Ron­son:‘Our com­mu­nity need­slead­ers’

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

lat­est grand project, as pres­i­dent of JCoSS, the new cross-de­nom­i­na­tional school sched­uled to open in 2010 in East Bar­net, the most am­bi­tious and ex­pen­sive Jewish school ever launched by this com­mu­nity. He is also in­volved in plan­ning — “with a group of friends” — a new school in the Galil for Jewish and Arab chil­dren.

But Ron­son is a wor­ried man. “It’s be­come in­creas­ingly ap­par­ent that Bri­tish Jewry can­not take its fu­ture well-be­ing for granted,” he says. “I think it’s vi­tal that the cur­rent com­mu­nal leadership puts into place ro­bust struc­tures in or­der to en­sure our fu­ture vi­tal­ity and strength. We have to re­view the struc­tures that we have, and we have to have clear fo­cus.”

He quickly al­lows an ev­i­dent pas­sion to over­take the cor­po­rate-speak: “Look­ing at the main is­sues that we will have to face over the next 10 or 20 years,” he says, “in the ar­eas of wel­fare, ed­u­ca­tion, se­cu­rity and our re­la­tion­ship with Is­rael, I think as a com­mu­nity we have to re­alise and un­der­stand that for X num­ber of com­mit­ted Jews 20 years ago, we have Y to­day. We also have ac­cel­er­ated the as­sim­i­la­tion within the com­mu­nity, and it’s im­por­tant that we don’t cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion where we frag­ment fur­ther.

“I re­gard my­self as in the mid­dle, as a mem­ber of the United Syn­a­gogue, but that doesn’t mean that my ears are shut to the left and the right, be­cause I feel that for us to main­tain a vi­brant com­mu­nity, we have to have a more open door… I don’t have any is­sue with peo­ple who are very Ortho­dox go­ing to Ortho­dox schools, and I’m not sit­ting in judg­ment on whether you should wear a kip­pah or go to shul ev­ery week or ev­ery day. But the com­mu­nity has to be welded to­gether as a com­mu­nity and to give peo­ple the nec­es­sary choices.”

What the com­mu­nity needs, in­sists Ron­son, “is first-class pro­fes­sion­als. You can have chair­men and you can have boards, but you need pro­fes­sion­als who are prop­erly trained… who get paid not dis­sim­i­larly to what they can get in the out­side world. When we talk about what busi­ness can bring to the com­mu­nity, it’s that added pro­fes­sion­al­ism. There’s a lot of peo­ple that mean well, but to run things prop­erly you need that pro­fes­sional ap­proach.”

En­cour­ag­ing younger peo­ple both as lay lead­ers and pro­fes­sion­als is Ron­son’s cur­rent pri­or­ity. “All th­ese things cost money, and the ex­cuse is al­ways, well, we don’t have the money, so we don’t do some­thing. But we have to make sure we find the money, and that we do in­vest, be­cause hu­man re­sources is our great­est as­set. This com­mu­nity is not short of tal­ent, or money. But it needs leadership.”

Ron­son in­sists he has “no per­sonal agenda, other than that of my com­mu­nity and my fel­low Jews — and also of my fel­low Jews’ re­la­tion­ship with the non-Jewish com­mu­nity, which is very im­por­tant. Af­ter all, we are a mi­nor­ity in a coun­try of 60 mil­lion peo­ple.

“Be­ing a Jew, you have that added sense of com­mu­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity. More peo­ple in our com­mu­nity have to be pre­pared to be re­spon­si­ble. Be­cause if we don’t, we won’t have a com­mu­nity in 30 or 40 years’ time. I feel very strongly about this.”

The in­ner cir­cles of com­mu­nal leadership, Ron­son ac­knowl­edges, are cur­rently hav­ing a “live de­bate” on what it will cost to run the com­mu­nity in the fu­ture. “We’re de­bat­ing, talk­ing about this, the movers and shak­ers in the JLC [Jewish Leadership Coun­cil, to which he be­longs], we’re cer­tainly look­ing at this.” He is keen to make clear that the JLC is “act­ing in a very demo­cratic, re­spon­si­ble way, work­ing to­gether, across the com­mu­nity — there was too much pol­i­tics in the past which didn’t help the sit­u­a­tion”.

The JLC is demo­cratic? “The peo­ple who are there are elected by the or­gan­i­sa­tions that they rep­re­sent. There are some peo­ple there on an ad-per­sonam ba­sis, but the ma­jor­ity are rep­re­sent­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions. I’m not in­ter­ested in petty pol­i­tics. The fo­cus of the JLC is in get­ting the job done... I have been in­volved for 50 years, I sit on most things, so I’m not a johnny-come-lately. You know, the CST, with 3,000 vol­un­teers and 55 pro­fes­sion­als, is the most shin­ing ex­am­ple of how this should work, across the com­mu­nity, from ex­tremely Ortho­dox to Lib­er­als. If we had a team like the CST has built in other or­gan­i­sa­tions, the com­mu­nity wouldn’t be in the state it is to­day.”

