Keep an eye on their faces because they are likely to be among the people shaping the future of British Jewry. Eight women and eight men, ranging from their early 30s to late 40s, have just started a new Jewish Leadership Council programme designed to groom potential ringmasters for communal life.
“We care about the future of the Jewish community and the community we are going to bring up our children in,” explains Emily Simon. A GP with a particular interest in women’s health, a mother of three young boys and a Finchley Synagogue member, she is one of the inaugural batch of Gamechangers, selected for the year-long scheme run by the JLC’s training division, Lead.
It’s easy enough to carp from the sidelines about what’s wrong with Jewish institutions, Simon says, but this is an opportunity to try to fix things — sentiments shared by her colleagues. “It’s about wanting to do something and not just have the community that we have inherited,” says Joanne Greenaway, 37, an Orthodox City lawyer who is on maternity leave with her fourth child.
Gamechangers is “about motivating you to want to be part of it rather than looking from the outside”. Its organisers “value a fresh perspective and want to listen to new ideas”.
Some of the participants have already made a mark on the communal scene, such as Dina Brawer, rattling the religious establishment as UK ambassador of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, or Natalie Grazin, founder of LGBT network Kesher and co-chairman of the new cross-communal Alma primary school. Most have a track record as volunteers with Jewish organisations.
Over the year, they will be mentored by a wide range of community activists, hear from leading Jewish figures from other countries and devise a practical project to create positive change.
“There are good things and bad things,” notes Adam Cannon, 40, a director of Israel advocacy group Bicom and the Telegraph’s editorial legal director. “One good thing is that we are far more influential as a community than people give us credit for. Jewish causes and issues are of interest to the wider public because we are willing to put ourselves out there.” But one of the negatives is “too much time involved in personal politics [rather] than real issues”.
For Bournemouth-born Eliot Kaye, 39, a former co-chairman of the Limmud conference and a founder of new United Synagogue community Alei Tzion in Hendon, a key challenge is streamlining communal organisations and encouraging greater co-operation.
Also crucial is “trying to bridge various divisions — between those in north-west London and those who do not live there, between the Charedim and non-religious, between the haves and have-nots”.
While the programme enjoys cross-communal backing from a wide spectrum of organisations, it has not escaped controversy. Deputy JNF chairman Michael Sinclair says he was told by some participants that the subject of Israel was avoided because it was divisive and that they viewed the JLC leadership as anti-Israel.
The claims are dismissed as “ridiculous” by Gamechanger Lee Petar, a former deputy director of Bicom, who points out that the climax of the programme will be a seminar in Israel. “The JLC is not anti-Israel,” he says. “I would not have been on the programme if it were.”