrey Marx says. "That would be a fabulous thing to do."

Adapting ancient rituals to modern needs is a hallmark of Progressive Judaism and the mikveh is one example of this.

Mr Marx, who turns 63 next month, is also honorary life vice-president of West London Synagogue. He began his three-year term as Movement for Reform Judaism chair in July after serving for three years on its board.

"I'd hate to use the word 'challenge' because I think that's unfair," he says of his new role. "But I do feel I can make a contribution and difference."

To enable people to say what they want [about Israel] is important

His parents Theo and Anne - refugees from Germany who met at West London - believed in "doing something for the community".

His father was chairman of the Association of Jewish Refugees; his mother was admissions officer of Hammerson House for 50 years and is now a resident of the north London home.

"I was lucky to have as my rabbi Hugo Gryn," he recalls. "He was a family friend and always very good to me.

"When he died so early, I was just at the stage of having a young family and starting to get involved in the synagogue. But I always used to think the place was safe with him there. I remember looking down on his coffin and thinking: 'I've got to step up, because he is not here.'"

Encouraging congregation-based initiatives is pivotal to the movement's success. MRJ recently launched three programmes supporting leadership training, social care for adults and regular Jewish learning.

Its leadership training sessions are "already oversubscribed and we are having to put on two or three more than we originally anticipated. It is important to encourage fresh faces to take positions of responsibility. You don't want the same-old same-old."

To spread learning, the movement needs to tap into the expertise of big communities like Alyth (Golders Green) and Finchley with their own education ventures and widen it "to other communities that can't afford to have such programmes".

One idea is for groups of people from a community or across congregations to learn together - a "bit like a book club". They could also do so online.

Mr Marx believes the movement enjoys "quite a good profile" on the national stage. But he wants it to be in a position to address "real Jewish problems", in particular diaspora relations with Israel.

His congregation recently hosted a group of Israeli soldiers visiting as part of a therapeutic scheme - two of them stayed at his home. "They were charming from the minute they walked in," he says. "For me, it was interesting to meet civilians who are prepared to put themselves on the line to defend their country. It gives a completely different aspect and understanding of what is Israel."

Support for Israel does not preclude disagreement with some of its actions, he stresses.

But Mr Marx acknowledges that some people feel reluctant to express such views, especially in a political climate when the thin line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism is not always clear. "I think to enable people to say what they want to say is important."

He expects the new Israel desk established as part of the alliance between the MRJ and Liberal Judaism to play a role in that. Co-operating with the Liberals in areas of common interest makes sense, he says, and another practical result of that will be the forthcoming appointment of a student chaplain.

The movement, he feels, should act as a forum for debate rather than dictate policy on other issues such as how to include the non-Jewish partners of Jewish members. The recently adopted policy on inherited status - where the child of a Jewish father but non-Jewish mother can be accepted as Jewish - is a case in point.

Although welcoming the change, he respects those communities which have chosen not to adopt it. "It is for us to envision and promote the discussion. It is for the individual communities themselves to choose what they want to do."

Professionally, he is an engineer by training who worked in his father's manufacturing business. When that was sold, he found himself "in a bit of a quandary". His wife Caroline was running her own PR business and engineering opportunities were mostly outside of London.

So he took up an offer from his brother-in-law Tim Angel and, 30 years ago, joined Angels, the famous theatrical costume company.

"We both took a punt really. He needed some help on the administrative and financial side while he was growing the business."

As well as being finance director, he handles human resources and IT. "We are about to barcode our entire stock," a project which is likely to take a few years. "We have eight miles of hanging stock."

Its headquarters are not what you would expect to find in drab West Hendon - light streaming through an airy atrium with trees and a water feature, walls lined with drawings of fashionable dress and a display case demonstrating how to make a top hat.

In one corner of his office is a wired-up detonator box marked TNT. "We bought the BBC costume house about 10 years ago ," he explains. "We had a big clear-out and I was opening one of the boxes and this came out. I said it has to sit in my office."

But you suspect Mr Marx is more inclined towards incremental progress than explosive change. Asked about any weaknesses in MRJ he wants to tackle, he replies cautiously: "I'm a little early on the curve to answer that."

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