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My time at M&S

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-06-18

Jeremy Rosen

Jeremy Rosen

In the summer of 1967 I had returned to London from my yeshiva in Israel to explore the possibilities of a job as a rabbi.

One afternoon I went with my late mother to have tea with Lord (Israel) Sieff who was an old family friend (and Chairman of the Governors of Carmel College). He was the boss of Marks and Spencer, that great institution of British retailing. It was founded by Jews and it is now the subject of a much-publicized take-over bid by another Jew ( who coincidentally was a pupil at Carmel College, Philip Green).

Lord Sieff asked me what I intended to do. I said that I wanted to go into the rabbinate.

‘Why?’ He asked me in surprise. Not an unexpected question given that my father had tried to persuade me to become an architect.

‘Because I want to do something that I think will benefit the Judaism and the Jewish people through education.’

He was not a religious man and I don’t think the idea of spreading religious fervour particularly appealed to him but the word ’education’ had always resonated with him.

‘Come into Marks and Spencer,’ He said ‘ we have thousands of Jewish employees and a talented chappie like you could have a really serious educational impact in our company. Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll hand you over to my grandson and he’ll arrange for you to join our management-training scheme. You can give it a try and see for yourself if I’m right or not. And if you don’t like it then you can always go into the Rabbinate and good luck to you!’

Now that was indeed an offer I couldn’t refuse. And so I did turn up at Baker Street Headquarters suitably dressed and prepared.

I entered a world of such passionate conviction and dedication it was almost like being in Yeshiva. There was a mood of absolute confidence in the vision that was rooted in a glorious past, memorialized in an exhibition that everyone was required to familiarize themselves with and sustained by traditions of folklore and myth.

They were very proud of the ideals of the company and its commitment to excellence, to finding the best product at a reasonable price, to ensure that suppliers had clean, modern factories and wherever they were in the world treated their workers well. The staff was devoted and excessively loyal. They were given all sorts of benefits and perks. The whole place was like a happy clappy convention of religious converts, believers all, totally dedicated to the good of the community. There were indeed many Jews in the company and it was considered important to fly the flag for Israel and try to encourage its industry. It actually helped your promotion prospects. Lots of time was spent on extra curricular activity to help Jewish and Zionist causes.

It was an eye opener. I had never before seen such religious conviction outside of a yeshiva. I had thought you only worshipped God with such passion ( or maybe your soccer team). It was very impressive. But of course it meant that you had to dedicate yourself soul and body to the company. There was absolutely no room for doubters. Several of my co trainees left to pursue successful careers as very individualist entrepreneurs elsewhere.

I had a wonderful and an illuminating time. I learnt a great deal that actually helped me in the rabbinate and in Jewish Education. But I decided not to stay. I wanted to focus and to concentrate. For me it wasn’t enough to educate as a sideline. And I was not the sort of person to dedicate myself unquestioningly to a commercial ideal. 

And there lies the clue as to why, I think, M&S eventually started to decline. There comes a time when changing circumstances call for heresy, for totally different ways of responding to a crisis. Then the very qualities that helped in the past can get in the way of change.

Now when you go into M&S and you can see the difference in the staff. You can feel the absence of the passion. It is very sad to see such a fine noble and in its time groundbreaking example of benevolent yet successful commercialism slowly lose its touch. If Philip Green can restore the passion he deserves to succeed. But so do the present staff if they can restore the glory days of old where important as profit was, the spirit mattered just as much if not more.

The lesson I learnt is that most humans can be excited by passion and spirit. You just have to find the right way of putting it across. And sometimes charlatans succeed too. But conversely, no matter how good the vision, if there is no passion to sustain it, it declines. And that is true for Judaism too.

Shabbat Shalom

Jeremy