Eretz Yisroel

After sixteen years in Glasgow, my wife and I had to consider our options. The shul had declined and its future was unsure. Also there was no longer a class for our eldest child who was still at home. Our boys were at yeshiva but we really didn’t want to send away our teenage daughter. I had tried for a couple of jobs in London but my reputation as a “right-winger” went against me. Rumours had spread that I teach Hilchos Shabbos in my drashos. I did, but in separate shiurim and not in my main drasha in the shul Shabbos service. I had also become used to being independent. Making that clear that I would not just do a shul committee’s bidding didn’t help my chances. So I began to think of coming to Eretz Yisroel. Good people were warning me that I must consider three things before making a decision. Firstly I would never get a job as a rabbi in Eretz Yisroel. You can’t take “coals to Newcastle” and you can’t import rabbis to Eretz Yisroel. Secondly it is very difficult to have your children accepted in the schools and thirdly it is very difficult to find a suitable apartment. With these three issues at the back of my mind, my wife and I set off on our ‘pilot’ trip.

We rented an apartment in Bayit Vegan with our two children who were still at home, for a month while we looked around. We enjoyed being there, but weren’t making progress in finding employment. At one point an ex-Glasgow kollel member invited us to his son’s bris which was going to take place in Beit Shemesh and so we decided to go. Some of the other guests asked what we were doing in Eretz Yisroel and I told them that we were thinking of moving to Eretz Yisroel but in the meantime we were just looking around. Someone said that it so happens that just on that day the local Beis Yaakov was interviewing girls for the next year and if we’re thinking of coming here, we might as well apply. We did and our girls were accepted on the spot. However the menahelet realized that the older one was fourteen and said she was too old for her school but it so happened that a new senior school was opening and was also doing interviews that day. She offered to call and say that some new olim are coming over with their daughter. We hadn’t decided we were coming and hadn’t even thought of Beit Shemesh but it seems that hashgacha was pushing us in that direction. We went to the senior school and again our daughter was accepted on the spot. Neither of our daughters could speak Ivrit but people were saying that they would pick up the language quickly. Without even applying, our daughters had been accepted in the schools. So at least one of the three warnings was disproven. But what about the other points? We decided to come back for Shabbos.

We were staying in the Kirya Chareidit, a strictly chareidi section of old Beit Shemesh. On that Shabbos there was a demonstration against a new branch of McDonalds which proclaimed that it would be open on Shabbos. It was arranged that the tzibbur would daven musaf outside the restaurant. The Chief Rabbi of Beit Shemesh was there with other rabbonim and a large crowd. It was a strictly peaceful demonstration and later we heard that the management had changed their policy on Shabbos opening. On the way back I happened to meet a friend whom I hadn’t seen since my Yeshiva days. The usual conversation followed with the question of what we were doing in Eretz Yisroel and in Beit Shemesh. Again I told him that we were just “looking around. ” He asked if I had time after Shabbos to speak to him. It transpired that they were moving to a new apartment in a few months’ time and he had promised his present landlord that he would find a strictly chareidi tenant to replace him. “Was I interested?” I told him that it was a distinct possibility but I’d confirm it when I knew for sure. That was two of my potential problems down with one to go, arguably the hardest. What am I going to do in Eretz Yisroel? Can a rabbi come from Chutz Lo’oretz into a place of talmidei chachomim and get a job as a rav? Unheard of!

Over Shabbos I had davened in a shul called Zichron Aharon. It had a history. Rav Aharon Pfeiffer zt”l was in the process of bringing a group of chareidi Jews from South Africa to settle in Beit Shemesh. Tragically he was niftar when the plans were well advanced and most of the group never came. Those who did, joined existing communities. Some of them named a shul in his memory and davened there. Hence the name – Zichron Aharon. The Rov of the shul was a tzaddik and a talmid chacham originally from America called Rav Chananya Posner. A few days later one of the gabbaim rang me up. He had heard that we were thinking of moving there. He explained to me that their Rov was often away and they wanted to appoint a deputy rav who would take over when the rav was away and give regular shiurim even when he was there. “Would I be interested?” “But you don’t even know me,” I protested. “We have already made enquiries. You’d be perfect for us.” This was incredible. The three reasons which we were told would make our aliya plans very problematic had all been sorted out within days. And if that bris wasn’t the day it was…. And I hadn’t met my old friend at the demonstration…. And if I hadn’t davened in that shul…Talk about hashgacha pratis.

