Obituary: Leonie Lewis MBE

An inspiring community leader who opened up the dance circle of Jewish life and drew others in


A trailblazer for women’s involvement and development in the Jewish community at every level, Leonie Lewis, MBE, who has died aged 66, following a lymphoma diagnosis, was among many things, the driving force behind women becoming trustees in the United Synagogue.

Her many projects included her involvement with Women in the Community, initiated by the late Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and chaired by Ros Preston, OBE, women’s development sessions through WIZO and the Women in Leadership review launched by the Jewish Leadership Council and chaired by Laura Marks, OBE.

Leonie was also my mentor, colleague, support and friend for over 40 years. I first met her in 1980 when she was the fieldworker of the Association of Jewish 6th Formers (AJ6) and I was on the first national executive. I then became the fieldworker of AJ6 in 1984, following in her footsteps.

Leonie mentored me when I worked for the London Student Counsellor Board and then supported me when she was the Community Director at Pinner Synagogue and I was the Community Director at Hendon Synagogue.

When Leonie was Director of Community Development at the United Synagogue, she brought me in to run a project, Community Matters, to showcase the wonderful work across synagogue communities. We brought many together to celebrate hundreds of examples of best practice across the United Synagogue.

Leonie was an outstanding and generous community builder, connector and engager. She wanted to bring everyone into the community, be it synagogue, Jewish, faith or volunteering communities. When I think of her my favourite metaphor for leadership comes to mind, in Dr Erica Brown’s book Inspired Jewish Leadership.

Erica speaks of the dance circle at Jewish simchas as being the model of community – there are people who initiate, people who go to the centre, those who hang back round the edges, those who don’t join in at all.

And, says Erica, there is always someone in the dance circle who opens up the circle, stretches out their hand and invites others in – that is the leader.

Leonie was born in London to Wilf and Dinah Merkel and educated at Hasmonean Grammar School. She obtained a BA in sociology from Reading University, a Masters in sociology of education from South Bank Polytechnic, an MBA from the University of Hull and a UJIA Ashdown Fellowship. She met Howard Lewis when she worked for the Association for Jewish Youth (AJY) and he was chair of its Boys and Girls Division. Leonie spent a year in Israel before the pair married in October, 1980 and they had two sons, Adam and Ben.

She asked me to support the Champions of Change Leadership Programme she had conceived, and later the Communities of Impact project. After working at the US, she became Project Manager for the Office of the Chief Rabbi, then Rabbi Lord Sacks.

She was co chair of US Women and a female observer on the Trustee board prior to women becoming Trustees. She became the first female Vice President of the United Synagogue in July, 2014.

At Pinner United Synagogue, she helped drive various local creative projects, including a twinning programme with Norwich Community, a publication showcasing Divrei Torah given by community members, and the WOW programme, an inspiring learning and education programme for women of all ages. During the pandemic, she transferred the weekly pop-in café to an online version, with a list of well-known speakers, and organised walks and garden visits.

In January, 2019, I succeeded Leonie at Jewish Volunteering Network, of which she was the founding director, brought in by Judy Citron and Susan Winton. It was the perfect role for Leonie because she had volunteered all her life.

Over 12 years thousands were inspired by Leonie and her team to volunteer in the Jewish community and the wider charity sector. This led to JVN being awarded the Queens Award for Voluntary Service, with Leonie later being appointed to the judging panel. It also led to Leonie receiving her well-deserved MBE for services to the Jewish community.

Leonie, however reached out way beyond the Jewish community and her interfaith work is legendary.

She held several leading voluntary positions including the Faith Based Regeneration Network (FBRN); the Faiths Forum in London; the Children’s Aid Committee; the Association of Jewish Sixth-Formers and the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade. She was a much sought-after speaker at workshops and conferences.

In her spare time Leonie enjoyed gardening, theatre and the fine arts. She was a lifelong Sunderland FC fan, from where her mother originated, and she was often to be seen donning red and white to go to matches.

She was devoted to her two sons and nine grandchildren.

For 13 years she stood outside supermarkets collecting for Harrow Mencap, and in August 2021 completed her book on the dos and don’ts of collecting, the sales of which have raised many thousands of pounds for charities.

Most recently she organised vaccination centres for the hardest to reach groups of people, and just weeks before her diagnosis, organised a collection of goods sent to Ukraine by Goods for Good.

Many tributes have been paid since her passing. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said: “Leonie gave kind-hearted and selfless service to numerous organisations and was a source of inspiration for many”.

United Synagogue president Michael Goldstein remembered her as “a powerhouse, a tour de force, a connector of people and organisations who used her vast experience to improve our community”, adding: “her impact on our organisation was immense. "

Michael Wegier, chief executive of the Board of Deputies said: "She was quite simply The professional’s professional… Vision driven, emotionally intelligent, utterly dedicated, and always available to assist colleagues and young professionals … Leonie was one of the people who genuinely made the world better.”

Mustafa Field OBE, Director of the Faiths Forum for London, described her “unique ability to spread kindness” and said she was an “inspirational figure whose presence will be missed.”

As many people have said since she passed away, it was hard to say no to Leonie. And that was because she didn’t say no to anything. With everything she took on, Leonie envisioned what was possible and to get there, she inspired, motivated, encouraged and she brought people with her.

So many of us did things because Leonie asked us to, either in a professional role in the Jewish community or as a volunteer. To her, it was obvious that we should be doing whatever that thing was – she would do it – so why wouldn’t we? And especially if she asked with one of her infamous text messages that you had to think really hard to decipher!

Leonie has been a major part of my story as I am sure is the case for many others in the community and beyond who loved and were inspired by her. Leonie is survived by her husband Howard, sons Adam and Ben, daughters in law Bassie and Ruth, brother Bernard and nine grandchildren.

Leonie Lewis MBE; born December 12, 1955. Died April 29, 2022

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