BORN GATESHEAD, APRIL 8, 1914. DIED MANCHESTER, APRIL 17, 2008, AGED 94.
ACOMMUNAL AND religious leader in Manchester for over 70 years, Reverend Chaim Heilpern was the last surviving founder of the Machzikei Hadass Manchester communities, writes Dr Yaakov Wise.
He represented various Manchester synagogues and latterly the Initiation Society — the national organisation of mohelim (circumcisers) — on the Board of Deputies for a record 51 years from 1945 to 1996. He served on the Manchester Shechitah Board, often controversially, and on the Board of Deputies’ shechitah committee.
Chaim Jacob Heilpern was a younger son of Hershel Heilpern, a Belzer Chassid from Brody, Galicia, who had married a daughter of Eliezer Adler, founder of the Gateshead Hebrew Congregation.
Hershel came to England in the late 19th century with his parents, escaping the economic hardship and entrenched antisemitism of the AustroHungarian empire. In Brody they had imported cloth. Now they became textile merchants in Manchester.
Hershel moved to Gateshead on marriage. However, the National Registration Act 1915 prohibited “enemy aliens” from living close to the coast or a shipyard. Hershel, still an Austrian citizen and technically an enemy alien during the First World War, was forced back to Manchester.
Young Chaim was educated at Grecian Street School, Higher Broughton, Manchester Grammar School (where he excelled in English) and Manchester Yeshivah, whose executive committee included both his grandfather Elchonen (Chuna) Heilpern and his father. In summer 1925 the Machzikei Hadass organisation was founded by a small group of mainly Belzer Chassidim from Brody around Hershel Heilpern’s dining room in Higher Broughton.
Chaim, aged 11, was allowed to sit “under the table” for his initiation into Jewish communal politics.
In 1932 Chaim, aged 18, and his brother, Aaron, were suspended from the yeshivahfordemandingthattheschool rescind its decision to hire as Talmud lecturer the Reverend Meir Wallenstein, a distinguished London Univer- sity graduate in Semitics. They deemed him not sufficiently Orthodox.
The academic went on to lecture at Manchester University and the boys were allowed back into class although their father and grandfather were forced to resign from the executive for supporting their offspring’s rebellion.
Whilst still a student, Chaim obtained part-time employment, without the necessary permission of the Rosh Yeshivah (principal), as a chazan sheni, the second reader who reads the Shabbat Torah portion.
He did this in small synagogues before taking up the position in the larger United Synagogue, then on Cheetham Hill Road. He had a fund of learning but stayed in the textile business to support his family.
During the Second World War, his brief service as minister of the Austrian Synagogue, Hightown, allowed him to apply for a clerical exemption to callup. Qualifying, like his older brother Gad (Godol), as a mohel, he performed hundreds of circumcisions in the next 50 years.
After the authoritarian Hershel Heilpern’s death in 1947, Godol and ChaimbecamemoreprominentinJewish communal politics. Chaim joined the Manchester Shechitah Board, which administered the Machzikei Ha- dass “glatt kosher” certification up till 1954, and quickly became the nemesis of communal leaders whose official motto was “unity is strength”.
Jewish politicians both local and national, like Alderman Abraham Moss of Manchester, Alderman Sir Sydney Hamburger of Salford and Alderman Michael Fidler of Prestwich, often crossed swords with the Heilpern brothers over the standards of kashrut, the affiliation of non-Orthodox movements to communal councils, and the granting of autonomy to independent, strictly Orthodox institutions — primarily the Machzikei Hadass.
Chief Rabbis Israel Brodie and Immanuel Jacobovits were not spared the wrath of the Heilperns on occasion, nor were “softer” targets closer to home, such as Manchester Communal Rabbi Dr Alexander Altmann, who was made so uncomfortable that he left Manchester and the rabbinate for an academic position in the United States.
Chaim Heilpern’s overriding concern was the freedom from interference by, in his eyes, far less Orthodox bodies, for the untrammelled growth of strict Orthodoxy in England.
Whilst he and he comrades had to accommodate the power of the state — slaughterhouse regulations, Sunday trading laws, marriage registration rules — they saw no reason to pander to what they saw as the mealy-mouthed discretion of Anglo-Jewish leaders.
Chaim was a brilliant self-publicist, writing letters to the Jewish press, leaking information to journalists and campaigning to cause maximum embarrassment to his less ruthless opponents, often with devastating success.
He achieved his ultimate goal in 1965 when he forced Chief Rabbi Sir Israel Brodie, on his last day in office, to authorise the Machzikei Hadass’ slaughterer’s licence without the agreement or sanction of the Manchester Shechitah Board. Full independent Orthodoxy had been won after a 40-year battle.
The steady growth of independent Orthodox communities in London, Manchester and Gateshead, is largely attributable to the indomitable spirit of men like Chaim Heilpern. They fought without fear or favour for their vision of truth and justice.
Rev Heilpern is survived by his wife, Vera née Hochhauser; four sons; and numerous grandchildren and greatgrandchildren. His one daughter predeceased him.
Chaim Heilpern: growth of strict Orthodoxy