Of most projects in which he be­comes in­volved, says Ron­son, “I see ’em through, and get ’em done. JCoSS, for ex­am­ple, is the largest ed­u­ca­tional project in the com­mu­nity — of which we’re very proud. Ob­vi­ously, there’s cer­tain el­e­ments in the com­mu­nity which would wish not to see the school built, but I be­lieve that all doors should be open.

“I haven’t got a prob­lem with you send­ing your chil­dren to an Ortho­dox school if you’re Ortho­dox — I helped build some of th­ese schools. But the [ex­ist­ing] Jewish schools are ones that, if you aren’t 100 per cent ha­lachi­cally Jewish, you can’t go to them: same with JFS.

“But if you are a Jew who has mar­ried a non-Jew who has con­verted, and you want to send your child to a good Jewish school, I’m not go­ing to sit in judg­ment. JCoSS will take all Jews, whether they’re 100 per cent, 50 per cent, or 25 per cent. We need first-class schools in this coun­try to cater for all kinds of Jews — Sephardi Jews, half Jews, full Jews; all kinds.”

Ron­son has a wolfish grin as he talks about JCoSS, whose glossy brochure rather cheek­ily sug­gests that the school has the back­ing of the Chief Rabbi. Ron­son quotes him: “The fate of the Jews in the di­as­pora was, is and pre­dictably will be de­ter­mined by their ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tion.” Ron­son, a fun­der of the Chief Rabbi’s of­fice, knows full well that Sir Jonathan, at least not pub­licly, can­not back JCoSS, al­though he may well do so pri­vately.

Of­fer­ing up his con­sid­er­able charm, Ron­son in­sists: “I am a team player. My job is to en­cour­age them, prod them… Am I a pushover that I sit there at a board­room ta­ble like a mug who leaves his brains out­side in the re­cep­tion area? No. Am I an in­de­pen­dent, pow­er­ful force? Yes. Do I suf­fer fools eas­ily? No. If I be­lieve in things and I think they’re right for the com­mu­nity…

“It can be ag­gra­vat­ing, ir­ri­tat­ing, and deal­ing with Jews is not the eas­i­est job. You get into plenty of lit­tle has­sles and tassles. But you get on —” and he sweeps his arm round his of­fice. “Like it says on that lit­tle sign: It Can Be Done.”

An­ti­semitism — which is what orig­i­nally brought Ron­son into com­mu­nal Jewish life — seemed to rear its head pub­licly around one of the defin­ing events of his life, the Guin­ness shares scan­dal. This be­gan in 1986 when he and three other busi­ness­men were ac­cused of steal­ing nearly £6m from Guin­ness in a shares-sup­port op­er­a­tion. Ron­son, who has al­ways in­sisted that he had done noth­ing il­le­gal, served half of a 12month sentence in Ford Open Prison. His com­mu­nal stand­ing en­abled him to leave prison with, if any­thing, his rep­u­ta­tion en­hanced.

Con­tem­po­rary re­port­ing of the case con­sis­tently re­ferred to the fact that the men in the dock were Jews: two of his co-de­fen­dants, An­thony Parnes and Sir Jack Lyons, were Jewish, and Ernest Saun­ders, though he had con­verted to Chris­tian­ity, had been born Jewish. What is his view now?

“I didn’t do any­thing il­le­gal,” he says. “I am not a stupid per­son, and I am not dis­hon­est. I cer­tainly would not have done the things that I was ac­cused of. It was like a foot­ball match where you have an ac­tion re­play and change the rule book. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was very suc­cess­ful, and I was non-Es­tab­lish­ment. And I hap­pened to be Jewish, and that made me dis­pos­able.

“It’s all his­tory. I never got bit­ter. I’ve al­ways ac­cepted it as a big boy. I got a bit of a bloody nose. It was very painful for my fam­ily, even though I could han­dle it. “The good Lord blessed me with the strength, and when you have a trauma like that in your life, you have to take from that ex­pe­ri­ence what en­ables you to walk out the door wiser, fit­ter, smarter, and with a smile on your face. Then you’re the win­ner.”

He does re­call, though, that he could “smell the an­ti­semitism, which didn’t come from the man in the street or the po­lice; it came from the Es­tab­lish­ment. In prison, I had lit­tle or no bad ex­pe­ri­ences of an­ti­semitism. I had no prob­lems be­ing a Jew in prison. I had no prob­lem in mak­ing sure that we could use a lit­tle shul for a Fri­day night in prison.

“I had quite a few Jewish boys there, some of them mur­der­ers, some of them crim­i­nals, but I got them all to­gether. I used to have a Lubav­itch rabbi come round with a long black coat ev­ery Sun­day. And, among the tough­est and rough­est goyim, no­body ever took a lib­erty with me.”

He re­flects: “The worst thing you can do is deny what you are.”

The Ron­sons ( 1) move in many cir­cles in their char­ity work, whether sec­u­lar, with Tony Blair’s New Labour ( 2) and David Cameron’s Tories ( 3), or across the re­li­gious spec­trum, to in­clude Lubav­itch ( 4)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.