Avi (Robert) Lazarus (Class of 1994)
At school, Robert Lazarus (Class of 1994) was mainly interested in sport – but when he left CLS, he went on to qualify as a rabbi. During his years spent at rabbinic colleges, he became more familiarly known by his Jewish name, Avi. Rather than working as a pulpit rabbi, Avi has instead held a series of roles supporting the Jewish community more generally. First, he worked for The United Synagogue’s Marriage Enhancement Programme and then for its Rabbinic Development Programme before going on to become Operations Director of SEED UK, the Jewish education organisation. Since 2014, Avi has been CEO of the Federation of Synagogues, offering centralised services to 30 UK synagogues, as well as being an advocate for the interests of the Jewish community in public life.
Was there a point at school where you had an inkling that you might qualify as a rabbi and have this kind of career?
No! At school, I loved sport and my ambition was to become a sports psychologist. I couldn’t have been a professional sportsman but I always had an interest in understanding the best way of doing things and trying to motivate others to bring the best out of themselves. Not only did I love playing sport but my father was also the accountant for Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and many other footballers, so I saw a lot of that world. Gazza would come and have Sunday lunch with us and play football in the garden. He came to my brother’s bar mitzvah.
I had this ongoing debate with my mother who wanted me to study more Jewish stuff outside school and I was really just interested in playing table tennis! But, lo and behold, when I was 18 I ended up taking her path, rather than the one I had been arguing for throughout the previous five years!
I had a summer of reflection after A-levels and started investigating my Jewish heritage. I took a year out and it became eight or nine years, studying Jewish texts and philosophy, culminating in a Rabbinic qualification.
I never saw myself as becoming a pulpit rabbi, a rabbi with a congregation, primarily because I had a fear of public speaking. Instead, my career has involved me applying some of the same type of skills that I had thought might serve me as a sports psychologist – basically, trying to get the best out of others and trying to help them to get the best out of themselves.
What made you change your plans so dramatically on leaving school?
I guess it was taking stock of where I was aged 18. It really is the point where you start making decisions about your future. I saw people around me, raised in the same way as I had been, dropping their Judaism. I am by nature more conservative so it felt more difficult for me to drop something just like that. So I thought – if I’m not going to just drop Judaism, I should look into it and see if there’s really something there for me. And if not I’ll say goodbye to it like everyone else. And within a few weeks of going to a yeshiva in Israel – a college for Jewish studies – I really enjoyed it and was very inspired to dive into it more and more.
Your professional life is quite different to your dad’s: he was dealing with wealthy, high-profile, almost show business figures…
Yes, and I’m dealing with people finding a body in hospital that they trace back to being Jewish, someone who has died with no money or relations and they get in touch with me and ask if we can arrange a charity funeral for him.
How did you end up going to City in the first place?
My dad had a pretty poor upbringing, really. His dad was a taxi driver; they lived in rented accommodation in Holloway. But my dad went to grammar school and became quite a successful accountant and it was his dream to get us a good education too. So after a state primary, I took exams for private secondaries and I got into City.
Which subjects and teachers inspired you, in particular?
Languages were my best subject. I have a good memory, so I could memorise vocab and get 100 per cent in tests. Mr Stewart, the French teacher, was a very nice guy. The teachers were very passionate about their subjects. Peter Allright, who was my form teacher, was so excited to be teaching us languages. That enthusiasm had a big impact on us.
There were a couple of great history teachers: Mr McDonagh and Mr Duggan, who was my form teacher for a couple of years.
Thinking back, there was also a Jewish teacher who went on a bit of a personal journey while I was at the school: Brian Lowe. He taught languages but I knew him because he also coached football. His father died while we were at school and there’s a Jewish custom that you pray more in the year after you are bereaved. Mr Lowe would come to pupils’ afternoon prayer sessions and he kept a skull cap in his pocket. Most people hadn’t realised he was Jewish. So that gave me an interesting insight into someone having a personal journey within Judaism. It didn’t directly inspire my own journey but it definitely made a connection with me.
What did you study at A-level?
Politics, Economics and Spanish. I got BBC. I do feel if I had taken my A Levels at a more mature age I would have done a lot better. In my early 20s, some of the full meaning of things we had been learning at A-Level started to become clear to me!
I was a complete nightmare in the classroom. I couldn’t concentrate, I was probably talking all the time. But I do now feel very privileged to have had the education I had. At the time, I didn’t appreciate how lucky we were to have those facilities and those teachers.
The thing about City was that we weren’t put under an enormous amount of pressure. Some public schools place a lot of pressure on pupils and, yes, they can do well, but I always feel they can be negatively affected by that experience. I think it can affect their personalities and maybe make them appear arrogant. City was really not like that. We didn’t have that type of expectation and that kind of drumming-in of confidence. We were given a lot of space. There were a lot of creative people at CLS and huge opportunities for people to express themselves in individual ways.
What were your favourite extra-curricular activities?
Table tennis and football. We also got to play golf for games. Which schools let you do that?! The options we had for sport were amazing. Playing tennis at Queen’s Club was a games option! Or rowing on the Thames outside our door. At the time, you don’t appreciate what riches you have, what opportunities you are being given.
We had a specialist table tennis coach – Mike Pantin - in the school. He would come on Wednesday afternoons. He took us to the other schools where he coached, too. One evening a week we would go to Stockwell in south London and play with pupils from other schools we would never usually cross paths with. He took us up to Lilleshall, the national sports centre, in the school mini bus to train with the national team. I played with the England No 1. It was an unbelievable experience. Sometimes, we had one of the top players – a guy called Sky Andrew, who went on to be a well-known football agent - come to the school and play with us.
What was your personal table tennis pinnacle?
Getting to the final of the national schools table tennis championships final. We only lost to a school from Brentwood, Essex that was actually a specialist table-tennis school! All the top players in the country were at school there. It was a great achievement for us to get there but once we were there, we were never going to win…
What was your first experience of work?
I actually ended up doing work experience twice while I was at school, both times with a stockbroker. I didn’t really enjoy it. My dad had shares, I had an interest in shares, but I found stockbroking itself not all that exciting. I didn’t take it any further. It was so boring it turned me to religion!
Is there anything from your pastoral role within the Jewish community that the wider UK community could learn from?
I think trying to better understand our own heritage gives everyone a greater sense of self-worth. Whoever we are, wherever we come from. I think if we are confident of our own identity, we can better understand the differences between ourselves and other people, which is a good basis for good relations between both individuals and communities.
I’m very pro-engagement between communities. The Federation’s roots are in the East End, but gradually all the synagogues there have been closed. There’s only one left now. In 2015, just after I joined, we sold the Fieldgate Street Synagogue - the penultimate one - to the East London Mosque. I absolutely loved engaging with them and have kept up with them since. And I do feel if we ever need to talk about an international situation between our communities and to be the voices of reason, hopefully I have built the sort of relationships that will allow me to contribute to that. I really enjoy the inter-faith aspect of my work.
What qualities would a 15-year-old need to follow in your footsteps?
You need to really have an interest in and to care for people. I was always more interested in that than the academic side of Rabbinic studies – but obviously you do need to do that too. So, a genuine interest in and love of people is the key quality and an interest in imparting knowledge to others, rather than just the ability or inclination to be a super-expert academic.
More generally, as I’ve got older, I realise this: you need to try and find something you really enjoy when you are choosing what to do with your life. Everyone is good at something. Make sure you are taking the right path, one that will give you positive energy. I interview a lot of people for our organisation – we have 100 employees – and I see so many people who are in the wrong job. And I don’t know why they’ve done that. But I often end up suggesting things I think they would enjoy more than their current career!