A few months back, I received a phone call from Rabbi Avi Lazarus, CEO of the Federation of Synagogues of London, asking whether I would be interested in joining a group of rabbis for an overnight retreat at a "stately mansion" in the Irish countryside. I had never met Rabbi Lazarus before — though he has since become a close friend — and knew little more of the Federation, other than that its Av Beis Din, Dayan Yaakov Lichtenstein, is a fellow Yankee.
Yet even after learning that this would be an all-male retreat, and that I would not be able to bring my wife, my natural wanderlust prevailed and I agreed to attend.
My wife has always contended that I greatly overestimate how eager people are for the pleasure of my company, and so it proved to be. It never occurred to me that there was anything strange about an out-of-the-blue offer to fly me to the United Kingdom to accompany a group of rabbis on a retreat in plush surroundings.
Only a month later did I learn that I was expected to sing for my supper, in the form of a series of lectures, the most daunting of which would be some sort of advice for communal rabbanim. Inasmuch as I am not now and have never been a communal rav that request reminded me of nothing so much as one of my unmarried sons offering advice to an older brother at the latter's sheva brachos.
Fear of making a fool of myself proved a powerful motivator, and I spent the next month interviewing four of the most transformative shul rabbanim I have met on my various travels, and two more who started shuls in areas in which there were no frum Jews and which today anchor thriving communities.
In the end, I delivered that speech and received one of the sweetest compliments I have ever heard: "You must have worked very hard." Doubly sweet because it was true. I had sufficiently learned up a subject about which I knew nothing to convey some useful information and tips to young rabbis eager to learn.
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD famously wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives." But that is not true of British communal organizations. The first minutes of the Federation of Synagogues date to October 17, 1887. The moving force behind the new organization was Samuel Montagu, a banker and bullion dealer of vast wealth, who also served in Parliament.
Between 1881 and 1914, the Jewish population of London tripled due to an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Most of the well-established leaders of British Jewry beheld the newcomers with something akin to horror and as likely to spark waves of anti-Semitism.
For their part, the new immigrants disdained the cathedral-like houses of worship of the United Synagogue (US), England's main synagogue association; were suspicious of the learning and religious commitment of the Chief Rabbi; and were by and large unable to afford the burial fees of the US. The latter was no small matter given the poor health of the immigrants. Of two hundred interments over a nearly three-year period, close to 60 percent were of infants under one year of age.
Unlike his fellow grandees of the British Jewish establishment, Montagu shared the religious convictions of most of the new immigrants. He saw the world through "Jewish eyes," wrote one contemporary, and he had no intention of interfering with the chevros of those from different places in Eastern Europe around which the immigrants had organized themselves.
His great wealth, however, offered the promise of improved premises from the cramped, rented quarters in which most of the chevros davened and, above all, cheaper burial fees. His connections further offered the newcomers greater input into the policymaking bodies of British Jewry.
Though the Federation was the first organization of scrupulously observant Jews in the United Kingdom, by the 1990s it had been largely eclipsed by the Stamford Hill-based Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (Kedassia) and the London Beis Din of the United Synagogue. Its total membership circa 1992 consisted of 7,000 aging members.
By then, however, the seeds of rebirth had been planted. The appointment of American-born Dayan Yaakov Lichtenstein in 1988 and subsequently the late Dayan Beryl Berkowitz and Dayan Moshe Elzas enhanced the stature of its beis din. Dayan Berkowitz, a former law professor, played a major role in the passage of the 1996 British Get Law, modeled on the New York statute.
A large tract of land outside of London purchased in 1936 for a cemetery proved to be a bonanza. Extraction rights started to return significant proceeds in 2008, and in 2014, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky permitted the sale for communal purposes of part of the cemetery, which would never have filled up in any event due to its distance from London.
Andrew Cohen, the president of the Federation, who brought in an entirely new executive team upon his appointment in 2013, made clear to me that he has no intention of hoarding the Federation's newfound resources. He is eager to start new congregations in London, and in Manchester — the latter being the destination of choice for many young couples who can no longer afford the capital city.
Cohen brims with energy, and that energy is reflected in the Federation itself. Two young dayanim in their 40s — Dayan Yonoson Hool and Dayan Yehoshua Posen — have recently joined the Federation Beis Din. Most of the rabbis on the retreat were in their 30s, and many head nascent congregations. At least one, Rabbi Dovid Tugenhafdt, 42, has already founded two congregations. The effervescent Rabbi Dovid Roberts, senior rabbi of Edgware's Netzach Shul and educational director of the Federation, was a virtual elder statesman at 51.
