Sheila Gewolb, the Deputy for Cardiff United Synagogue, has spent most of her life living in small communities. This, she feels, has influenced her to spend so much of her time working in outreach education.
The time and effort that Sheila devotes to communal work can be rivalled by very few Deputies. Sheila, who was first elected as a Deputy in 2009, sits on three SACRE committees (the bodies that decides how religious education is taught in schools) in Cumbria, Rutland and Torbay. She is also an executive officer on NASACRE, which promotes the work of local SACREs and represents their interests at a national level.
She has given hundreds of talks about Judaism in schools around the country. Sheila’s passion for educating about Judaism comes from her own background, as she explains: “I always seemed to be the only Jew in the village. I spent the first part of my childhood in Cardiff before we moved to London. And then when I was married for the first time I ran a pub in Cumbria. I’d always gone into schools to talk about being Jewish and when I was involved with the shul in Cardiff I ran the cheder.”
Sheila ramped up her involvement with the Board in 2014 when she worked to bring the Jewish Living Experience Exhibition (JLEE) to Cumbria. The following year she chaired the committee which arranged the Board of Deputies annual dinner. This led to her standing and being elected as Vice President and later Senior Vice President.
She had responsibility for the Community and Education Division in her first stint in office and this is a period she looks back on very fondly. “The Communities Division never had a budget before my time. If a community wanted to bring the JLEE to their community they had to find the money themselves. Now, the exhibition is freely available to whoever wants to hold it with five copies situated around the country.”
Her other biggest achievement was in bringing Jewish representatives onto SACRE committees. “It’s really important to have a Jewish voice in every one of the 152 local authority areas in England and Wales. When I became chair of the education working group in May 2021 there were 35 Jewish SACRE representatives and after an amazing response from Deputies, we are now up to 125.”
Having never attended university, she began to study in her 50s and was awarded her PhD in Language and Communication in 2015, a qualification which has helped her in her outreach work. “I’ve learned how to listen, how to instigate a conversation with someone and then take a step back and let it flow. I think it gives me an intuition. Now when people speak, I can pick up the vibe, and I can tell if somebody is quiet or whether they’re just shy.”
She was also honoured to be appointed Deputy Lieutanant of Greater London, with responsibility for the City of Westminster. “it’s a huge honour to be Jewish in this role,” she says.
Sheila still moves around the country giving talks at schools, although online technology has given her the opportunity to work remotely at least some of the time. But she will continue to add to the thousands of miles she has travelled. She says: “In the past 30 years so many Jewish children have moved into Jewish schools so there are millions of kids in the UK who have never come across a Jew. When I meet them they can see that I look just like them and have the same feelings and thoughts as they do. Maybe one day they will think, ‘Hey I remember meeting a Jewish lady who smiled at me and was nice’.”
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