Dr Beverley Jacobson: in it for the long run

21 February 2020

The first experience that changed Beverley Jacobson’s life occurred when she was 18 years old and living with her family in South Africa.

“We hadn’t had television growing up and we had no access to international sports due to sanctions. So that day we were sitting down together to watch South Africa’s pre-eminent sporting event, the Comrades Marathon.” The Comrades Marathon is the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon, challenging up to 25,000 participants a year to run the 55 miles between Pietermaritzburg and Durban in less than 11 hours.

Watching the event unfold with her three “ultra-competitive” brothers, Jacobson said: “If I do that next year, what will you all give me?” The next day she went for a jog. One kilometre turned to three, and three turned to five until Jacobson was running 10km every day. “The thing I liked best about it was the direct correlation between effort and outcome. With running, you find out quickly that the more you put in the more you get out.”

The following year, Jacobson completed the Comrades Marathon in 10 hours and 12 minutes, running from 6am to 4.12pm on chocolate, Coca-Cola, one toilet break and the support of her watching family.

“That was the moment I realised that you can overcome any barrier in your life – real or imagined. And that is so empowering because by overcoming barriers you somehow transcend the real world and work out what is and isn’t important.”

Less than a decade later, and with Jacobson now a qualified doctor living in London while studying for a Master of Business Administration at the London Business School, these lessons were to prove crucial during the second experience that would change Jacobson’s life.

On Yom Kippur 1994, Jacobson gave birth to her first child. Talya was born with meningitis and septicaemia but, with “medical intervention and Hashem’s blessing”, she pulled through. She did, though, suffer extensive damage to her brain. “Suddenly,” says Jacobson, “I was catapulted into what was, for me, the unseen world of disability.”

As Tali’s early years were “passing in a blur”, Jacobson – who had joined a Norwood support group to help her get through the days – decided she wanted to give something back to the charity. In the late 1990s she ran the London Marathon raising money for Norwood. The fundraising turned to campaigning until, via a stint as the chief executive at Kisharon, Jacobson was made chief executive of Norwood at the end of 2018.

Bev and Talya at the Maccabi Community Fun Run in 2019. Bev has just completed a run in the sweltering heat while wearing Norwood’s bear mascot costume

If some are born to run a major charity, and some achieve the running of a major charity, it’s fair to say that Jacobson had the running of a major charity thrust upon her. “My background was not – except through lived experience – in social care, so without my daughter I would never have stumbled into this,” she says.

As to whether such a deep, personal involvement helps or hinders her working life, Jacobson says only that she finds it “hugely helpful” adding that “it certainly fuels the passion”.

Dr Beverley Jacobson and Talya at Norwood’s Purim party in 2019
Dr Beverley Jacobson and Talya at Norwood’s Purim party in 2019

As far as Norwood’s place in the wider community is concerned, Jacobson is on a mission to empower, educate and enlighten in equal measure. “If we can provide a framework of support within a Jewish infrastructure – with all the festivals and holy days marked and Friday nights celebrated – it feels as if we are offering a continuation of family. Statutory care is there to keep people safe, but that is simply not good enough for Norwood. We have to create meaningful outcomes for all the people who come through our door – from families going through difficult times to people with lifelong learning challenges. If we can improve the outcome for the people we support, then that will have ramifications for the whole family, which in turn will have ramifications for the entire community.”

Though her transformation of the UK’s oldest Jewish charity is ongoing, Jacobson is, rightly, immensely proud of Norwood’s incredible past. “You can track the history of the Jewish people in Britain through the way Norwood has evolved in its 225 years,” she says.

And with that, Beverley Jacobson goes back to her desk to work tirelessly at her stated mission to “turn despair into hope and transform the lives of the people we support”. Which means that if running a charity has anything in common with running a marathon – ie, if there is a direct correlation between effort and outcome – then the future for this particular Jewish charity is going to be something to behold.

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