My congregation eagerly awaited my return and my decision. Would we be leaving them after sixteen years? After consulting my rebbes, Rav Mattisyahu Salamon shlita and the Gateshead Rov, Rav Rakow zt”l who both gave me brachos for success, I told the shul we were leaving.

The next three months were extremely busy. Our girls started to learn Ivrit. My wife had to prove to the Jewish Agency that she was Jewish! I gave up certain insurance policies which would not be valid in Israel. And we had to sell our house. The property agent estimated that we might get £120,000 for the house, of which 2% would go to his company. This was good news as this was just price of an apartment in Beit Shemesh. “Even if you sell it privately, we still get our percentage. Please sign this form.” I signed but my wife, who was a joint owner of the property, was just with a lady congregant at that time and couldn’t be disturbed. “No problem. I’ll come in tomorrow for her to sign because without her signature it’s not legal.”

That evening I rang our lawyer and told him that we were leaving and we’d need his legal help to sell the house. “You’re leaving?,” he asked. “Yes, to Israel. That’s why we need to sell our house.” “That’s interesting – I’m thinking of moving into your area. How much do you want for the house?” “We are hoping to get £120.000,” I replied, relying on the estate agent’s estimate. “I’d love to buy it. £120,000 is a fair price. The deal’s done.” I guiltily phoned the estate agent the next day. “We’ve sold the house!” My wife hadn’t signed on the agreement giving them their 2%. I offered to pay him for his trouble. “That’s okay,” he said bravely. “Some you win. Some you lose.” “Another handy stroke of hashgacha pratis,” my wife and I agreed.

The Old Age Home arranged a farewell event and it was quite emotional. I sang for them an old favourite, “When I was just a little girl…” which they loved. Even more emotional was my final visit to Hutcheson’s Grammar Primary school where I had taken the Jewish assembly for fifteen years. Over a thousand children sang “We’ll see you again but I don’t know when.” The shul offered to make us a farewell party but shul hall wasn’t big enough because we knew so many people. Only the hall of the Giffnock shul was big enough, but my shul didn’t agree to that. So we said that we will make our own farewell party and invite them and representatives of the different organization with which we were connected. I arranged for a guest speaker to come up from Manchester, two musicians from the Old Age Home and left the rest up to the caterer. “But how many should I cater for?” she asked bewildered. “I’ve got no idea.”I said. “let’s guess at 180. The evening was a great success. Representatives of different organisations gave my wife and me certificates and presents to honor us and I sang Adon Olam to the tune of Old Lang Syne.[1] How many came? About 180!

I won’t bore the reader with the myriad details of our packing up and arrival in Eretz Yisroel. I will just mention that the Ashdod Port went on strike just when our shipping container arrived. It was difficult to manage without our belongings. I also wanted my sefarim because I had already started giving shiurim. Not only were the port workers striking, but the shippers charged a fee for storing containers which they refused to deliver. The strike was lasting weeks. The Israeli Prime Minister got involved with no success. I davened, “I lift up my eyes. From Where will my help come?” I did my hishtadlus and wrote them a letter. I mentioned that we were new olim and we really needed our things. If they would, by any chance, release our container, they would be blessed with every blessing from Heaven. I posted the letter and continued davening. The next week our door bell rang. Three big Israelis stood there with a large lorry. “It’s your container,” they said. “That’s amazing,” I thought as I directed them to which room the boxes should be put. After they finished, I thanked them profusely and after, summoning up some courage, I asked them whether they had put Tefilin on today. They admitted that they didn’t normally put tefilin on but they would today in my house. “In honor of the miracle,” they said. No other container left the port. Only ours.

