You & US: Hi Stephen, it has been six months since your election. How have things been progressing?
SP: It has been an intense and enjoyable six months. The US is an impressive and unique organisation and I hope to improve and build on its strengths significantly during my tenure.
You & US: Your election manifesto focused on 15 points that you believe The US should address. Let’s focus on a few of them and see what progress has been made.
The Younger Generation: You have said that attracting young people to The US and giving them active roles is key to “securing the future of The US”. How will this happen and in what form?
SP: We have already launched a new initiative called the Young Leaders Group which I am immensely excited about. The first meeting of the Group generated some great suggestions ranging from events in the City to programmes for US singles. We have already prepared an agenda for the follow up meeting on Sunday January 29th at The US Centre and I want to encourage anyone who is interested to get involved. This is a fantastic opportunity to get input from the younger generation which is crucial because they are the key to the future of The US and British Jewry.
The next meeting will include a progress report and a discussion on the best approach to making The US more attractive our younger members. We will also be looking at the best ways to attract younger, unaffiliated Jews to The US.
One of the main objectives is to create a steering group run by the young leaders which will empower them to help us drive The US forward.
Increased Autonomy for Shuls: How are you going about doing this? Does this mean that you are essentially giving the Synagogues complete control over the way they serve their communities?
SP: I am a big believer in allowing Synagogue Rabbis and lay leaders to decide what works best for their individual communities. No two Shuls are the same which means that we can’t expect them to run the same sets of programmes and services for its membership. My opinion is that as long as they conform to accepted halacha, are not running at a loss and uphold US values, there is no reason to interfere with the way the Shul is run. The Centre is here to support, not dictate to communities.
Trustees to adopt communities and obtain regular feedback: This sounds like a positive idea. Have any trustees been appointed Shuls yet? If so, what has the response been like from both the Trustees and their appointed communities. What is the overriding purpose of this initiative?
SP: This was implemented soon after I was elected and the response from both Trustees and Shuls has been overwhelmingly positive.
The idea is to increase the lines of communication between the Centre and the communities. It is not only Shuls that are being adopted by the Trustees, they have also been assigned a department from within The US Centre, such as Marketing, Finance or US Chesed. This is especially useful for Trustee meetings, as they have a greater level of knowledge about the different communities and the way they are being run which means they can communicate whether support is needed and where there are issues to be resolved.
It also helps the communities as they have a ‘champion’ Trustee, who understands their issues, can support their needs and make sure new initiatives are offered to Shuls.
Merge and build closer relationships with other communities: We have recently seen St Albans become a full member of The US and there have been Tribe youth workers appointed in Manchester. Is this what you envisage when you talk about closer relations with other communities? What about others such as the Spanish & Portuguese and Federation?
SP: The US welcomes the addition of Affiliates taking full membership status and we believe we have the necessary infrastructure to assist them. But it is a choice that they have to make for themselves. There is no pressure of any sort by The US. Where we can help, we can and we will, if asked.
We have a good and close working relationship with other Jewish communities across the UK and have co-operated with them on matters which are of mutual interest to Anglo Jewry such as Shechita and Brit Milah. We invited leaders of the S&P community and the Federation to act as observers to the process in the selection of the Chief Rabbi and they attended the first meeting.
We have visited a number of communities in the provinces and there has been a lot of interest shown in the programmes run by Tribe. If we are asked for assistance or a community wishes to implement one of our programmes, then The US is more than happy to assist where we can. The appointment of the Tribe Youth workers at Prestwich Shul in Manchester came after we were approached to help run programmes in the provinces and it is encouraging to see how successful it is.
Secure appointment of the next Chief Rabbi: This has been a hot topic in the local and global press. What do you want to say about it?
SP: The process has started and is running exactly as planned. We had the first meeting of the Representative Group on December 11th 2011 with delegates coming from across London and the provinces. We explained the process in detail and the next step will be the meeting of the Consulting group on January 25th.
What I would like to stress is that I believe this to be the most transparent process for the selection of the Chief Rabbi. All the latest documents are available on the website and I encourage people to look at this if they want to gain a better understanding of the process.
Relationship with Board of Deputies (BOD) and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC): What is your opinion of the relationship between The US and these groups?
