Tributes to ‘towering’ former leader of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry in UK

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Tributes to ‘towering’ former leader of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry in UK

Rabbi Abraham Levy was also a founder of the Naima Jewish Preparatory School and of a leadership programme whose alumni included former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, 81, with Chief Rabbi Mirvis and Rabbi Joseph Dweck
((C) Blake Ezra Photography)
Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, 81, with Chief Rabbi Mirvis and Rabbi Joseph Dweck ((C) Blake Ezra Photography)

One of British Jewry’s most admired rabbis Abraham Levy, the emeritus spiritual head of the S&P Sephardi Community, was laid to rest on Monday as tributes poured from across the denominations.

Rabbi Levy, who was 83 and received an OBE for his work in interfaith relations, retired 10 years ago but his name resonated throughout the community, particularly for his pioneering education activities.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said: “Our community mourns the sad loss of R’Dr Abraham Levy zl, emeritus spiritual leader of the S&P community, who made his mark well beyond the Sephardi community. A committed rabbinic leader and outstanding scholar, he made a deep impact in interfaith relations and education.”

The Gibraltar-born rabbi was buried at Hoop Lane Sephardi cemetery in Golders Green on Monday afternoon in front of a congregation of around 400 people. Rabbi Levy’s son, Julian, and Rabbis Israel Elia and Gideon Sylvester, each spoke at the funeral service.

Rabbi Israel Elia, the long-term former rabbi of Lauderdale Road Synagogue, told mourners: “Today, we feel a great loss. But we also have an opportunity to celebrate a life full of achievement. We celebrate the life of a great man, who dreamed big dreams and lived to see his dreams come true.

“Rabbi Levy would say, ‘Any Jew trying to do better is a good Jew.’. By his own measure, Rabbi Abraham Levy was a very good Jew indeed.”

He was, said Rabbi Elia, “a traditional man, who enjoyed the tradition unadorned by modernity. The prayers and songs had been employed and enjoyed for centuries in our communities and Rabbi Levy dedicated a large part of his life to them, teaching them and seeing them taught”.

Rabbi Elia, now a consultant to the S&P Sephardi community, reminded the nearly congregation that Rabbi Levy had met his wife Estelle when he served at Holland Park Synagogue. The couple had a son, Julian, whose wife Sian was described as “the daughter [Abraham and Estelle] never had”.

There were strong family feelings for Israel, Rabbi Elia said, noting that “there is nothing like a brave grandson in a fighting unit to concentrate the mind”. (There are four Levy grandchildren, Avi, Jamie, Rachel and Daniel). Rabbi Levy is also survived by his brother James, a Gibraltar lawyer, and his sister Loli Berish.

Rabbi Elia told the family: “We share your pain, we share your pride, and we thank you for sharing him with our communities and the wider Jewish community. The outpouring of sympathy, affection and love from the numerous messages we read from all over the world is quite astounding.

Rabbi Levy had seen that “Jewish continuity could never be just adding more and more beautiful luxurious buildings. It required institutions that meet human needs and give meaning to life. With Jewish education you will ensure Jewish continuity” . The late Rabbi Lord Sacks had described Rabbi Levy as “an institution builder”; and, Rabbi Elia observed, “without a project, Rabbi Levy was as restless as Sherlock Holmes between cases. With a project, he was tireless”.

A member of his family, Fleur Hassan Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem, told Jewish News: “My wonderful cousin represented the real meaning of the Sephardi spirit and tradition of bridge building; between religious and secular Jews, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim and between Jews, Christians and Muslims. He embodied the Maimonidean value of moderation and was not just a talented pastoral rabbi, but the pioneer of Sephardi institution building in the UK. I will miss him as a dear cousin and a cherished mentor.”

A special session to honour Rabbi Levy was held at Limmud on Sunday, with the leading Sephardi rabbi, Joseph Dweck, describing him as a “towering figure. The influence he had on Anglo-Jewry was strong, deep, substantive and powerful”.

Rabbi Dweck described his predecessor as “a man of God who was a leader in religious life, and he did it with a great deal of conviction,” offering a “humanistic, pragmatic, empathic and sensitive Judaism, which was [also] staunchly traditional and halachic. And he was able, in an amazing way, to blend all of those things into an integrated, whole, beautiful Judaism”.

Rabbi Levy was a warm and approachable figure, whose attitude in the 1980s and 90s appeared occasionally at odds with centrist rabbinic teaching. While United Synagogue rabbis refused to attend Limmud, he not only took part in the annual educational conference, but also encouraged student rabbis whom he mentored to teach in its sessions.

He was the founder of the Naima Jewish Preparatory School in London in 1983, the first Sephardi school in Britain in a century. In the preceding decade, he launched a leadership programme for young Jewish adults, among whose alumni was the future Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Speaking at Limmud, the dean of the London School of Jewish Studies, Rabbi Raphael Zarum, said that Rabbi Levy had “saved” LSJS, when as deputy principal in 2003 he had rejected a scheme for the institution to drop its academic programmes. Rabbi Levy, he said, “had valued academic learning and was not afraid of modernity”.

Daniel Greenberg, the barrister due to become the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in January, described Rabbi Levy as “a wise man, a leader, a conciliator and a friend. We wish his family long life”, remarks echoed by the former Community Security Trust leader David Delew, who said the late rabbi had been “a kind, brave, wise, learned, energetic and thoroughly accomplished teacher and leader”.

Other tributes came from Sephardi Voices UK and Esther Solomon, editor in chief of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. She said he had been “a wise and wonderful friend, spiritual leader, fierce guardian of the unique rites of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish tradition, proud Gibraltarian and devotee of a Torah of kindness, dignity and tolerance”.

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