But after pleasure comes business. They looked at the hundred shekels I was offering them as a tip and said, “What’s that?” They more or less demanded five hundred shekels as a tip in addition to the bill from the port. It came to 1620 shekels. I translated it back to pounds. £270. That was quite a large unexpected expense. Just at that moment my wife came in with a letter which had just arrived. It was from the Prudential Insurance Company from which I had recently resigned. It read: Dear Mr Fletcher. Following your resignation from our insurance scheme, we have pleasure in sending you this check, which according to our calculations, is the amount we owe you. “That’s nice,” I thought. “I didn’t know about this.” And how much was the check? £270. “Wow,” I thought. “Totally amazing hashgacha pratis. The exact amount I need at this moment. What a wonderful welcome to Eretz Yisroel”

This is also printed in my latest sefer, The Hidden Light. Rush out to buy the sefer, whilst stocks last!


[1] A traditional sentimental song written by the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns. The first line is ‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot..”

Bonnie Scotland

According to a small advert in the Jewish newspaper, Queen’s Park shul in Glasgow was looking for a rabbi. At the time I was busy teaching privately in Manchester but the possibility of taking such a position did register in my mind. I wrote to the shul saying when I might be able to come up for a Shabbos and more or less forgot about it. A few weeks later I received a call from the Chairman of the Shul to confirm that I would be coming for Shabbos with my wife. I thought to myself that even if they were interested in employing me, these places usually take months to decide so I went ahead with our planned move to another rented apartment in Manchester. Still, I did make some enquiries about the shul. It was apparently a large community which had seen better times. Jews moved to that area of Glasgow from the overcrowded Gorbals. Now they had begun to move further south to the leafy Giffnock area some years previously. The kollel led by Rabbi Mordechai Bamberger was in the newer area, but it had a school where our children could go. I made further enquiries: a previous candidate for the job had been asked how he viewed the main event of the shul calendar – the Chanukah dance. He had apparently banged his hand on the table and said, “If I am rabbi of this shul, there will be no Chanuka dance.” His candidacy was summarily terminated — I was decided to respond differently. I also studiously avoided mentioning my kollel years in Amsterdam, since I didn’t want to appear too right wing. I certainly didn’t want them to hear about the ‘kohen story’ which was unlikely to advance my career in the Orthodox but not too frum circles where I saw my future career.

We spent Shabbos Parshas Hachodesh in Glasgow and we actually enjoyed it. The shul put us up in a local hotel which was pleasant enough when we weren’t within daled amos of the hotel bar on Friday night where the locals were still being mekayem “ ad delo yoda”   a full two weeks after Purim! We ate with Rabbi Bamberger’s family although we didn’t tell the shul that. I thought that the spectre of me being associated with him would not help my chances.  The shul itself was beautiful. The architecture was classic Romanesque rather the shapeless boxes which is the style of many modern shuls and a high dome towered majestically over the aron kodesh. The marble façade of the aron kodesh was exquisite. Round pillars decorated the men’s section rising up to the high roof and the ladies’ gallery upstairs went round the shul on three sides. We found it that it was supposed to be a copy of the famous Bevis Marks shul in London which is supposed to be a copy of the even more famous ‘Esnoga’ shul in Amsterdam. Of course the main thing is the people and they seemed friendly enough. How willing they were to advance in their Yiddishkeit was another story, but a job like that would give me a platform to educate the community in various ways and could be a stepping stone to other jobs in the future.

There was no fire and brimstone in my trial sermon. I chose the topic of loving our neighbor as ourselves to avoid ruffling any feathers. I even made a joke about the big clock right opposite the pulpit which “was clearly designed to make sure the rabbi wouldn’t speak for too long!” The meeting the next day went better than expected. As I had been warned, the first question was about the shul Chanuka dance. I joked that I knew how waltz myself which pleased the committee who promptly offered me a five-year contract. What happened with the Chanukah dance we will see shortly. In the meantime I agreed to start just after Yom Ha’atzma’ut (to avoid any early differences of opinion) and we had the frustration of moving in Manchester which couldn’t be changed even though we knew we would be moving to Glasgow shortly after.

