THE MAK­ING OF MARIE

NEW BOARD PRES­I­DENT

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - MARIE VAN DER ZYL BY SI­MON ROCKER

THE BOARD of Deputies may have elected a lawyer as pres­i­dent for the fourth time in a row but Marie van der Zyl oth­er­wise breaks the mould.

Only the sec­ond fe­male pres­i­dent in the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s 258-year his­tory, she is the first to lead a team of hon­orary of­fi­cers where the ma­jor­ity are women.

Like the Gold­stein brothers — Michael, pres­i­dent of the United Syn­a­gogue, and Jonathan, chair­man of the Jewish Lead­er­ship Coun­cil — she comes orig­i­nally from Es­sex rather than North-West Lon­don.

At 52, she is a few years younger than most of her re­cent pre­de­ces­sors when they took of­fice.

And prob­a­bly no other pres­i­dent learned how to play Hava Nag­ila on the bag­pipes as she did as a mem­ber of the Waltham For­est Pipe Band of the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Bri­gade.

Her en­ergy and de­ter­mi­na­tion fi­nally saw her through in what must have been the tough­est elec­tion con­test for the Board lead­er­ship in the past cou­ple of decades. For a time, it was over­shad­owed by an ex­tra­or­di­nary con­tro­versy over a brief change — soon retracted — in the nom­i­na­tion rules.

The tim­ing of the change was “very odd,” she says. “But we have to move on. The elec­tion day was run im­pec­ca­bly.”

If you had asked Mrs van der Zyl years ago whether she would en­vis­age be­com­ing pres­i­dent of the Board of Deputies, she would have said “no — but my fa­ther had a dream I should be an MP”.

She grew up in South Wood­ford and the fam­ily be­longed to Wanstead and Wood­ford United Syn­a­gogue. Her par­ents — her late fa­ther Barry Kaye was in tai­lor­ing, her mother Szu­sanne was a beau­ti­cian — di­vorced when she was 13.

She at­tended a lo­cal com­pre­hen­sive, where “there were only about two other Jewish chil­dren in my year at school. I was ex­posed to an­ti­semitism of the rawest kind from an early age.

“There was one per­son who used to ask me why I wasn’t put in the gas chamber — when we got to the sixth form, he did apol­o­gise.”

Her mother’s fa­ther had been on the Kin­der­trans­port but “he never men­tioned what hap­pened. My mother knew he had a large fam­ily but she didn’t know what hap­pened to them.”

An af­fi­davit in Ger­man, which she be­lieves her grand­fa­ther used to get com­pen­sa­tion from the Ger­man govern­ment, was all she knew of his life.

“It was only last year I man­aged to piece things to­gether. I went with West Lon­don Syn­a­gogue to Auschwitz.

“I went to the Book of Names and there I found the names of his fam­ily be­cause the sur­name, Lust­mann, is un­usual, and I was able to trace and un­der­stand what hap­pened. In­ter­est­ingly, my elder daugh­ter Alexan­dra’s mid­dle name is Leah — I had no idea that was the name of my mother’s grand­mother.”

Her grand­fa­ther, who had never set­tled in Eng­land, made aliyah in 1969. Her vis­its to her grand­par­ents gave her a “great pas­sion for Is­rael”.

As a teenager, her com­mu­nal ties were fos­tered not only by JLGB but by Gants Hill Bnei Akiva, whose mem­bers in­cluded Michael Gold­stein and Adrian Co­hen, now chair­man of the Lon­don Jewish Fo­rum, who man­aged her Board elec­tion cam­paign.

Af­ter school, she read law at John Moores Univer­sity in Liver­pool, liv­ing in lo­cal Hil­lel houses. Qual­i­fy­ing as a solicitor, she spe­cialised in em­ploy­ment law “be­cause I have al­ways felt a real sense of justice and fair­ness”.

While she some­times ad­vised Jewish char­i­ties in her pro­fes­sional work, by her own ad­mis­sion she was not ac­tively in­volved in com­mu­nal or­gan­i­sa­tions in her 20s and 30s. She mar­ried her hus­band Dar­rell, from West Lon­don Syn­a­gogue, 20 years ago and they have two daugh­ters.

What proved a turn­ing point was hav­ing thy­roid can­cer di­ag­nosed ten years ago. “It had spread — the tu­mour was around my left vo­cal chord. That was stripped out suc­cess­fully, but it left me with only one vo­cal chord.

“I didn’t speak for three months and didn’t know if I would ever speak again. But I can — I can scream, shout, sing.”

One day, Mrs van der Zyl went to a “lunch and learn” ses­sion where she sat next to West Lon­don’s Rabbi Helen Free­man, who per­suaded her to go to the syn­a­gogue’s can­cer sup­port group.

It led her to be­come more in­volved with the syn­a­gogue.

She joined its board and, six years ago, at the in­sti­ga­tion of Rabbi Ju­lia Neu­berger and the shul’s then ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Si­mon My­ers, she stood as one of the syn­a­gogue’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives on the Board of Deputies.

“It was put to me that it was a place with older gen­tle­men, shall we say, and maybe I could bring some in­flu­ence there,” she re­calls.

