The Board of Deputies may have elected a lawyer as president for the fourth time in a row but Marie van der Zyl otherwise breaks the mould.
Only the second female president in the organisation’s 258-year history, she is the first to lead a team of honorary officers where the majority are women.
Like the Goldstein brothers —Michael, president of the United Synagogue, and Jonathan, chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council — she comes originally from Essex rather than North-West London.
At 52, she is a few years younger than most of her recent predecessors when they took office.
And probably no other president learned how to play HavaNagila on the bagpipes as she did as a member of the Waltham Forest Pipe Band of the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade.
Her energy and determination finally saw her through in what must have been the toughest election contest for the Board leadership in the past couple of decades. For a time, it was overshadowed by an extraordinary controversy over a brief change — soon retracted — in the nomination rules.
The timing of the change was “very odd,” she says. “But we have to move on. The election day was run impeccably.”
If you had asked Mrs van der Zyl years ago whether she would envisage becoming president of the Board of Deputies, she would have said “no — but my father had a dream I should be an MP”.
She grew up in South Woodford and the family belonged to Wanstead and Woodford United Synagogue. Her parents — her late father Barry Kaye was in tailoring, her mother Szusanne was a beautician — divorced when she was 13.
She attended a local comprehensive, where “there were only about two other Jewish children in my year at school. I was exposed to antisemitism of the rawest kind from an early age.
“There was one person who used to ask me why I wasn’t put in the gas chamber — when we got to the sixth form, he did apologise.”
Her mother’s father had been on the Kindertransport but “he never mentioned what happened. My mother knew he had a large family but she didn’t know what happened to them.”
An affidavit in German, which she believes her grandfather used to get compensation from the German government, was all she knew of his life.
“It was only last year I managed to piece things together. I went with West London Synagogue to Auschwitz.
“I went to the Book of Names and there I found the names of his family because the surname, Lustmann, is unusual, and I was able to trace and understand what happened. Interestingly, my elder daughter Alexandra’s middle name is Leah — I had no idea that was the name of my mother’s grandmother.”Her grandfather, who had never settled in England, made aliyah in 1969. Her visits to her grandparents gave her a “great passion for Israel”.
As a teenager, her communal ties were fostered not only by JLGB but by Gants Hill Bnei Akiva, whose members included Michael Goldstein and Adrian Cohen, now chairman of the London Jewish Forum, who managed her Board election campaign.
After school, she read law at John Moores University in Liverpool, living in local Hillel houses. Qualifying as a solicitor, she specialised in employment law “because I have always felt a real sense of justice and fairness”.
While she sometimes advised Jewish charities in her professional work, by her own admission she was not actively involved in communal organisations in her 20s and 30s. She married her husband Darrell, from West London Synagogue, 20 years ago and they have two daughters.
What proved a turning point was having thyroid cancer diagnosed ten years ago. “It had spread — the tumour was around my left vocal chord. That was stripped out successfully, but it left me with only one vocal chord.
“I didn’t speak for three months and didn’t know if I would ever speak again. But I can — I can scream, shout, sing.”
One day, Mrs van der Zyl went to a “lunch and learn” session where she sat next to West London’s Rabbi Helen Freeman, who persuaded her to go to the synagogue’s cancer support group.
It led her to become more involved with the synagogue. She joined its board and, six years ago, at the instigation of Rabbi Julia Neuberger and the shul’s then executive director, Simon Myers, she stood as one of the synagogue’s representatives on the Board of Deputies.
“It was put to me that it was a place with older gentlemen, shall we say, and maybe I could bring some influence there,” she recalls.
The Board’s then senior vice-president Laura Marks suggested she try the Jewish Leadership Council’s new lay leadership training programme, Gamechangers. “That began the real start of my communal journey; it was a very good programme,” Mrs van der Zyl says. “One thing stood out in my mind, when I realised I could make a difference. There was a session with JLC trustee Gerald Ronson who said something and I got up and we debated. So I credit Gerald with bringing out something in me.”
Another Gamechangers session took her to Mill Hill United Synagogue, which was close to her and Darrell’s home and where she became reacquainted with Michael Goldstein.
It was “very welcoming,” and while remaining with West London, she joined Mill Hill as an associate member.
She was emboldened to stand for the vice-presidency in 2015. “I am sure nobody thought I was going to be elected”. But she was and, as she says: “I had a very tough brief, chairing the defence and interfaith relations division, which included BDS on campus. I think that’s a very big portfolio. I was very lucky to work with Jonathan Arkush, who has been an excellent president. That’s given me the grounding to stand as president today.
“You are never going to agree with everybody.
“But we probably were one of the most collegiate officer groups that there has been. I don’t think you can go through three years and agree on everything. Neither Jonathan nor I are shrinking violets.” Her defence brief naturally put her into the frontline of some of the most pressing issues, particularly rising concern over antisemitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Despite the anxieties of many Jews, she believes “we are still very lucky to live in the UK”.
But she has shown a willingness to take decisions which are not universally popular — such as supporting a referral to press complaints body Ipso of a Sun column referring to “the Muslim problem”. Some deputies were critical about acting against the Israel-friendly journalist who wrote the piece.
At one of the hustings for president, she said she would not have emulated Mr Arkush and put out a statement welcoming Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — though making it clear she believed it was Israel’s right to choose where to locate its capital.
Apart from Mr Cohen, who is chairman of Labour Friends of Israel and a JLC trustee, Mrs van der Zyl’s bid for the presidency was supported by the youngest of the Board’s vice-presidential candidates Tal Ofer and former senior vice-president Jerry Lewis.
After an arduous campaign with no fewer than six hustings in just over a fortnight, victory must have been a relief but she had little time to celebrate. The following day, she was up at 5am to prepare for an interview on Labour antisemitism with John Humphrys on the Today programme.
She and Jonathan Goldstein are due next to meet Jeremy Corbyn in July, when she will see if “actions speak louder than words. This is not a situation which in my view is going to be resolved overnight. There may be more questions, debates, select committee hearings, disciplinary cases.”
Earlier this week, she was with Mr Arkush drawing up a statement on the violence in Gaza.
“I don’t think the Board could simply stay silent. It is for the Board to show leadership,” she says.
Now, she will have to juggle her legal career with even greater communal responsibilities, though, as a self-employed partner with City law firm Gordon Dadds, she has some control over her working time.
She hopes to extend the Board’s Invest in Peace initiative. It has backed visits from the Bereaved Families Forum, which brings together Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children in the conflict.
Now the Board also wants to partner the educational organisation Solutions, Not Sides. “Instead of importing conflict, we want to try and export a message of reconciliation,” she explains.
Mrs van der Zyl also wants to find ways to encourage younger Jews to share in decision-making and to attract unaffiliated Jews. “We have got to do something, because we all know traditional synagogue membership is declining and it can’t be something that’s ignored. I think,” she argues, “the Board has to take a lead.”