We settled in Glasgow and met many wonderful people. Rav Rosenzweig, my Rosh Kollel from Amsterdam had given me excellent advice. “Don’t make any comments on what goes on the shul for at least six months. They were doing that before and it’s not your responsibility. First devote yourselves to the needs of the congregation. Visit the sick, comfort the mourners, show them that you’re a mensch. After that you can possibly make improvements.” I followed that advice and everything ran smoothly. It seemed that there was always a “sha’as hakosher“; gradually certain things I wanted to change like waiting in the Summer until after plag hamincha before davening maariv were rectified without argument. As Chanukah came closer, the issue of the dance came up. They assumed I would be there. I told them that I could not ban it, as I had made no objection at my interview, but I would not be able to attend. “But it will be much nicer if the rabbi is there,” they argued. I apologized but explained that I cannot attend a mixed dance. Closer to the time they reminded me that they really wanted the rabbi to attend. I repeated that as an orthodox rabbi I cannot attend. Then I said “If you want me to arrange a different Chanuka event which I can come to, I will do so with pleasure.” “You mean you will do all the organizing and create a program which the congregation will enjoy?”, they asked me. “Yes,” I replied. And so I ordered food and drink, music, a man singer, a quiz and everyone enjoyed it. The following year I did the same, arranging many more events, outings, guest speakers, a programme of shiurim for men and women etc. This continued all the years I was in the shul. And they never brought up the question of a Chanuka dance again.

After our first five years, the congregation voted for me to be given a new unlimited contract. They could always give me three months notice but unless there was something really major my dismissal would never be on the agenda for discussion. However shortly after that, there was a problem, a serious disagreement. I wouldn’t back down and indeed nearly lost the job. But on the other hand it created an opportunity which I would never have had otherwise. An elderly lady congregant passed away. Usually, in such situations, I went round to the house, spoke to the family to enable me to prepare a nice hesped and give all the guidance and help I could. This time the family said, “Don’t come round to house. We’ll see you at the cemetery.” “But how can I prepare a hesped if I don’t come round to speak to the family?” I protested. “What could be the problem with me coming round?” So they let me come and there was no problem. I spoke to the widower, found out some nice things to say about the deceased and went home to prepare for the funeral the next day. Before shacharis, one of the regulars whispered something in my ear. “This family had major problems with the previous rabbi when their daughter wanted to get married. Look into it.” What I found was not pretty. I now understood why they wanted the funeral without me talking to the family. Apparently this lady had had a “quickie” conversion many years ago which wasn’t recognized by the London Beis Din which authorizes these matters. When the daughter wanted to get married in the shul, there was trouble. “But in the end the Beis Din allowed it,”, the son-in-law later told me triumphantly giving me a letter from the London Beis Din which they had kept for all the years since for just this occasion. I read the letter. Yes. The London Beis Din allowed the marriage but only on the condition that the bride underwent a new conversion with their approval. This proved that the mother’s conversion was never recognized. Now the deceased was a member of the shul and my contract said that I must officiate at all members’ funerals. But the lady wasn’t Jewish and I could not recognize a non-existent conversion which the London Beis Din had rejected. The whole community became involved. The son-in-law pointedly told me that he was friendly with the richest person in the shul. “What’s that got to do with it?” I said, thinking of the pasuk “Do not fear any man,” (Devarim 1:17). I was accused of  breaking the terms of my contract and many other things. I received a letter of criticism from the shul committee not for my decision which they couldn’t object to, but because of what they claimed was a lack of compassion in the way I spoke to the family.  I received another letter containing a horrible curse. In the event, the shul found a chazan who agreed to officiate at the funeral a few days later. Fortunately I also had supporters. These were not necessarily the more religious members but those who recognized that I had always done everything I could for the congregation. I had proved over the years that I was a “mensch” as Rav Rosenzweig had advised me and so they supported me even though they “didn’t agree” with some of my “extreme” opinions. The family never forgave me, but eventually I realized that I had to explain in a way they could accept.  I told them that I would have lost my license from The London Beis Din, which would mean that I could not officiate at weddings. The congregation needed me to do that, so they grudgingly acknowledged my point of view.

