Finding joy in history
Elkan Levy, who made aliyah in 2011, thinks nothing of driving from his home in Netanya to Tel Aviv to pick up a grandchild from school, if necessary. “My son and daughter both live in Tel Aviv, and sometimes I get an emergency call that one of the kids needs collecting,” says the 75-year-old lawyer, who was very well-known in England for his community work. “I’ve also been teaching my granddaughter and two grandsons to read the Torah and Haftara, and it has been a joy and a privilege.”
Being a hands-on grandfather is among his many roles today (although he often lectures to immigrant audiences). But at one time, not so long ago, he was a pillar of the English Jewish community.
As president of the United Synagogue from 1996 to 1999, Levy worked closely for several years with Emeritus Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
It was in this capacity that Levy attended the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997.
“It was a Shabbat – I stayed with Lord Sacks in St. John’s Wood and we walked very early to the synagogue there, then another two or three miles to St. James’s Palace,” he recalls. “It was an enormous privilege to work with Rabbi Sacks. He raised the status of the Chief Rabbinate to great heights.”
Levy wanted to be a rabbi but his father, a minister of religion himself, was dead against it.
They reached a compromise whereby Levy would study for a bachelor of arts degree at Jews’ College rabbinical seminary in London. After graduating in 1964, he won a scholarship to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he gained his master’s with a thesis on Anglo-Jewry and the First World War. History became and still is his passion, however, he worked for 30 years as a solicitor in England.
In 2000, he retired from the law. Then, in 2004, he got the call to become traveling minister to small communities around Britain.
“I traveled all over the country and dealt with everybody – Orthodox, Liberal and Reform,” he says. “Most communities don’t have labels and can fit in anywhere.”
He and his wife, Celia, the daughter of Dayan Michoel Fisher of the Federation Beit Din, had an apartment in Israel for many years and they visited often, spending every Passover here. They finally made aliyah in 2011. Sadly, in 2012, Celia died.
Having left the legal profession behind, Levy now finds much joy in pursuing his interest in history and is in demand for lecturing to audiences both here and in England on a very extensive list of topics.
His lecturing style has been described as “a sophisticated stand-up comedy routine supported by facts, texts and pictures.”
“I am fascinated by what went on here 100 years ago and I do PowerPoint presentations on subjects like Allenby’s conquest of Palestine,” he says. “I was very excited to find two First World War memorials in Tel Aviv, one on Ibn Gabirol [Street] and one near Reading [Park]. I had pictures of them but I did not know exactly where they were, so I went to the museum and did some research and located them.”
One of Levy’s other claims to fame is that Herbert Samuel, the first British high commissioner in Eretz Yisrael, came to his bar mitzvah in 1956.
“He was a member of the synagogue where my father was the hazan [cantor[,” he recalls with a proud smile. “He brought me one of his books as a gift, and I remember thinking as a callow youth that it wasn’t much of a present. Today I treasure it.”
Levy has been a very keen Freemason for over 40 years and attends lodge meetings on a regular basis. He holds high office both in Israel and England.
“I meet Jews from all over the world, Arabs, Christians and a host of interesting people,” he says.
Finally, after the painful loss of his wife six years ago, Levy has found new romance with Andee, an immigrant from Las Vegas who shares his religious outlook and world view.
They met through IBCA – the Israel, Britain and The Commonwealth Association – which will soon hold its annual Balfour Dinner. In fact, in some ways, Lord Balfour brought them together. Andee needed to prepare some notes on a subject she knew nothing about. Someone said “Speak to Elkan.’” She did – and the rest is history. ■
FROM LONDON TO NETANYA, 2011