Ronson:‘Our community needsleaders’
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)