By Simon Round
When Michael Wegier became Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies in 2021, it was not the first time he had worked at close quarters with the organisation. In fact, he had been observing very closely for a number of years.
Michael’s previous role was as Chief Executive of UJIA. The two organisations had shared the same address since 2014 when they clubbed together to take on the lease of an office in Camden and later, another in Kentish Town. Michael took a close interest in the activities of his new office-mates and he was particularly impressed by the changes he saw under his predecessor at the Board, Gillian Merron, whose elevation to the House of Lords left a vacancy at the top.
He says: “I watched the Board get better and better. The appointment of Gillian was an excellent one and she did a fantastic job. I thought she built a great team and brought the best out of the Honorary Officers and the best out of the staff. It was a great trajectory that I hope that I am continuing.”
While one of Gillian’s primary assets as a former Government minister was her knowledge of the British political landscape, Michael sees his own USP as his expertise on Israel.
Michael has Israel in his blood. He was brought up in Palmers Green, North London and attended JFS school. His family had a passion for Israel which Michael took on. He joined the FZY Youth Movement which had a great influence on him, prompting him to take his gap year in Israel and to enrol in UCL to take a degree in Hebrew and Jewish History. He had already decided at the age of 16 that he was going to make Aliyah.
After graduating he worked for JPMP, an Educational Resource Centre in London, for two years and in 1990 moved to Israel. There he stayed for most of the next 22 years working in education while bringing up his young family. He also did an MA at the Hebrew University in Contemporary Jewry which provided much excitement for his grandmother. Michael laughs: “She thought I was doing my MA in Contemporary Jewellery.”
He may well never have returned to the UK had he not been approached by UJIA in 2012 to apply to become its new Chief Executive. He had a relationship with the organisation built up over a number of years. He had worked there previously as their Programme Director covering both Jewish education in the UK and their portfolio in Israel. “I discussed it with my wife and we both agreed that it would be a fantastic opportunity. And it was – I had a wonderful eight years there.”
At the time Michael was approached by the Board to take over as interim Chief Executive, he was busy as a consultant on a number of projects. He assumed the Board role would simply be another one of these but he acknowledges that within a very short period of time he was “sucked in”.
He explains: “I found that I was really becoming absorbed in the engagement with the Deputies and with the British political system, the interfaith world and with Israel. I was thoroughly enjoying what I was doing but also seeing the impact of the work. I thought that in my mid-50s I still had room for one more major professional role so I decided to apply for the full-time position and was delighted to get it.”
There were two particular areas on which Michael hoped to have an effect as he took charge. “I very much wanted where possible to detoxify some of the debates around Israel. I came from a position of being deeply connected to the Jewish community and wanted to use my position to speak with very committed language about the importance of the Board for the Jewish community and for wider society.”
Michael is also well aware that the structure of the Board of Deputies means that there is a demarcation of functions between the elected representatives and the professional staff team. He has a clear idea of what that means in the real world. “Formally, decision making is led by the HOs in their elected capacity. My job is to guide them and advise them but ultimately I am aware that I am a professional employee and they are the elected leaders. However, it’s all about relationships. I have to accept that sometimes my advice will not be taken but that this will not affect my relationships with them.”
He adds that while an analogy has been made between the structure of the Board and that of the Government to the Civil Service, in reality, the two are very different. “In the Jewish community we have a much closer relationship between lay leadership and professional leadership. We’ve got different roles but we work very closely together and our work has to be based on mutual respect. From what I have observed that is certainly the case.”
Michael feels that to ensure the Board is truly representative of the community, he needs to maximise involvement in the community. “I would like to see those communities who have not fulfilled their Deputy quota to do so. We need more Deputies and we need them to be of outstanding quality – people who are able reflect their synagogue or organisation and bring their strengths to the Board.”
He also has a vision for how the organisation needs to develop and for its role in the community and beyond. This he feels should be based on consensus even if we do not all agree on every detail: “The overwhelming majority of British Jews want to see Jewish life, survive, thrive and flourish. Of course, people have different ideas about how we accomplish this and that is absolutely fine. We all want to have good relations with other faiths. We also want to have good relations with both Government and Opposition whether we agree or disagree with them. We all want to see an Israel that is at peace, that is secure that is equal and prosperous. Again, we have different thoughts on how we can achieve that.
“There are bound to be things we disagree about but there is also so much which unites us. That is where the Board can make a difference.”
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