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

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

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

PHOTO: JOHN RIFKIN

Abra­ham Levy and ( be­low) at a Coun­cil of Chris­tians and Jews event with his fel­low re­tiree, the Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury

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