The Board’s then se­nior vice-pres­i­dent Laura Marks sug­gested she try the Jewish Lead­er­ship Coun­cil’s new lay lead­er­ship train­ing pro­gramme, Gamechang­ers. “That be­gan the real start of my com­mu­nal jour­ney; it was a very good pro­gramme,” Mrs van der Zyl says. “One thing stood out in my mind, when I re­alised I could make a dif­fer­ence. There was a ses­sion with JLC trustee Ger­ald Ron­son who said some­thing and I got up and we de­bated. So I credit Ger­ald with bring­ing out some­thing in me.”

An­other Gamechang­ers ses­sion took her to Mill Hill United Syn­a­gogue, which was close to her and Dar­rell’s home and where she be­came reac­quainted with Michael Gold­stein.

It was “very wel­com­ing,” and while re­main­ing with West Lon­don, she joined Mill Hill as an as­so­ciate mem­ber.

She was em­bold­ened to stand for the vice-pres­i­dency in 2015. “I am sure no­body thought I was go­ing to be elected”. But she was and, as she says: “I had a very tough brief, chair­ing the de­fence and in­ter­faith re­la­tions divi­sion, which in­cluded BDS on cam­pus. I think that’s a very big port­fo­lio. I was very lucky to work with Jonathan Arkush, who has been an ex­cel­lent pres­i­dent. That’s given me the ground­ing to stand as pres­i­dent to­day.

“You are never go­ing to agree with ev­ery­body.

“But we prob­a­bly were one of the most col­le­giate of­fi­cer groups that there has been. I don’t think you can go through three years and agree on every­thing.

Nei­ther

Jonathan

The tu­mour was around my vo­cal chord — I didn’t know if I would ever speak again’

nor I are shrink­ing vi­o­lets.” Her de­fence brief nat­u­rally put her into the front­line of some of the most press­ing is­sues, par­tic­u­larly ris­ing con­cern over an­ti­semitism in Jeremy Cor­byn’s Labour Party.

De­spite the anx­i­eties of many Jews, she be­lieves “we are still very lucky to live in the UK”.

But she has shown a will­ing­ness to take de­ci­sions which are not uni­ver­sally pop­u­lar — such as sup­port­ing a re­fer­ral

to press com­plaints body Ipso of a Sun col­umn re­fer­ring to “the Mus­lim prob­lem”. Some deputies were crit­i­cal about act­ing against the Is­rael-friendly jour­nal­ist who wrote the piece.

At one of the hus­tings for pres­i­dent, she said she would not have em­u­lated Mr Arkush and put out a state­ment wel­com­ing Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion to move the Amer­i­can em­bassy in Is­rael to Jerusalem — though mak­ing it clear she be­lieved it was Is­rael’s right to

choose where to lo­cate its cap­i­tal.

Apart from Mr Co­hen, who is chair­man of Labour Friends of Is­rael and a JLC trustee, Mrs van der Zyl’s bid for the pres­i­dency was sup­ported by the youngest of the Board’s vice-pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates Tal Ofer and for­mer se­nior vice-pres­i­dent Jerry Lewis.

Af­ter an ar­du­ous cam­paign with no fewer than six hus­tings in just over a fort­night, vic­tory must have been a re­lief but she had lit­tle time to cel­e­brate. The fol­low­ing day, she was up at 5am to pre­pare for an in­ter­view on Labour an­ti­semitism with John Humphrys on the To­day pro­gramme.

She and Jonathan Gold­stein are due next to meet Jeremy Cor­byn in July, when she will see if “ac­tions speak louder than words. This is not a sit­u­a­tion which in my view is go­ing to be

re­solved overnight. There may be more ques­tions, de­bates, se­lect com­mit­tee hear­ings, dis­ci­plinary cases.”

Ear­lier this week, she was with Mr Arkush draw­ing up a state­ment on the vi­o­lence in Gaza.

“I don’t think the Board could sim­ply stay silent. It is for the Board to show lead­er­ship,” she says.

Now, she will have to jug­gle her le­gal career with even greater com­mu­nal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, though, as a self-em­ployed part­ner with City law firm Gor­don Dadds, she has some con­trol over her work­ing time.

She hopes to ex­tend the Board’s In­vest in Peace ini­tia­tive. It has backed vis­its from the Be­reaved Fam­i­lies Fo­rum, which brings to­gether Is­raeli and Pales­tinian par­ents who have lost chil­dren in the con­flict.

Now the Board also wants to part­ner the ed­u­ca­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion Solutions, Not Sides. “In­stead of im­port­ing con­flict, we want to try and ex­port a mes­sage of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion,” she ex­plains.

Mrs van der Zyl also wants to find ways to en­cour­age younger Jews to share in de­ci­sion-mak­ing and to at­tract un­af­fil­i­ated Jews. “We have got to do some­thing, be­cause we all know tra­di­tional syn­a­gogue mem­ber­ship is de­clin­ing and it can’t be some­thing that’s ig­nored. I think,” she ar­gues, “the Board has to take a lead.”

We have got to do some­thing for younger Jews — the Board has to take a lead’

PHO­TOS: JOHN RIFKIN

Mrs van der Zyl with Jonathan Arkush

The new Board team (left toright): Amanda Bow­man, Stuart MacDonald, Marie van der Zyl, Sheila Ge­wolb, Ed­win Shuker, and chief ex­ec­u­tive Gillian Mer­ron

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