A couple of years later some of those who had opposed me joined the shul committee and soon afterwoods they came to a ‘financial’ decision that the shul could no longer afford to pay my salary and I would have to leave. I knew this was just a cover for their antagonism towards me but they managed to convince enough people that the shul membership had gone down (although attendance had actually risen during my tenure) and there was no alternative. Certain members were still arguing on my behalf but the shul lawyer had my dismissal letter on his desk ready to post. My opponents tried to create “facts on the ground” and the Jewish newspaper, already planning their headlines for their next edition, rang up to confirm that I had received a letter of dismissal. I strongly denied having received any letter knowing that any wavering on my part would result in the community being told of my dismissal and from there it would be very difficult to go back. Discussing my situation with a colleague, he suggested I try to get the Chief Rabbi, then Sir Jonathan Sacks to intervene. And he did. His office sprang into action, calling the shul’s acting chairman at work to tell him not to do anything until the matter had been discussed with the Chief Rabbi. He “wasn’t available.” They rang again. He “wasn’t available” After a third rebuff the Chief Rabbi’s Office sent a fax. The acting chairman couldn’t deny receiving the fax and the letter from the shul’s lawyer was never sent. Although the shul still claimed that they couldn’t afford to pay me, a compromise was reached and I became officially ‘part-time’ with a reduced salary. I was still the rabbi, despite the best efforts of certain people. These were not the people who usually participate in the davening or my shiurim and we continued as before, except for my reduced salary. But now I didn’t have to be at shul on Friday night and Shabbos Mincha so we were able to move to leafy Giffnock, where the kollel and the more observant sector of the Jewish community was, with many advantages, especially for my wife and children.  Although we now had a forty-minute walk to shul on Shabbos morning, I spent the time telling stories to my children which they always enjoyed especially the ongoing series about the “Chopliver Rebbe.” We would remain in Glasgow for another ten years without any more threats of dismissal.

I did have a problem of supplementing my salary but that problem became an opportunity. I opened up my own Adult Education Centre with independent funding. I gave shiurim throughout the Glasow community and people from within and outside the community supported me. Before each Rosh Hashana, I printed a brochure, I offering big non-Jewish organisations like the Royal Bank of Scotland an opportunity to wish the Jewish community a prosperous New Year which they were happy to do for a bargain £100 full page advert. So now I had the “best of both worlds.” I still had my job but was financially independent of the shul. This gave me more freedom to do as I wanted. Retrospectively it was clear that my refusing to bow to the friend of the “shul’s richest man” to bury that non-Jewish member became the source of my future success. And when I eventually decided to leave, I would have more freedom to do so. But that’s another story.



The Cohen

We were in our kitchen in Amsterdam when the letter arrived from the Rotterdam Jewish Community. We were expecting it. We had spent a very successful Shabbos in Rotterdam following an invitation from the Jewish Community. Their rabbi of many years had passed away and they were having difficulty finding a suitable replacement. One rabbi was appointed but had quickly resigned “for personal reasons.” So the post was vacant. I was learning in the Kollel Chacham Zvi in Amsterdam and was the acting rabbi of a small shul, the Gerard Dou shul named after the street where the shul was situated just near the local Albert Cuyp market. I had learnt to speak Dutch which has similarities to Yiddish, had some rabbinical experience and was recommended for this post in Rotterdam. My wife and I had enjoyed our Shabbos in Rotterdam and I spoke in the shul and in the local old age home. The community’s reaction was very positive and the committee had already invited me to a meeting to finalize details of the contract. They explained why the previous rabbi had left after a short time and they wanted to proceed with me. So now the official letter had arrived containing, no doubt, details of the proposed contract. However, the letter contained a surprise. It was brief and to the point. “We heben besloten van u diensten geen gebruik te maken.” “We have no need for your services.” Somewhat taken aback and a trifle disappointed, I turned to my wife and said, “They obviously heard about the kohen. That’s the only explanation of this sudden change in their attitude.” Indeed, through the proverbial grapevine, I heard. It was because of the kohen. What was the story of the kohen?.


