Rabbi Harry Jacobi,

Rabbi Harry Jacobi

by Rabbi Harry Jacobi, Vice-president, Liberal Judaism 

Any birthday is a good time to reflect, especially when it’s your 90th. This month, as I reach that landmark, gives the chance to reflect on my early years, long ministry with Liberal Judaism and the changes in Anglo-Jewry.

I celebrated my barmitzvah in Berlin on 22 October, 1938. It turned out to be the last one at the Friedenstempel Synagogue, which was destroyed on Kristallnacht 18 days later.

The official at my barmitzvah was Rabbi Werner van der Zyl, who escaped to London and later founded the Leo Baeck College. After Kristallnacht, my mother sent me by Kindertransport to Holland in February 1939.

On 10 May, 1940, Holland was invaded by the Nazis. Five days later, a non-Jewish woman, Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer, one of the righteous Gentiles subsequently honoured by Yad Vashem, hired buses to take us to the port of Ijmuiden, where she persuaded a cargo boat captain to take 40 children and a few adults on board and sail away.

Holland capitulated two hours later. We were machine-gunned by German planes, and they proclaimed our ship was sunk. We were finally allowed to dock in Liverpool four days later.

I volunteered for the Jewish Brigade Group of the British Army and later in the Interpreters Pool of the British Army of the Rhine. I returned to Amsterdam in 1948 to work for my uncle who, with wife and daughter, had survived the camps, unlike my own parents and grandparents.

Pre-war, the Amsterdam Liberal Congregation had its own synagogue and rabbi, but Dutch Jewry lost nine-tenths of its members during the Shoah. Rabbi Leo Baeck (president) and Lily Montagu (secretary) came to Amsterdam on behalf of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) to encourage and support the revival.

In July 1949, I visited London as a youth delegate to the sixth international conference of WUPJ. Rabbi Baeck ended his presidential address by saying: “God waits for us.” These words changed my life. With the help and encouragement of Leo Baeck and Lily Montagu, I changed my mind about going on aliyah, prepared to study for the rabbinate and was ordained “reverend” in 1961.

The 1950s and 1960s were times of tolerance among British Jewry. Orthodox ministers (mostly reverends then) studied every Monday with Leo Baeck. Chief Rabbi Jakobovits welcomed Liberal rabbis in his home. Saul Amias was happy to install me as president of my B’nei Brith Lodge and Rabbi Berg shared a public meeting with me.

Since then I have experienced intolerance and discrimination as a Liberal rabbi. For example, a friend asked his rabbi, who officiated at a funeral but had not known the family, that I give the hesped [eulogy]. He refused. While I always attended the annual AJEX Remembrance Shabbat service at the Orthodox synagogue, no Orthodox rabbi would attend when it was held at my Liberal shul.

When an old B’nei Brith Brother invited me to his Orthodox shul when honoured as Chatan Torah, I gladly accepted. However, when the rabbi was asked to give me an aliyah [a call-up], he said: “I am not allowed to”.

At a national remembrance event, I requested to recite the memorial prayer El Malei Rachamim, as I alone among the officiants had lost parents and grandparents in the Shoah. I was told: “It is not appropriate for you to recite it.”

One third of Anglo-Jewry has been lost since the end of World War II and further losses have been predicted. We need to reverse this trend. We must stop intolerance, discrimination and denigration within British Jewry, admit that we are kol Yisrael chaverim – all Israel bound together” – bound by love of God, Torah and Israel.

We must become more inclusive than exclusive, encourage and enable those who wish to join us. We must say ‘Yes’ instead of the prevalent ‘No’. Permit rather than forbid.