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Michael Goldstein: On a mission to bring ‘big changes’ to the US

In our exclusive interview, the president of the United Synagogue outlines where he thinks British Jews are now, and his dreams for the future

    Michael Goldstein did not quite upset predictions when he became president of the United Synagogue in July. But unlike his younger brother, Jonathan, who a couple of months earlier was elected unopposed as new chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, he had to contest an election. And since he was not a US trustee and had to defeat a sitting vice-president for the top job, he was the outside candidate.

    He has moved from one of the community’s youngest organisations, JW3, from which he has just stepped down after four years as chairman, to one of its most venerable. The US will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2020, during his four-year term.

    Its 25,000 plus households make it British Jewry’s largest organisation. The central Orthodox community is “absolutely vital for the sustainability” of British Jewry as a whole, he believes.

    But he has entered office against “a backdrop of significant erosion of membership in the last 20 years”, which he is pledged to try to reverse.

    As members die, they are not being replaced and the proportion of those in the 20 to 40 age group has fallen.

    The statistics, he says, are “compelling”.

    When he speaks to larger constituent synagogues, “there is a constant theme that says there are significant amounts of young couples and families that are just not joining.” As a priority, he aims to reveal practical proposals to improve recruitment early in 2018. “We are working hard to see how we can attract those people. We are looking at our proposition both in terms of what membership offers and in cost,” he says.

    As well as reviewing price structure, the US will continue trying to invest in areas which could form the nucleus of new synagogues — helping to find them places to meet or providing rabbinic support. One embryonic community where “we’ve put some boots on the ground”, Mill Hill East (which held its first Shabbat morning service in February), could be ready to join the US in three months.

    Further north in Hatfield, “things are developing — I know the numbers are going well”.

    But he has his eye on other locations, too. “I’d like to make some investment in Colindale where there has been an enormous amount of building development in the last few years. We’re looking to put some investment back in Hackney as well.”

    In one of its fastest growing areas in recent years, Borehamwood and Elstree, the US plans a second satellite in the east of the district to add to its outpost in the south.

    Following regional synagogues in Sheffield and Birmingham which came into the US fold during the tenure of his predecessor, Stephen Pack, he says: “We’re hoping in the next few weeks another northern community will join.”

    He ran for the US role, he says, in the belief that his professional and communal experience would enable him to “add something, while perhaps not revolutionary but a bit more than evolutionary as well, helping the organisation to make some big changes.”

    The US is a better organisation now than it was six years ago in being “much more local community-centric”. The former chairman of a US shul, Mill Hill, he knows the “stresses and strains” of running a local congregation. “I think I am the first president for some time who has previously been a chairman of a shul.”

    He likes the definition of the US as “the Jewish civil service”. It is “fundamentally a very good organisation, which is not given credit for the breadth of services it provides and provides well.

    “We have an organisation that supports over 60 shuls, is involved with 10 schools but over and above that, is responsible for the Beth Din, for kashrut, and deals with burial and so many of the important aspects of our communal religious infrastructure.”

    He regards himself as “very much a product of the US”, having started singing in in the choir of Ilford Synagogue, where both a grandfather and his father held office, at the age of six. “It was one of the formative experiences which has always been with me. I have a huge passion for Jewish music, particularly liturgical choral music.”

    His mother, Ann, is on the board of one United Synagogue, Hampstead Garden Suburb, and one of their four daughters is on the board of another, Alei Tzion in Hendon. He was one of the first pupils of Ilford Jewish Primary School and his wife, Lara, and a daughter teach at Jewish schools.

    After Ilford County High School, he took a year-long accountancy foundation polytechnic course. “Quite a lot of my peers did that — there wasn’t a university course that interested me.” He spent 26 years as an accountant, with Blick Rothenberg, then BDO, before two years ago accepting an invitation to become chief executive of a large private property firm, Max Barney, where he is now having “a great time in Shoreditch”.

    Now 54, he can reel off a long track record in communal organisations: Young Jewish Care, Kantor King Solomon High School in Essex, where was a founding governor — he moved north-west from Chigwell to Mill Hill 10 years ago — and Jewish Continuity, the youth and education initiative launched by Lord Sacks as Chief Rabbi.

    Continuity was “a great but difficult experience” because of the politics of trying to maintain a cross-communal organisation with a Chief Rabbi as head; it was eventually absorbed into the UJIA’s new renewal division which Mr Goldstein headed..

    But Continuity pioneered some “ground-breaking” ventures which showed “lots of different ways” in which people could affiliate to the Jewish community.

    In a way, JW3 was “a successor to some of the early thinking” in Continuity, he believes. JW3 has proved,“an amazing institution and I’m very proud of it. I think it’s added great value to the community. We’ve taken an organisation we thought would have 60,000 visitors a year to over 200,000 a year.”

    As for the attacks from some right-wing rabbis because of the LGBT activities JW3 has hosted, he says: “I don’t understand why they choose to behave like this” — though his expression belies stronger feelings than his words.

    Generally, he thinks the Jewish community is in “a much better place” than in the 1990s. “There seems to be much more respect. I’m pleased I don’t see central Orthodox rabbis going to the media and slamming Progressives.”

    The US, he believes, has done “very well” in ensuring equality for women in lay leadership. Removing the bar to a woman being US president is “work in progress — I have four years to sort it out.”

    As for religious opportunities for women, it is important local rabbis understand the “latitude” Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has given them within his halachic guidelines. Certain communities, for example, hold women-only prayer services which they did not before.

    He wants to ensure “continued dialogue” over partnership minyans, which, though ruled out by the Chief Rabbi, still take place in various places with the support of US members. “I am certainly keen we don’t turn people away. They are some of our smartest and most committed people. It is an issue we are all acutely aware of.”

    He remains close to his brother Jonathan, three years his junior. “We tell each other what we need to tell each other and we don’t tell each other what we don’t think appropriate,” he says.

    But he dismisses suggestions the US was secretive about plans — hatched before he became president — to hold its own celebration for Israel’s 70th anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall.

    Other organisations had been told about the event “for several months” and it will take place over a month after the central communal commemoration on Israel Independence Day.

    “I have spoken to a number of the community leaders,” he says. “I have explained my position and they have accepted it.”

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