Leonie wants to see more women in top voluntary positions

Doreen Wachmann meets a woman who is determined to see that vulnerable members of society are protected

WITH the current swingeing welfare cuts and the accent on Prime Minister David Cameron's Big Society, the voluntary sector will have to play a much more prominent part than ever in protecting society's most vulnerable.

Yet the voluntary sector itself is suffering, not only from funding cuts but also in human resources as more and more women are working or having to care for family members, thus with less time to spare for volunteering.

But in the Jewish community one woman is determined to make our voluntary sector face the coming challenge.

And if anyone should know about the workings of the Jewish community it is Jewish Volunteering Network director Leonie Lewis, who has spent her life working for the Jewish community.

Growing up in London's Kingsbury and attending Hasmonean High School, Leonie (nee Merkel) went to Bnei Akiva and Kenton Jewish Youth Club, as well as playing a lot of sports including table tennis and netball.

But it was while she was studying sociology at Reading University that Leonie's volunteering spirit really manifested itself.

She recalls: "While I was at university I was always helping out running youth clubs. I ran one at Reading shul. I ran summer scheme programmes at Kenton and at other shuls and I did some work for the Association for Jewish Youth."

The AJY were so impressed by her competence that they offered her the job of sports and activities officer.

Fresh out of uni, she said: "I thought I was really rolling in it because I got 3,000 per annum.

"I organised all their sports and activity events, including hundreds of guys playing football on a Sunday, fashion shows, drama events and mini-quizzes.

"I was working at the AJY office in London's East End. But I remember going to Manchester for drama and public speaking competitions. It was great fun."

Once again Leonie's enthusiastic organisational talent was spotted and she was invited to participate in a specially-funded year programme in Israel to train people to work in the community, with the commitment of having to return and work in the Diaspora.

On her return, Leonie's skills were once again snapped up, this time to head the new Association of Jewish Sixth Formers.

Meanwhile, she had married accountant Howard.

Leonie said: "He had to make a living while I worked for the Jewish community".

Once again, Leonie's talents were spotted and she was asked to work for the United Synagogue's youth and community programme, through which she organised lots of summer camps for shuls, including in her own at Pinner.

Very soon she was promoted to become a US community director - one of the first US directors.

Her duties included organising the US's massive 125th anniversary celebrations and setting up the US's Tribe youth network.

Then Leonie was headhunted again, this time by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks to work as his project director, responsible for interfaith work and creating his highly successful CD to mark Israel's 60th anniversary.

Leonie had also previously headed the social issues division in the Chief Rabbi's Review on Women in the Jewish Community

and is still involved with its original head Rosalind Preston's follow-up review, particularly in connection with the issue of women in community leadership - something of which Leonie definitely has personal experience. It was more than three years ago that Leonie was headhunted for her present position as director of the Jewish Volunteering Network.

She describes the JVN as a "shidduch" agency between those looking for voluntary work

and the organisations needing them.

And she is also trying to change the face of volunteering in the 21st century.

She says: "Visiting is all well and good, but charities need to make sure volunteering is exciting. They need to make their volunteering opportunities valuable and meaningful."

Volunteers can be of both sexes and of any age, but preferably over 16, although JVN has placed volunteers as young as 13.

The network has voluntary positions from 240 charities, including 48 in the northern Jewish communities of Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool, offering nearly 100 volunteering opportunities from football help to museum guides, befriending, visiting, fundraising and trusteeships.

Because of her interest in women's leadership, Leonie is particularly keen that women

become trustees of Jewish organisations.

She says: "In terms of trustees, especially in London, it is still very much male-dominated. Also, many women are running small charities, but very few are heading up large organisations."

Although she is impressed at how many female presidents there have been of the Manchester Jewish Representative Council, Leonie complains: "The 'walletocracy' is still male-led. Fewer women, who have large sums of money, are major benefactors.

"We need to see a culture sea change in a community where there are more women than men."

She would like to see positive discrimination on trustee boards which she thinks should be half-male and half-female.

But she emphasises the great variety of volunteering positions available, from trusteeship

to helping out the disadvantaged or participating in interfaith work.

If you would like to join the 2,000 people registered on JVN log on to or phone 0207 443 5100. Leonie Lewis will speak on The Big Society - Is Our Community Up To It? at Manchester's Yeshurun Synagogue on Wednesday, May 25 (7.30pm).

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph