BORN LONDON, DECEMBER 23, 1944 . DIED JERUSALEM, MARCH 30, 2008, AGED 63.
ADYNAMIC PERSONALITY, Professor Gerald Cromer combined academic study with deep concern for social justice, writes Mordechai Beck. After Hasmonean Grammar School for boys in London, he spent his gap year at Gateshead Yeshivah before studying sociology at the London School of Economics. He studied for his PhD under Professor Julius Gould of Nottingham University.
Active in the Inter-University Jewish Federation, forerunner of the Union of Jewish Students, he was elected education officer in 1967 while a postgraduate student. His energetic programme showed his lifelong enthusiasm for engaging unaffiliated Jews without brainwashing or hectoring them.
Two years later he put his ideas into practice by opening up his North London flat in Finchley as an off-beat centre, “Exile”, for fringe Jews. He offered them intellectual stimulation through controversial big-name speakers like Louis Jacobs and Shlomo Carlebach.
With a reputation for open-mindedness, he was appointed by B’nai B’rith as student director of the rebuilt London Jewish student centre, Hillel House, in Euston. His month-long arts festival which opened the building in 1970 attracted celebrity names, with audiences totalling 4,000.
He turned his Golders Green home into Britain’s first chavurah, a group committed to Judaism but experimenting on how to live it. Most members were, like him, Orthodox.
He left Hillel in 1971 to finish his doctorate, prior to moving to Israel in 1972. There he combined an academic career with projects that supported social justice. He became professor at Bar Ilan University, where he switched to criminology. In 1973 he married Chana. She was born Anne Rothstein in a DP camp in Italy to survivor parents, who settled in the US.
He was an early member and chairman of Netivot Shalom, a forum to discuss the pursuit of justice and peace in the framework of Jewish tradition.
This set him against the rising tide of right-wing extremism sweeping Orthodox rabbis and their communities, both in Israel and abroad. Many of his academic subjects were extremists like Rabbi Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein, who appalled him as representatives of Judaism but fascinated him as a criminologist.
A popular lecturer, he believed that debate rather than physical violence or verbal abuse should settle arguments. He had a unique gift for creative thinking, which caused his listeners to radically re-examine their assumptions.
Among his creative responses to the political situation in Israel was to bring the recital of Eicha (“Lamentations”) on the fast of Tisha B’Av to the grave of assassinated prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, thereby introducing a religious dimension to his love of peace.
In 2005, at the height of the disengagement from Gaza, he organised another Tisha B’Av event, a public debate in Jerusalem’s Liberty Bell Park. He not only got people from across the political spectrum to talk with each other, but made left-wingers introduce rightwing speakers, and vice versa, as they stepped up to the podium.
In the late 1970s, he co-founded the Modern Orthodox community of Yedidyah, with an impact far beyond southern Jerusalem, as well as the Efrata school. He was tireless in his efforts on behalf of the New Israel Fund, which fights for social justice in many areas.
Despite his modesty, he was renowned for his intellect, humour and persuasive power, allied to a passion for justice and respect for the individual.
He died from cancer and is survived by his wife, daughter, three sons, and four grandchildren.
Gerald Cromer: committed to Orthodox Judaism and justice for Arabs