Abraham Levy: I’ve no resentment over the decision to retire early
The Sephardi spiritual leader rises above the splits in his community but identifies failings elsewhere in Anglo-jewry
ABRAHAM LEVY has a problem with labels. As the spiritual leader of Britain’s Spanish and Portuguese congregation, the Sephardim, he rejects the denominational categories that divide the rest of Anglo-jewry. No Orthodox, Reform, Liberal or Masorti tags for him and his flock. “I follow the halachah as Sephardim have kept it for 2,000 years,” he says. “We are Jews without ideological adjectives. There are only geographical adjectives. I believe that, if we had all continued in this way, world Jewry would be in a much better situation.”
These are momentous times for Rabbi Levy. It is his golden jubilee — 50 years a rabbi and always based in the same synagogue, Lauderdale Road, in west London. It is also the moment he has chosen to announce his retirement. He will step down in July when he reaches the age of 73, two years before the end of his contract.
The decision comes after an uneasy few months within the community, following splits over the succession. A favoured candidate, the London-born Rabbi David Bassous, leader of the New Jersey congregation, withdrew in January after the result of a members’ ballot to approve his selection was challenged by a group of congregants. Last month, one communal elder claimed that Levy was being “hounded out of office”.
Levy himself is reluctant to comment. Speaking this week, he said he bore “not the slightest resentment” towards anyone, adding only that: “It’s been a privilege to work for the Spanish and Portuguese community for 50 years.”
He refuses to discuss the matter of Rabbi Bassous although there are certain lines you can read between. As he tells me, sitting in the living room of his Maida Vale house before his retirement announcement, he has only ever spent 20 minutes in Rabbi Bassous’s company.
If Levy is disappointed at the dissent, his sadness is connected most to its effect upon his community. He does not hide the fact that things are not altogether happy in Lauderdale Road.
In some ways, this is not an unusual situation for him. When he wanted to establish his Naima Preparatory School in 1983 — the first Sephardi school to be opened in the UK in 100 years — the congregation wanted nothing to do with it, so he did it on his own and it is one of his great successes.
(He points out that, post-retirement, he will “continue to work for the school, and for the training of rabbis through the Montefiore Endowment”.)
The founding of Naima was not the only problem during his 32 years in office, although he likes not to dwell on the time that his predecessor, Dr Solomon Gaon, the man who held the traditional post of haham (“the wise one”) retired early and he himself was not given the title in his place. The rivalry at the time between him and Dayan Pinchas Toledano was well known. Now he says tactfully: “I think the problem was that the two most senior rabbis in the community had their own field of expertise and it was considered best to share the tasks between us.” Levy’s was undoubtedly the more important post — frequently he was described as the Sephardi Chief Rabbi — but i t w a s Toledano who became head of the Beth Din while Levy became spiritual leader, and, he adds, ecclesiastical authority, a role enshrined in numerous Acts of Parliament. “I have exactly the sort of duties as the title of haham would have given me,” he says. But the fact remains that he was not given the title and it is still a sore point, although he does his best to hide it.
“Things were a little difficult at first, but not so now,” he says. He insists he was not hurt, but sitting in the room with us, his wife Estelle corrects him. “Yes, you were disappointed,” she says. He shrugs slightly.
His is a congregation that has markedly changed in the 50 years in which he has been a rabbi. Few of the old families, like the Montefiores or the Moccattas, are still active. Many of the members come from the Middle East, not descendants of the people who came to Britain after Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews back to the country and in 1701 established the community’s “cathedral” synagogue, Bevis Marks.
Levy was born in Gibraltar. His late uncle, Sir Joshua Hassan was the country’s first First Minister, and his elder brother Solomon — known seemingly to everyone he meets in the street as “Momi”-— was the first mayor. A younger brother, James, heads the biggest legal firm there and Levy insists James could have become chief minister if only he had wanted the job. A sister lives in Gibraltar, another is in America. He himself has been a resident on the Rock for no more than six of his 72 years.
When he was a young child, the Levys — descendants of a whole line of rabbis — were evacuated to Madeira. From there, he and Momi were sent to Carmel College, where both fell under the spell of its charismatic founder-head, Rabbi Kopul Rosen. “He asked all the boys what they wanted to do when they left school. I was the only one who said he wanted to be a rabbi.” So the obvious next step was to go to Jews’ College, from which he went immediately to Lauderdale Road, complete with his
Abraham Levy and ( below) at a Council of Christians and Jews event with his fellow retiree, the Archbishop of Canterbury