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.



One thought on “Bonnie Scotland”

  1. Good morning Rav Fletcher,

    Happy to tell you that I’m really moved by your stories! Very well written and I can just almost see the experiences you lived through! Thank you for sharing! My name is Aviva Sarah Pels from Amsterdam, widow of the late André Pels ז”ל

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