The Gerard Dou shul mentioned earlier was a very special shul. Walking down the market street, one could easily miss it. Only a Magen David on a window on the third floor revealed its identity. The difficulty in realizing that a beautiful shul lay behind the non-descript external walls was the reason for its unique wartime history. It was the only shul in Amsterdam not discovered by Holland’s Nazi occupiers. At a time when tragically most of the Jews in Holland were sent to concentration camps, many were hidden by non-jewish families, a few like Anne Frank, (Hyd), made their own hiding places and amazingly three Jews hid in a room behind the Aron Kodesh in the Gerard Dou Shul. They remained there undiscovered until the day of liberation. In the first years of the Kollel Chacham Zvi, the avreichim took turns on Shabbos to attend the Gerard Dou Shul and give a drasha. This is how my close connection with the shul began. It was Parshas Vayechi and I arrived for my occasional visit on behalf of the kollel. The problem was that the baal koreh had not arrived. Who could possibly lein the parsha without any preparation? As it happens it was my barmitzvah parsha and having leined the parsha on my barmitzvah thirteen years before, and several times since, I was ready to step into the breach. One of the gabbaim, Meneer Van Veen, said that I would be paid the standard twenty-five guilder fee for leining but I said that it wasn’t necessary. However, the next day a huge mouth-watering chocolate cherry cream gateau was delivered by the local kosher bakery, in lieu of payment. The gabbai wasn’t finished, though and having seen that I was able to lein, began calling me regularly to do so, “because he didn’t have anyone else.” If by Thursday night there was still no-one else, I would go and lehn but would always refuse payment. Hence the freezer full of chocolate cherry cream gateaux which the Fletcher family could never eat fast enough to keep pace with their arrival. Eventually I became the permanent acting rav of the shul on behalf of the kollel.

The other two gabbaim were Mr Rozenberg z”l, old timer who suffered from deteriorating Parkinson’s Disease and a young member of the shul, Fred Hochheimer, a local pharmacist whose presence in the shul lowered the average age of the congregants by at least five years to approximately seventy-five years old. On my first visit to the shul Mr Rosenberg had already made his presence felt by stepping out as I walked up to the pulpit and whispering in my ear, “Mr Fletcher, seven minutes!” Apparently this was the maximum amount of time allowed for the drasha in the Gerard Dou Shul.

But now the exciting part of this story, details of which circulate in the Amsterdam community until this very day about thirty years later – the story of the kohen.

The Gerard Dou shul was always regarded as an independent shul attended by people who for their own reasons did not want to attend the more official shuls where the officially-appointed rabbonim maintained control. A group of would-be converts came, as well as various unafilliated people. Everyone was made welcome and no questions were asked. The congregation always had a beautiful spread of cakes for the Kiddush which took place in the very room where those three Dutch Jews had hidden years previously. The atmosphere was always friendly. However friendliness and tolerance can sometimes create problems; where do you draw the line? One of the occasional congregants was a middle-aged Dutchman, Mr Sam de Jong.[1] Unfortunately he had married a non-Jewish woman but still liked to keep up his Jewish connection by occasionally coming to shul. Of course Gerard Dou, with its open door policy, was where he liked to go. Another detail was that Sam de Jong was a Kohen. The gabbaim never gave him the first aliya usually reserved for a Kohen but occasionally gave him ‘acharon.’ To call up such a Jew for an aliya after the first seven aliyos is a leniency which some allow, to avoid ill-feeling. So nothing was said and polite friendship was the order of the day…..until Shevuos.

Shevuos is, of course, the Yom Tov we celebrate the Giving of the Torah. Many Jews stay up all night studying the Torah to show their love for the Torah. I also wanted to stay up learning and asked the gabbaim of the shul if they could manage without me for one day. They kindly agreed. So for that first day of Yom Tov there was no rabbi in shul. Was that so terrible? Can’t a shul manage for one day without a rabbi?

