The Mayor of Barnet Talks to JVN

JVN were honoured this week to be invited to the office of the Mayor of Barnet, Councillor Brian Schama. A member of the Jewish community – he conducts no civic events on Shabbat and other festivals – the Mayor was eager to share his views on volunteering and the Jewish community in the London Borough of Barnet, which is home to nearly 20 per cent of all the UK’s Jewish population. He kindly offered as a slot within his busy schedule that day, which included several Citizenship Ceremonies during which new immigrants were being welcomed into Barnet.

In your time as Mayor, do you think that volunteering in Barnet is more or less popular than it was before, and what evidence have you seen for this?

Councillor Brian Schama, Mayor of the London Borough of Barnet

Councillor Brian Schama, Mayor of the London Borough of Barnet

The whole attitude to volunteering in Barnet is different now than it was before, that’s for sure. We have 400 voluntary groups in Barnet. And Barnet is a very important part of the Jewish infrastructure of the UK. Because almost 20 per cent of all the Jews in the UK live in the London Borough of Barnet, I always say that it’s very important that Jews have a good idea of civic life in the Borough and also the voluntary sector in the Borough. It’s not good enough for you to understand what civic life is if you just want planning consent for an extension on your home or an eruv; really what the Borough needs, particularly now as things are very difficult financially, is for you to have more involvement with your local voluntary groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, and to give your time and expertise. A lot of these groups need time and expertise, not just money – and with the right time and expertise the money will come after. I’ve said that in quite a lot of synagogues I’ve spoken in, and it’s had some good effects.

You recently presented the Civic Awards for contributions to the Borough. Among the recipients was Rachel Plancey, Co-Founder of Camp Simcha. How can we help motivate more outstanding and inspirational volunteers in Barnet?

I think we probably do as much as we can. Anybody can nominate somebody for a Citizenship Award and we have a panel every year that goes through the nominations to select the ones that we believe are the most appropriate recipients of it. Anybody can pick up a form from their local library, the Town Hall or online and nominate someone else. We get hundreds and hundreds of nominations, and we give only a few Awards every year, but it’s a big, big job. So I think we do a lot.

You once said in an interview that the Jewish community punches well above its weight. Why do you think this is?quote 1

There are several reasons. All the immigrant communities that come to the UK, not just Jewish immigrants, punch above their weight. If you look at the Sunday Times rich list (and you take out the landed gentry) a high proportion of those left came as immigrants to the UK from somewhere else in the world. And now you can see that the Asian communities that have come here have a culture of families sticking together, educating their kids and so on, and so they start contributing to the community here, and this means that people who are immigrants or the generation after are creating jobs. It’s a very real part of UK civic life. The Jewish mentality is to make the best of where we are. We are a nomad people – we’ve had thousands of years of wandering from one place to another – and it tends to toughen you up, which means that Jews, where they settle, tend to make the most of what they have, where they have it. And you can say the same of other communities. It’s our history that makes us who we are, and we do punch above our weight.

Do you think that being Jewish yourself has affected the way you perform as leader of such a diverse and multicultural Borough?

Yes, for sure. I am the 48th Mayor of the London Borough of Barnet, and the 16th Jewish Mayor. I have been, in my year of office, to many of the churches and the temples in the Borough and outside because the Mayor represents all the citizens of the Borough, whatever his religion is and whatever their religions are. All the clergy in the Barnet churches, for example, know that the Mayor is a practicing Jew. They know that I won’t read a lesson in the church or light a candle, but I’m very happy to be there to represent all the citizens of the Borough. In the week before Christmas, the Mayoress and I attended eight carol services, three Diwali celebrations with the Asian community and lit three Chanukiot for the Jewish community. Every one of those groups was delighted to have the Mayor there.

With your year in office coming to an end, is there anything you would like to have achieved for Barnet’s Jewish community that you were unable to achieve in the last year?

quote 2I think I have achieved most of what I set out to do. I think the Jewish community who have met me have a better understanding of getting involved in civil life in the Borough, and I think I have left a better awareness of what Jews should do for the wider community, which perhaps wasn’t the case when I became Mayor. For example, I’ve been to all kinds of synagogues from all religious affiliations, and they’ve all now got a better idea of what they should do, and some of them now are more actively getting involved. Many of the churches link with synagogues for Mitzvah Day. And I remember the first time I walked into the Hindu temple on Finchley Road there was a big banner up over the altar that said “Don’t forget Mitzvah Day!”  That got me because it taught me something that I hadn’t realised. And for my civic service, for example, many of the priests from the various churches attended, which was absolutely great. The Finchley Progressive Synagogue, for example, in association with the local churches, opens up its halls to the homeless. So there’s quite a lot going on that you might not be aware of that really is quite exceptional.

What do you see as the legacy left to Barnet’s volunteering community from your time in office?

Privately I’ve met with some groups who need funding and I’ve set them targets, and if they achieve these targets then I’ll see that theyquote 3 get a little bit of funding. Also, most volunteers were happy to have a Mayor that wanted to promote them and their organisations, which I’ve done at every opportunity – not just the Jewish voluntary groups but the other voluntary groups as well. The Mayor is an apolitical figure, and for a year you’re not a Councillor in the true sense of the word, so the Mayor just gets involved in charity work and chairs the AGM for various voluntary groups. And next year the new Mayor will do the same. So there’s quite a lot of weekly contact between a Mayor, whatever his religion, and voluntary groups, from whatever religion they happen to be.

Finally, you and your family have, on a personal level, been long-term supporters of various charities such as Jewish Care and Norwood. After you leave office, how do you plan to continue to support these charities and other worthy causes? For example, have you ever considered becoming a trustee?

The Mayor opens Somers Court, a Norwood home in Edgware

The Mayor opens Somers Court, a Norwood home in Edgware

No, not a trustee. We’ll continue privately to support charities, and not just Jewish charities, in the future as we have in the past. I spend a lot of time abroad, so it would be quite difficult for me to be an active trustee. I also have the Freedom of the City of London, which makes me of use to some of the charities. But it’s a different sort of support; not financial support but other types of support. It’s done in a very low-key way, which is very often the most effective. There are plenty of people who give financial support – they don’t especially need me for that. Charities need me more for my contacts and understanding of what is possible from what is wanted.

Interviewed by Elliot Cukier and Mike Silverstone.

Councillor Brian Schama’s time as Mayor of the London Borough of Barnet will come to an end in May, at which time he will be replaced by the Mayor Designate, Councillor Melvin Cohen, another member of the Jewish community. He has yet to select his Mayoral charity.

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Categories: Volunteering, Volunteering Profiles

Author:Mike

Hi, I'm Mike, JVN's Youth Co-ordinator and blogger. I'll be blogging about all sorts of issues affecting the volunteering community, with a particular focus on how recent developments might affect the UK Jewish community's volunteers. I'm always interested to read the comments you make. If you have something you want to see in the JVN blog, e-mail me at mike@jvn.org.uk and I'll be happy to talk. And if you're inspired by any of my blogs to volunteer, log on to www.jvn.org.uk and register to find your perfect volunteering opportunity.

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