In the last two years, the Federation has added two new services: Shaila Text, which guarantees a response within four hours, and Maaser Text. The Federation's revamped magazine HaMaor, under the editorship of Mrs. Judy Silkoff, is the closest I have seen to the old Jewish Observer, albeit with a far more colorful format.
Twenty-five years ago, both Kedassia and the Federation withdrew from the Board of Deputies (the main organizing body of British Jewry) over the admission of Reform representatives, and since then the chareidi community has had no official voice in government circles. Cohen is determined to remedy that deficit as well.
THE 'STATELY MANSION," where we were hosted by Yochanan Franklin, a sixth-generation descendant of Samuel Montagu, serves as an apt metaphor for the decline and ascent of the Federation. Not at all the medieval castle I had initially pictured, one can easily imagine dozens of cousins frolicking on the grounds and in the house, with its many staircases and rooms, during summer holidays. Rosalind Franklin, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA and an almost certain Nobel laureate but for her early death, was one of those frolicking cousins in her youth.
The home was originally purchased by the children of Montagu, who were, sadly, among the founders of the liberal movements of British Jewry. But Yochanan's father, Donald, began the return of his branch of the family to its religious roots.
Unfortunately, I was unable to employ the galoshes that took up half my allotted carry-on bag tramping with the rest of the group around the grounds and adjacent bogs. I was too busy preparing for the upcoming disquisition on the rabbonus. Happily, however, one of the rabbonim who had forgotten his was able to put the galoshes to good use.
THE SHABBOS PRIOR to the retreat was spent in the Edgware neighborhood, which was a first visit for me. A housing crunch in Golders Green and Hendon has driven a rapid growth of Edgware's yeshivish population. On the two-block walk from the home of my host Rabbi Lazarus to the Seed shul, we passed at least seven shuls, all of them, as far as I could tell, in rented storefront headquarters and the like. The proliferation of congregations of between 50 to 100 families recalled the chevros of the old East End.
In addition to the numerical growth, there has been a major upsurge in Torah learning in the neighborhood. Many factors have contributed, but pride of place, all agree, goes to the opening of the Edgware Bais Aharon Kollel in 2004. Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, Nasi of the Kollel, envisioned kollel members going out into the community, and that has happened to a remarkable degree. To date, the kollel has produced 23 rebbeim, nine kehillah rabbanim, four school menahalim, and the founders of a number of new boys' and girls' elementary schools in Edgware. From the beginning the Rosh Kollel, Rabbi Yehudah Boruch Lieberman, and the other members of the Kollel have given regular shiurim both in the Kollel and all the other Orthodox shuls of Edgware.
Rabbi Lazarus was the original director of development for the Kolle, before moving on the a senior position in SEED, one of the UK's three major kiruv organizations, and it was he who made the shidduch between the original sponsors and the Rosh Kollel, I spent an enjoyable hour on Motzaei Shabbos with Rabbi Lieberman reminscing about the impact on us of Rav Moshe Shapira, zt"l.
The Kollel has initiated many innovative programs. Rabbi Gabi Brett, one of the original members, brought from South Africa the Professionals Beis Medrash program, a highly structured program to develop independent learning skills, which boasts 150 participants at locations all around London. Another founding member, Rabbi Yaakov Hamer, rav of the Finchley Federated, founded Shaarei Orah, a beis medrash for yeshivah graduates now attending university in London. And Rabbi Zvi Marmorstein leads a semichah chaburah for balabatim.
THE FINAL STOP of the weekend retreat was a tour of Bushmills Distillery, which has operated under a royal license since 1608. Our guide began by telling us that Irish whiskey is produced from three elements — grain, water, and yeast (or "shmarim in Hebrew"). That initial Hebrew reference encouraged the assembled rabbis to pepper the guide with endless questions.
On the bus, we had just heard a shiur from Dayan Elzas, head of the Federation's kashrus division, on the kashrus of various spirits, and many of the questions related directly to that shiur. The barrels in which Irish whiskey is aged and from which it derives its taste, are imported from various wineries around the world.
But I sensed that the multitude of questions derived as much from a desire to return our guide's evident enthusiasm for her subject and to ensure that she retain positive memories of this rabbinic group for a long time.
That sensitivity to the role of frum Jews as ambassadors of Torah reinforced my conclusion that these young rabbis will be just that, both within their communities and to the outside world.