There is an English expression, ‘when the cat’s away, the mice will play.’ The absence of the rabbi on that one day set in motion a series of events which literally cost someone his life. Mr de Jong was in shul on that first day of Shevuos. And he had noticed that the rabbi was not there. He then did something he had never dared do before – he went up to duchan. As most people know, outside of Eretz Yisroel on a normal day there is no duchaning. Only at Musaf on Yom Tov is there duchaning. All the kohanim of the shul go up to the aron kodesh, turn to face the tzibbur and give the traditional priestly blessings. However not all kohanim go up to duchan. A kohen who has married out does not duchan. He has done what is regarded as the most serious act of disloyalty to the Torah, marrying and setting up house with a non-Jewish woman . But on the first day of Shevuos, when the rabbi was not there, Sam de Jong decided to duchan. To the consternation of the tzibbur he went up and joined in with other kohanim. And it seems that he liked the idea. By the time I was back in the shul on the second day of Yom Tov and it was time for duchaning, Mr de Jong, draped in a tallis which made him almost unrecognizable, went up again. I was unsure what to do. I was, after all, just an avreich from the local kollel. Was it important enough to have a public fight? So I said nothing. Mr de Jong enjoyed his ‘victory.’ He had duchaned even in the presence of the rabbi. It was now a fait accompli. Of course I raised my objections with the gabbaim but what could be done? Have a physical fight in the middle of the shul?

The summer moved on but the issue was not forgotten. Mr de Jong was looking forward to the big one, the Yamim Nora’im. I consulted more senior Rabbis from the community. What should my approach be? The senior rabbonim of the town advised, “You have to tell him, Rochel bitcha haketana,[2] that he is not allowed to duchan .” But Sam de Jong had tasted victory on Shevuos and was not going to give up. Tefila and tzedaka he might consider but teshuva was not on his agenda. Shortly before Rosh Hashana, I was told. “Do not have a physical fight but you must stand your ground. If he insists on going to duchan you must make a public announcement that one of the kohanim is not authorized to duchan according to the Chief Rabbinate of Amsterdam and the tzibbur should only listen to the other kohanim.” And so it was. On the holy day of Rosh Hashonoh Sam de Jong refused a last minute plea from me to back down and the announcement was made. The davening continued. I had done what I was told to do. Mr de Jong had duchaned but he naturally had been embarrassed by the announcement.

Now the whole community became involved. Many criticized me. “He embarrassed a Jew in public –an unforgivable offence.” Others spoke in my defence, “Mr de Jong was going against the Chief Rabbinate of Amsterdam. What other option was there?” The debate was animated; the real question was ‘Who is in charge? Have the rabbis the right to control what is done at least in the shuls?’

The next and final battle was scheduled for Yom Kippur. If Mr de Jong goes up to duchan again despite his previous embarrassment, he will have won. The announcement had already been made. Should a private security firm be hired to block Mr de Jong from the aron kodesh? That wasn’t practical. But maybe Mr de Jong would back down. Maybe desecrating Yom Kippur to prove his point was something even he would not want to do. I called a meeting with the gabbaim for during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva to see what possible options there were. The shul and the community waited tensely for Yom Kippur. Who was going to come out on top, the rabbinate and halacha or a serious transgressor? The honor of Shomayim was at stake.

The conclusion was as shocking as it was devastating. That is why they are still talking about it in Holland thirty years later. Before the scheduled meeting in the shul I received a call from the gabbaim. “The meeting’s off. Mr de Jong has just suffered a massive heart attack and died. He won’t be duchaning any more. And before long the Jewish Community of Rotterdam had also heard about it and they changed their plans. A rabbi who, if you defy him, you get instant punishment from Heaven was not the type of rabbi they had in mind.

[1] The name has been changed.

[2] In other words with the same absolute clarity that Yaakov Avinu had told Lavan that he wanted to marry Rachel, not Leah.