Jo Wager­man

In­de­fati­ga­ble head teacher who won grant main­tained sta­tus for JFS

The Jewish Chronicle - - OBITS - GE­OF­FREY ALDERMAN Jo Wager­man: born Septem­ber 17,1933. Died Oc­to­ber 16, 2018

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.

PHOTO: JULIE GOLDHILL

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