Rosalind Preston, the first woman to be elected vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a post she held from 1991–1994, was born on December 29, 1935, in Jubilee Street, in the heart of the East End of London. Her parents were both native Londoners; her father, Benjamin Morris, born in 1910, was the company director of the family business Sidroy Lingerie, which was set up after his marriage to Marie Feltz in 1932 in partnership with Marie’s two brothers, Jack and Morris (grandfather of the television personality Vanessa Feltz). They were in many ways a typical East End Jewish family, working in the “rag trade,” in a business which they had built up from nothing to a profitable company manufacturing ladies’ lingerie. Marie Morris (1910–1998) fitted the stereotype of the “typical Jewish mother” with her huge, loving, domineering and slightly neurotic character. Benjamin and Marie’s eldest surviving daughter Rosalind (their first child died soon after birth, a tragedy from which Rosalind believes her mother never fully recovered) remembers Marie’s wonderful sense of humour and the way in which she dominated her family, including her husband, though she recalls that when she was around sixteen years old her mother succumbed to clinical depression which dogged her for the rest of her life. Her father, who died in 1972, was, she recalls, a loving husband and father, but much less of a force in the family which was so dominated by the strong personalities of his wife and her two brothers.
The family’s Jewish identity was very much in the English-Jewish mold of the time: they were members of the United Synagogue and kept a kosher home, while being lax in most other areas of traditional observance. Their sense of Jewish identity was nonetheless very strong and it did not fade even when Marie and her two children Rosalind and Lionel (b. 1937) were evacuated to Beaconsfield , Buckinghamshire in 1940, and Ben served in the Home Guard. When the family returned from the country in 1945 they lived south-west of the capital, in Hampton—about as far, geographically and spiritually, as it is possible to get from the East End. Rosalind was ten, and her closest friend at the time was a Canadian girl who was attending a boarding school; Rosalind decided that she wanted to do the same, and thanks to the intervention of her Uncle Jack, Marie’s older brother, it was agreed that she should go to Talbot Heath school in Bournemouth, a Church of England school where attendance at church on Sundays was compulsory. At the time Rosalind’s grandfather lived in the (Jewish) Majestic Hotel in Bournemouth and from the age of thirteen she was allowed to visit him on Saturdays for lunch, after attending a service in Bournemouth synagogue, thus retaining an active contact with her Jewish background and family throughout this period. She remained ardently Jewish and Zionist while she was at school and considers that this early ecumenical experience was crucially formative in terms of her ease in moving between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, an ease which was to prove such a significant asset in her later career in the Jewish and non-Jewish voluntary sectors.
Upon leaving school Rosalind attended a secretarial college and eventually, after two years working in an advertising company, became her uncle Morris’s personal assistant at Sidroy Lingerie. During this time she became involved with the youth group at the West London synagogue in Upper Berkeley Street, where she began fundraising for Magen David Adom. In 1953 enough money was raised to purchase an ambulance which Rosalind and three friends drove to Israel via Genoa, where they boarded a boat to Haifa. It was her first visit to Israel and the start of a love affair with the country that was to mark the direction in which her interests were to take her.
In 1958 she married Ronald Preston (Prashker), an estate agent and chartered surveyor whom she had met through mutual friends. Her first child, Susan Rachael, born in 1958, was followed in 1960 by Michael David. By her own admission she found being at home with little babies stifling and unfulfilling and she began to look for outlets for her interests and energies. At about this time Brenda Katten, who was setting up the Mill Hill Aviv branch of WIZO, invited Rosalind to join. As she became increasingly involved she began to speak first locally and then nationally and was soon noticed by the WIZO leadership.
In 1980 Preston was invited to be a member of the World WIZO delegation to Copenhagen for the conference to mark the middle of the UN Decade of Women, which ran from 1975–1985. For Preston this was an exciting introduction to women from developing countries which exposed her to the broad issues surrounding women’s rights worldwide. The experience was also painful and momentous because of the violent display of extreme political hostility towards Israel and Zionism, for which the WIZO delegates, like all the other Jewish women present who came from countries around the world, were completely unprepared.
By now, Preston was speaking regularly as a member of the British WIZO speakers’ panel invited by various women’s organizations, including church groups, Townswomen’s Guilds and the Women’s Institute. In 1980 Preston joined the Stanmore branch of The National Council of Women G. B., having realized after the UN Conference on Women in Copenhagen “that women have the same problems and the same concerns the world over, and that politics were hindering finding solutions to those problems.” In 1985 British WIZO decided not to send a delegation to Nairobi for the closing conference of the UN Decade of Women. As Preston was already a member of the League of Jewish Women she was invited to join its delegation. She continued to pursue her interests in social welfare and health issues through the National Council of Women, organizing a conference at the Commonwealth Institute in London on women and health and leading delegations of women to Moscow and Israel.
In 1988 Preston became the President of the National Council of Women and in 1991 she was elected Vice-President of the Board of Deputies. Her broad interests are reflected in her other voluntary sector involvements, including her position since 2000 as co-chair of the Inter Faith Network UK, an organization set up in 1987 to enable all major faith communities to come together to discuss issues of common concern, and her position since 1999 as Chair of Nightingale House, a residential care home for elderly Jewish men and women. Since 2000 she has also been a trustee of the Jewish Chronicle and since 1996 joint Honorary Secretary of the Council of Christians and Jews and the proud grandmother of three girls and one boy.
In 1992 Rosalind Preston was elected a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International and in 1993 she was awarded an OBE for services to the voluntary sector.