Influencing others: 60 years of Leo Baeck College

11 November 2016 – 10 Heshvan 5777

Rabbi Charles Wallach
11 November 2016

With the whole of Progressive Judaism using this week, and indeed this year, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Leo Baeck College (LBC), it perhaps is worth recalling aspects of the College – the Progressive Jewish education institute for training rabbis and teachers.

Above all, for me, is how the actions and comments made by teachers had a sometimes totally unintentional, but nevertheless positive, effect on others.

Indeed, it was Rabbi John Rayner (pictured) of blessed memory who said how influential the teachers themselves could be. In that context he was actually speaking of Michael Goulston, who had died tragically early, but John could have been talking about himself.

Rabbi Rayner’s teaching role at the college was Codes – the compendium of rabbinic law, especially during the Middle Ages best exemplified by Joseph Karo’s voluminous Shulchan Aruch (Prepared Table). These codes would usually talk of some Jewish practice, note how it was codified and give its various sources. Our task as students was not only to learn the material but to understand it and interpret it both for ourselves and for our future congregants – even if, as Progressive Jews, we had moved on and were reinterpreting or even jettisoning them.

Aware that we Jews are often given to jargon, John stopped us. “It is not good enough for you to explain a passage only partially in English,” he would say. “Remember, your audience is not always as knowledgeable as yourselves.”

That requirement for us to explain fully, to call something a law or a custom and not simply use the word mitzvah, for example, remains with me today – whether in teaching, in sermons or wherever I may find myself engaging with others on Jewish matters.

And two of Rabbi Rayner’s associates at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue (LJS) were further influences on me.

I had met Rabbi Dr David Goldberg when he himself was still at the college and would occasionally bump into him at events once he had taken up his first pulpit at Wembley.

So it was that, as I neared the completion of my penultimate year at the College, that we happened to meet. I was reflecting on the fact that, though I had by then had two student postings to different congregations, I felt I needed more guidance. The upshot was David arranging for me to become his assistant at Wembley during my final year. That year introduced me both to the workings of an established community and to my working together with a colleague. It certainly gave me the confidence to face my first community as a rabbi.

And the other memory that I conjure with right now? For that I recall a moment in class with Rabbi Dr David Goldstein of blessed memory. David taught us Spanish Jewish Poetry. A world expert on the subject, he not only introduced us to those magnificent texts but opened us to the Golden Age of Spain, which so sadly came to a shuddering halt in 1492.

But it was in a totally different way that David was to influence me as well. The beauty of the college in those years was that almost all our teachers were themselves congregational rabbis. One could be learning from them in class during the week and then go to hear them in their pulpits on Shabbat. And on occasion they would present us with real, live issues.

So it was that Rabbi Goldstein entered class one day and said that before we would tackle the text of Moshe Ibn Ezra or Yehuda Halevi, or whoever it was to be, that he would like to share something with us.

A congregant had died while on holiday in Spain and had been flown back to England for burial. He had been transported in a sealed coffin. All seemed fine until the moment came for interment. As the coffin was being prepared to be lowered into the grave the black cover was removed and gasps of horror were heard – for there on top of the coffin a clear outline of a cross could be seen!

The Spanish authorities – or perhaps the British undertakers – had removed the cross from the clearly purpose-built coffin out of Catholic Spain, but the outline was still visible.

David paused and asked: “Well, what would you do?” As we pondered, he went on: “Some mourners did come forward and even tried to scratch out a Magen David (Star of David).” But David stopped them and indeed paused the funeral. Gently, but firmly he reflected that though, yes, this was not as it should have been, the funeral was of a Jew who was being buried by Jews as a Jew in a Jewish cemetery and that was primary. And so interment, Kaddish and so on followed.

Roll on a year or more. I was now rabbi in my native South Africa. I received a call from a congregant to say that his very elderly aunt, not a member of my community, had died and that his cousin wanted me to conduct the funeral. As the lady’s death had apparently been expected the family felt capable of arranging matters and the funeral was set for later that day. Now in Johannesburg the whole Jewish cemetery is under the aegis of the local Chevra Kadisha (Helping Hand Society) though, by agreement, the non Orthodox bury in our own section or sections.

As I drove up the fairly lengthy drive to the base of the prayer hall, I noticed two men racing down the stairs and coming towards me. I saw that they were my congregant and his cousin. Breathlessly they told me that I was not going to be able to conduct the funeral as “they had cut the grave in the wrong section!”

Apparently when he was asked who was conducting the service, the cousin, instead of giving my name, said it would be his a rabbi from Glenhazel – one of the most Orthodox neighbourhoods in Johannesburg, dominated by Yeshiva College.

I calmed the two men down and went to see what could be done. There were a few Orthodox rabbis around and one was someone whom I knew well enough to ask a favour.

Explaining the predicament, he agreed to conduct the funeral to the point where interment took place and then he and his cantor walked away. All the while I was just behind him in line with the chief mourners. As soon as my colleague walked away I stepped forward and, recalling David Goldstein’s words concerning the coffin with the cross, said that it mattered not who had conducted the service or where the lady was buried as long as it was in that Jewish cemetery, by Jews, and accessible for her family to come in time to honour her.

Time has moved on. The likes of John Rayner, David Goldstein, Albert Friedlander and others who so dominated Leo Baeck College, and our lives, in the late 1960s and 1970s have all entered the Academy on High, but their learning, and perhaps just as importantly their humanity lives on as we both celebrate and remember.

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