Jeremy Newmark: Current Levels of Communal Inefficiency are Unsustainable

JLC Chief Executive Jeremy Newmark writes an opinion piece for The Jewish News.

Vivian Wineman’s announcement that he will begin a process of consultation with the Board of Deputies on a possible new accommodation blending the best aspects of the two central communal bodies is a welcome development.

This is the natural progression of a process that began when we reformed the Governance of the JLC two years ago.  In addition to improving our own democratic structures that review saw the JLC create a “Joint Liaison Committee”, subsequently recognised by the Board, in order to improve relations between the two organisations.

This process has the potential to deliver a ‘fresh start’ at the heart of our community. Providing not just greater clarity and potential cost savings, but greater efficiencies and a step change in core advocacy and representation work.

At the JLC, we sincerely hope that Deputies will take a pragmatic and constructive approach to these discussions and recognise the ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to achieve meaningful improvement in our communal architecture.

Since its creation under a decade ago, the JLC has become a key part of the communal architecture. It has complemented the work of the Board by creating an arena for joint communal responses to strategic imperatives, which quite simply did not previously exist.

We have delivered major pieces of strategic work and other key interventions.

The ‘big ticket’ examples include our Commission on Jewish Schools coupled with the implementation of its recommendations and the formation of PaJeS, the new permanent agency for Jewish Schools; The Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership; the launch of the Commission on Youth Provision; the initiative and bulk of resourcing for Salute to Israel at 60 and last week’s spectacular Closer to Israel Parade; the Shared Purchasing Scheme which has delivered over a million pounds in annual savings across sixty charities, schools and shuls; and the centralised coordination of advocacy work via the Communal Political Oversight Group (achieving successes such as the law change preventing spurious arrests of visiting Israeli leaders); securing annual meetings with the Prime Minister for communal leaders; the establishment of the New Leadership Network and more recently LEAD as the central resource for Leadership Development across our community; and the establishment of the Community Chest fund to support central communal service providers without a secure funding base of their own.

Perhaps what the JLC has done less well is to explain our core principles and mandate. As a coalition or umbrella body our default position has been to talk about our member organisations rather than ourselves.

However, as this consultation process moves ahead it is important to set out the realities, often missed in the discourse of columnists in parts of the Jewish media. Put simply, the JLC is the umbrella trade body for major British Jewish communal organisations.

Just as charities in the UK come together to form the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), so do the major institutions of UK Jewish life join as members of the JLC.

Every JLC member organisation has one person on the Council of Membership, our highest body. This person is always most senior lay-leader: normally the Chair. Each member organisation has its own procedures for choosing its most senior lay-leader; some elect them directly, while others are elected or selected by an organisation’s own Board.

The makeup of the Council of Membership is in the hands of the JLC’s member organisations. The Council of Membership sets our priorities. It also elects and oversees our Trustees. The model is one of boardroom democracy.

Throughout the 1990s a series of mergers and consolidations changed the landscape of our community. The merger of the Jewish Blind Society and the Jewish Welfare Board (and subsequently numerous other care charities) creating Jewish Care. Jewish Continuity went into partnership with the Joint Israel Appeal, leading to a full merger by 1997, creating UJIA.

Norwood, merged with Ravenswood, creating another Jewish charity acting as an exemplar for the wider community. The results of these pieces of communal consolidation were entirely positive. Whilst the current consultation is about a fresh start rather than a merger it follows in the spirit of those changes.

Some will say that tinkering with the communal architecture is of no interest or benefit to anyone beyond a few communal aficionados. They could not be more wrong. The current levels of fragmentation, polarisation and inefficiency across most parts of communal life are unsustainable, both economically and organisationally.

The aspiration to work more closely with the strictly orthodox community remains a key imperative. The case for change is compelling. It is down to the member organisations of the JLC and the members of the Board to express real leadership by finding a route to blend the best of both institutions.

When we created the Joint Liaison Committee there were some who said it would be enough to simply iron out the areas in which the two organisations occasionally rubbed up against each other.

It is to the credit of that group that the possibility of a more fundamental improvement is now on the table. I hope that the consultation process, rightly starting with elected Deputies, will be rooted in the reality of communal need rather than the hyperbole and rhetoric of communal politics.