"5 Minutes with Simon Johnson" - The JLC CEO is interviewed in the Jewish Tribune

The following interview appears in the 7th May 2015, or L'ag B'omer 5775 edition of the Jewish Tribune

 

  1. What is your home background and education?

I grew up in Prestwich in Manchester, and was a student at Bury Grammar School.  We attended the Prestwich Hebrew Congregation, (Shrubberies) where Rabbi M Ginsbury was a great influence on me.  During this time, I was very involved in BBYO. I studied law at Kings College London and qualified as a Solicitor at the College of Law.

 2. Why did you leave a high flying career in law and corporate affairs to join the JLC?

I had spent 20 years working in law, the media and the sports industries. I had developed there a wide range of skills and experience in government relations, strategic planning, corporate management and communications.  So, when I was approached by my friend Shimon Cohen from the PR Office, and asked if I would be interested in talking to the JLC about their vacant CEO role, I thought that I had the right experience to take the role.  I was also tempted by the opportunity to work for the benefit of the Jewish community, and I am grateful to have been given the privilege of doing so.

 3. What is happening to the proposed merger of the JLC and the BoD?

The discussions between the JLC and the BOD relating to a potential unification have not progressed for a few months, as both organisations have concentrated on their respective communal priorities.  The discussions are inevitably suspended until the Board elections have completed and there is a new President and new Honorary Officers.  However, in the meantime, we have been exploring whether we can move into joint premises and also discussing bringing together certain operation areas of work, in order to create greater efficiency within the two organisations.  We already work very closely with the BOD in countering BDS and the deligitimisation of the State of Israel.

 4. Do you have good relations with the 20% (60% of under 5s) of Anglo-Jewry who are now charedi?

I am slowly getting to know and work with representatives of the charedi communities.  We often work with and meet Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, have common ground discussions with NAJOS (National Association of Jewish Orthodox Schools), have regular exchanges of good practice with Interlink, and I have spent time visiting institutions in Stamford Hill. But there is much more that we can do to work more closely with representatives of charedi communities and institutions and I have made it a key area of my work to be able to do so. 

  1. Do you think abolishing Clause 43 of the BoD constitution and making it a totally lay leadership body with no religious connections would allow the charedim to return to membership?

Strictly speaking, that is a matter for the Board of Deputies and I do not have the standing to intervene in their internal matters.  However, as a general rule, I believe that it is always better to remove any barriers which tend to create division, and look to create steps which would tend to create common ground between community representatives. 

  1. The JLC is often portrayed as a group of "unelected machers and communal officials," do you think this is fair?

This is an old fashioned and entirely unrealistic perception.  The JLC is made up of 29 communal charities and organisations, appointed according to objective criteria.  The Council is made up of the elected Chairs of such organisations, who in turn duly elect a Board of Trustees, who supervise the work of me and my staff.  I know from my experience of the corporate world that this is a very traditional structure for a trade or representative body and represents good practice.  If you look at the members, who include by way of example the Union of Jewish Students, the United Synagogue, the Board of Deputies, and University Jewish Chaplaincy,  it is entirely wrong to describe the Chairs of such organisations as unelected. And if you look at the Chairs of organisations such as Jewish Care, Norwood, World Jewish Relief, Nightingale Hammerson,  Kisharon, Camp Simcha, and The Federation of Jewish Social Services, it is entirely wrong to dismiss them pejoratively- they are dedicated leaders and philanthropists who dedicate skill, time and resource to improve the lives of their fellow Jews. 

  1. How do you see the future of Anglo-Jewry after today's General Election and a continuing climate of economic austerity and high levels of anti-Semitism?

Well, we await the detailed results from the General Election. But there are good relations between the Community leadership and the leaders of all the major political parties, together with officials and advisers, which should enable the community’s concerns to be brought to the Government and ministers, whatever is the make up of the Government.  I continue to believe that the United Kingdom is a great place in which to be Jewish, where the community is assured of its place in British society, proud of and able to celebrate its culture, heritage and religion and is confident in its exercise of its beliefs. That is what we at the JLC are determined to maintain for future generations.