SP: The majority of deputies to the Board are US members, which of course reflects the relative size of our community. If we want the Board of Deputies to do the right things for us, then we need to ensure that we get the right deputies appointed. It is a very important job and we have to give it to deputies who really care and take their responsibilities seriously.
I am in the process of meeting and familiarising myself with the JLC and its working functions and I intend to work closely with them in a way to best advance the interests of the United Synagogue and British Jewry in a positive way.
Better Key Performance Indicators: How will you go about assessing what is happening across The US and where we can improve?
SP: At our last Trustee meeting we had a presentation from our Consultant Marketing Director, outlining the key performance indicators proposed for the organisation. We are intending to start measuring a number of areas which will help us to assess what is going on across The US. We are going to do this properly and will place a special focus on trends in membership.
You & US: Is there anything within your manifesto that you have changed your stance on or maybe not made as much progress as you would have liked?
SP: I am impatient to move more quickly, but overall I am pleased with what has been accomplished so far. Many of our initiatives are still at a relatively early stage, but I think we are on track to make some important changes. I am also conscious that our professional staff are doing excellent work and it is important to let them run the organisation rather than get in their way. The Trustees input is primarily concerned with strategy and governance.
You & US: 2011 was a big year for the United Synagogue with a whole range of new programmes and initiatives launched. Which ones are you most proud of?
SP: Across the whole of The US there have been some really amazing initiatives. The launch of the first ever Tribe Israel Tour was an amazing success and it was supported by the incredible US Chesed department who offered bursaries to those US families who otherwise could not afford to send their children to Israel.
US Chesed have made a tremendous impact on thousands of people both within and outside the Jewish community, be it through organising blood donor sessions at Hendon US or preparing and delivering thousands of Pesach and Rosh Hashanah parcels to assist people.
Also The US Living & Learning department under the stewardship of Rabbis Andrew Shaw and Michael Laitner have introduced some fantastic initiatives including the newlyweds’ course, educational trips to Poland and a range of learning programmes at various US Shuls.
You & US: What about the media image of The US? You mentioned before your election that people view The US as an older organisation with a brand seen as ‘unattractive’ to the Facebook and Twitter generation. Do you think The US has started to address these problems?
SP: As I mentioned earlier on we are addressing this issue head on and it is on the agenda for discussion at the Young Leaders Group. There is a danger that we believe our own publicity and assume everyone knows about the great initiatives that exist. But in reality there are thousands of members who still see The US as that old, tired organisation and we need to show them that The US is changing for the better with a fresher and more exciting image.
To that effect, we have the recently launched You & US website which is eye catching and entertaining to read and we have our team working on Facebook to better engage with the ‘online’ generation. We are aware that there is a lot to do and this is just the beginning.
You & US: You have attended some major events in your first six months as President. Which ones stand out and why?
SP: There are lots. I have visited many communities both small and large and had two interesting visits to Downing Street and to the Israeli Embassy. I have been to several openings such as the new Mikveh in Cockfosters, the refurbished LSJS and the new Jewish Care centre in Golders Green.
You & US: What are your hopes for the future of British Jewry when you take on board the issues that we have had such as brit milah, schechita and support (or the lack of it) for Israel?
SP: We are facing some really major challenges and unfortunately not just from outside the Jewish community. I ought to mention that I played a part in getting the Big Tent for Israel event back on track after threats to boycott it. It took a number of calls to sensible people and arranging some compromises and I am proud that I was able to help out and it turned into a successful event.
I think we are going to have more problems with Shechita and Brit Milah but we are determined to fight for our right to continue our traditional practices.
You & US: Do you think your job is harder and more complicated than the other US President?!
SP: Well of course when you are working with our chevra everyone has an opinion! But in all honesty, no. I have a great professional team and I don’t know whether his team is as strong as ours, which I am grateful for!
You & US: What is the best advice you have ever been given?
SP: Consult. At my last job at PWC I used to say to my colleagues that the biggest mistake you can make is to make a mistake alone. So it is very important to get advice, to consult and generally not to be a loner. Our people have extremely good ideas and I want to encourage them to share them.
You & US: What do you do in your spare time?
SP: That’s easy - my priority is to spend time with my wife, my children and especially my grandchildren.