BORN KINGSTON-UPON-HULL, APRIL 29, 1921. DIED LONDON, OCTOBER 11, 2009, AGED 88.
A MAJOR communal figure, Judge Israel Finestein was renowned for his fairness, integrity, scholarship and concern for the community’s welfare and unity. His communal career culminated in the presidency of the Board of Deputies from 1991-94, where he was the longestserving member.
He started in 1945 as representative of the Inter-University Jewish Federation, now the Union of Jewish Students, switching to United Synagogue in 1950. He resigned for work reasons in 1980 but returned in 1987 when retired.
Though he had no children, he was concerned with youth from his student days, as president of the Cambridge Jewish Society and chairman of the Universities Zionist Council and IUJF.
He was a founder member in 1953 of the Hillel Foundation, set up to support Jewish students in an often alien environment. As president from 198194, he was involved in educational programmes and chaplaincy.
He was a governor of JFS, the Jews’ Free School, rebuilt in 1958 after wartime bombing, and a council member of Jews’ College. Equally concerned for deprived children, he supported Norwood Child Care and was its president from 1983-90, covering its 190th anniversary in 1985, attended by the Queen.
In external relations, he represented British Jewry on the Standing Conference on Israel and the Diaspora, Yad Vashem, the Claims Conference and World Jewish Congress. In interfaith, he was on the editorial board for Christian-Jewish relations of the Institute for Jewish Affairs (now the Institute for Jewish Policy Research).
In a 1959 JC interview on reactions to Brian Glanville’s novel, The Bankrupts, exposing Anglo-Jewry’s low cultural and spiritual level, he conceded that much of the colour and character had drained out of the community but saw salvation in the day-school movement. His characteristic “solidity and deliberation” were already noted.
Known as Shmul, Israel Finestein was the youngest of nine — seven boys and two girls — in a close-knit traditionally observant family in the Hull Old Hebrew Congregation. His parents came from the Minsk area in 1905, joining siblings already settled in Hull.
A studious child, he soon outgrew cheder. His father, Jeremiah, owner of a tailoring business, took him to Talmud lessons. From Kingston High School he won a major history scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating with a double first in 1943, before being recruited into secret war work.
Released in 1946, he married Marion Oster and began his pupillage under Quentin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, at Lincoln’s Inn. He was called to the Bar in 1953, specialising in family law.
History always remained his great love. Twice president of the Jewish Historical Society, he wrote and lectured prolifically on topics such as the Jewish contribution to English law and communal rifts of the Victorian era.
He chaired the Jewish Museum from 1989-92 as it planned its move to new premises. His guiding principle was the balance between emancipation and preserving Jewish identity.
In 1972 Lord Hailsham, as Lord Chancellor, appointed him south-east circuit judge, covering London. His work as a crown court judge and, later, as deputy high court judge in the family division, made him acutely aware of the effect on children of family breakdown. From 1983 until after retirement he presided over the Mental Health Review Board, concerned with the release of prisoners from psychiatric institutions.
He acknowledged his wife’s support in his broad range of achievements and was devastated by her death in 2004.
Judge Israel Finestein: law, history and communal service