Challenges on daily basis for Jon - be it shechita or brit mila

DAVID SAFFER chats to the man at the helm of the representative body of British Jewry

BOARD of Deputies chief executive officer Jon Benjamin responds to the needs of British Jews on a daily basis.

For eight years he has been at the helm of the community's democratically elected cross-communal organisation which its mission statement states "exists to promote and defend the religious and civil liberties of British Jewry" by connecting with government, media and wider society.

Challenges are aplenty and none more so than in recent weeks when deputies debated the Board's controversial tie-up with Oxfam GB.

A plenary meeting resulted in a 2-1 vote in favour of the Grow Tatzmiach project - but democracy was the main winner for this affable south Londoner.

"The result represents a large constituency, not just individuals naval gazing at the Board of Deputies but people representing constituencies, be they students, youth movements and synagogues," he said.

"The debate was not bogged down in procedural points, people spoke to the issue and there was a clear decision at the end."

He added: "The fact that deputies are vocal means they should be listened to, but there is such a thing as a lesser vocal majority as well. However, we need to understand what the community needs from us.

"We'd been saying to Oxfam for years 'this is and this is not' acceptable.

"This is the Board doing what it should be doing."

Born in Croydon, Jon is the younger son of Alan and Barbara Benjamin. His elder brother, Paul, died six years ago.

Jon's father was in business as a stamp dealer from the early 1960s for more than 40 years.

A world expert on British stamp errors, he still dabbles in philately.

"My interest was not beyond what any schoolboy might have for a short period," quipped Jon.

"Like banknotes, British stamps are produced to an incredibly high standard but if something goes wrong, say the colour or part of the Queen is missing, then they have an even greater value."

Jon added that his father arranged for the Post Office to produce special first-day covers for the 350th anniversary of the Jewish community in 2006 and 250th anniversary of the Board four years later.

Brought up in an Orthodox home, Jon has fond memories of seder nights with extended family, Simchat Torah and Chanucah.

A keen reader, cyclist and skier, he still follows the fortunes of his boyhood football team Crystal Palace.

"Malcolm Allison was manager when my parents ran charity events for the '35s who raised awareness about the refusniks," recalled Jon.

"Malcolm was guest speaker and entertained a crowd in his flamboyant style."

Jon graduated in law at Manchester University, which is where he met his wife Suzanne, who was reading management sciences at UMIST.

A litigator in the City at Denton Hall Burgin, Warrens (now SNR Denton) and Teacher Stern Selby for eight years, the law was not for him.

And between his first law jobs, Jon and Suzanne backpacked through India, South-East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United States.

Jon moved into communal service, firstly with UJIA where he headed up the business division before his appointment as chief executive officer at British ORT before joining the Board in January, 2005.

"My work at the Board is lobbying, political and all-embracing," he said. "Everything that impacts on the Jewish community the Board will get involved with in some way."

In terms of early challenges, Jon recalled responding to the controversy following the publication of photographs of Prince Harry wearing a fancy dress Nazi uniform in his first week.

And shortly afterwards, the Mayor of London at the time, Ken Livingstone, referred to a Jewish journalist as a "German war criminal" and "concentration camp guard".

The Board referred the latter matter to the Standards Board for England.

"This job is relentless because we deal with so many different issues," he said. "Issues fly at you from all sides.

"There are continual challenges, one after the other - everything from world events to charity law and equalities."

Regarding Israel, he noted: "The Board's position is that we are not the Zionist Federation or an outpost of the Israeli embassy, but British Jews are deeply connected with Israel.

"It's so integral to our lives. The way Israel is perceived and represented in public life in this country impacts on us as Jews.

"The Board's role is to try to ensure that for British Jews, Israel's currency is protected, and that the Jewish community here knows how to find out information that helps them be advocates for Israel.

"We don't produce materials - we are not Bicom or an advocacy organisation but try to help people frame their arguments to feel they can play their part in answering Israel's case."

Education is also a facet the Board takes a lead on and Jon played a key role in faith schools knowledge of the Holocaust, specifically on looted art.

"A few years ago, artefacts were in public collections without a good understanding of how they got there," he recalled.

"The National Gallery, being a public trust, couldn't simply hand over a work of art to someone who claimed title to it.

"There needed to be special legislation to allow them to relinquish the title to give it to the rightful heirs." On the strength of British Jewry, he lamented that Americans and Israelis sometimes state that British and European Jews were afraid to "stick their heads above the parapet".

"That is not the case," he said. "Jews are out there, outspoken and proud.

"I can't say how that compares with Kiev or Paris but in London, Manchester and Leeds for the most part the Jewish community is confident and leads a full active life as British Jews."

He added: "There are issues, especially around Israel, where people feel more vulnerable, but communal institutions such as the Board, ZF and Bicom are there for individuals so they feel supported.

"And in terms of vibrancy, look at Limmud and Jewish schools. And Jewish Book Week is one of the biggest cultural events, not just in the Jewish calendar but in London.

"There are also Jewish TV programmes, whether you like them or not, that have resulted in a general perceptible change and it's a change for the positive."

Jon sits on the Charity Commission's Faiths Advisory Council, chairs the Chief Executives' Forum for Jewish Charities, is a member of the Policy Research Advisory Group of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and Board member of the World Council of Jewish Communal Service.

And he believes the Board in 2013 is reacting to the changing face of the Jewish community.

"We had a very positive experience with our last elections by bringing in new voices, confident people who get up and speak, representing different constituencies," he said.

"The challenge is to keep on top of how the community is changing and make sure we are connected to all parts of it."

Looking to the future, he is aware of challenges ahead.

"The Jewish community often thinks we are integrated and don't make trouble," he said.

"We just want to be allowed to practise our religion and live as Jews in this country.

"That may not sound like an ask but it's a big ask because there are constant changes to policy and legislation.

"Unintentional consequences might be a side-swipe at shechita, a threat to brit mila or faith schools. We are here to protect and promote the civil and religious rights of the Jewish community, but it's a constant job.

"Even if we are not the intended targets of changes in policy or legislation, we have to be constantly there to make sure the position the Jewish community enjoys is not undermined and, if anything, promoted."

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph