Indefatigable head teacher who won grant maintained status for JFS
JO WAGERMAN who has died in her 86th year, was a pioneering, fully emancipated Orthodox Jewish woman. Appointed in 1985 as the first female head of the Jews’ Free School (1985-93), she transformed what had been regarded as a mediocre secondary school with a past, but not necessarily a future, into an academic powerhouse that was routinely over-subscribed. Elected without opposition in 2000 as the first female president (2000-2003) of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, she lost no time in stamping her authority upon an institution hitherto regarded by many as peripheral to their status as Britons of the Jewish persuasion. Strong in opinions, and in their legitimacy and centrality, she did not suffer fools gladly. Often this was her greatest strength. Occasionally it could prove to be her undoing.
Josephine Miriam Barbanel was born in east London, the eldest child of Emmanuel Barbanel and Jane (née Limberg. The Barbanels were of Spanish origin and claimed to be able to trace their ancestry back to the Cromwellian Readmission of the Jews to England in the mid-17th century. Her father, Emmanuel, earned a living of sorts as a tailors’ presser. Her mother worked as a hotel waitress. Most of what Emmanual earned was reportedly spent by Jane on cigarettes. By her own admission (Daily Telegraph, 17 July 2000), Jo Wagerman’s childhood was “miserable.” When she was nine months old, her mother gave her away “to the cleaner, then handed her around various other households as she was growing up.” Wagerman explained: “I would come back to live with my mother at times when she had a row with whoever was looking after me. Those were very bad periods in my life. My brother, sister and I were always dirty. We were very often hungry. We were seriously beaten around.”
Wagerman determined to escape this existence. She won a place at the John Howard grammar school (Hackney), which her mother compelled her to leave at the age of 16. But ignoring maternal opposition, and whilst working during the day, she studied secretly at London University’s Birkbeck College, from which she graduated in 1955. One year later she married dental surgeon Peter Wagerman.
She earned an MA (Education) postgraduate qualification (1970), at the University’s Institute of Education. Specialising in the teaching of history, Wagerman held a number of school appointments, including a posting to Singapore, before joining the staff of the Jews’ Free School in Camden Town; she rose inexorably up its hierarchy, and was appointed head teacher in 1985. During her eight-year tenure of the JFS headship she revamped the Jewish Studies department and successfully steered the school out of local authority control and into the relative independence of Grant Maintained Status, achieved shortly before her retirement in 1993. The following year she accepted an invitation to become chief executive (1994-96) of the college that the boxer Lennox Lewis had established in Hackney to help disadvantaged youngsters become chefs.
Wagerman’s election in 2000 as first female president of the Board of Deputies (of which she had been the first female Senior Vice-President) was by no means a foregone conclusion. In what had essentially been a masculine entity, Wagerman had had to elbow her way through the Board’s byzantine committee structures, which she conquered by dint of her own personal persistence and charisma.
But once she had reached the top of this particular greasy pole she found it practically impossible to delegate. In the summer of 2001, with a minimum of consultation, she made the decision to put up for public auction the notorious “Burton Book,” – written by the Victorian explorer and diplomat Sir Richard Burton alleging that Sephardic Jews engaged in human sacrifice. The document had been purchased by the Board a century earlier, in order to suppress its publication for ever. Claiming that the Board now needed to sell it to raise money for new premises, Wagerman instructed Messrs. Christie’s to handle its disposal. From Jewish communities worldwide there was very public outrage. Fortunately the reserve price (£150,000) was never reached, and the manuscript was put back in the safe from which Wagerman had plucked it. Her reputation never recovered.
In 1992 Wagerman was appointed OBE. In 2016 she was elected a governor of University College London Hospitals. An ardent Zionist, she also served as Vice-President of the World Jewish Congress.
Jo Wagerman is survived by her children, Anthony, former chief executive of Travelex, and Katie, a film distributor in Jerusalem, grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. Peter predeceased her in 2016.