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.