For thousands of years the definition of “Who is a Jew” was untampered with. A Jew was someone born of a Jewish mother or one who had converted in accordance with the criteria clearly set down in the Halachah. One of these criteria is the acceptance of all the Mitzvot of Judaism. This was until the emergence of groups such as Reform or Conservative who do not demand the fulfilling of all these criteria from their “converts” and whose own religious functionaries themselves do not observe all the Mitzvot. In Jewish law their conversions are not worth the paper they are written on. Their “converts” are only be recognised by their own “constituency” or by those who are less observant. For example, the Conservatives do not recognise Reform “conversions” but Reform accept Conservative “conversions.” It goes without saying that the Orthodox do not recognise Reform or Conservative “conversions.”
The problem became more acute with the establishment of the State of Israel. Under the Law of Return passed by the Knesset in 1950, all Jews had the right to immigrate to Eretz-Israel,
But who is a Jew according to this law?
In 1958, the Minister of the Interior, who was from a left wing party ruled that anyone who in “good faith” declared himself to be a Jew must be registered accordingly. This definition angered the religious parties and as a result Ben-Gurion wrote to a number of Jewish “sages” all over the world - including non-Orthodox scholars - for their opinion on this question. Almost all, including the non-Orthodox ones, said that one had to use the Halachic definition of a Jew.
In 1960, there was a Minister of the Interior from a religious party and he defined a Jew as “a person born of a Jewish mother, who does not belong to another religion, or one who has converted in accordance with religious law.”
In 1968, this definition was challenged in the Israel Supreme Court by Benjamin Shalit. He was a man who was married to a non-Jewess but he wanted to have his children registered as Jewish by nationality but of no religion. The Court in a majority opinion agreed.
This caused a big rumpus in Israel and the Knesset passed an amendment to the Law of Return which defined a Jew as one “born to a Jewish mother, or who has become converted to Judaism, and who is not a member of another religion.” It is crucial to note here, that unlike the 1960 regulation of the Ministry of the Interior, the law does not define what is meant by “conversion.” Does it include Reform and Conservative “conversions”?
In the late 1980s the case of Suzanne Miller came before the Israel Supreme Court. She had been “converted” in the United States by the Reform movement and she wanted recognition as a Jew on her Israeli identity card. The Court unanimously ruled in her favour. Ironically she left Israel within a few days and therefore never received such an identity card. However this case was a precedent for other similar cases of people “converted” outside Israel. At the beginning of 2002, the Israel Supreme Court went even further and ruled that that the Interior Ministry must register as Jew, Israeli citizens who were “converted” by the Conservative or Reform movements in Israel and the Diaspora.
Decades before the Israel Supreme Court ruled that Reform and Conservative “converts” must be recognized as Jews, the King David Schools in Liverpool were doing so! It was soon after I took up office, that I discovered this fact. These pupils were in the main children who had a Jewish father and whose mother had undergone a Reform “conversion.”
There were two major problems in the school’s accepting these pupils as Jews. The more serious was that other people, including pupils of the school, would think they were Jews. This could even lead to intermarriage. Only, when a few weeks before the intended marriage, they applied to the Chief Rabbi’s Office for a marriage license, would they discover that their intended partner was in fact non-Jewish. At that stage it would require great strength of character to break off the relationship. In fact, whilst I was at the school, a potential case like this arose. One boy had a girl-friend who was registered in the school as Jewish but in fact was non-Jewish. I called this boy into my study and told him that this girl was non-Jewish.
The second problem is whether it is permissible to teach non-Jews Torah. There is much Religious literature on this question. Many authorities allow the teaching of Bible to non-Jews but forbid teaching the Oral Law. However, even teaching non-Jews the Oral Law is permitted on an occasional basis and is also permitted if it could be dangerous if one did not teach them.
However, these problems should not need to arise in a Jewish School. They should only accept pupils who are Jewish according to Halachah. In a school which needs to take in non-Jewish pupils to make up the numbers required by the Local Education Authority, they should only take non-Jews who will not claim they are Jewish. With such pupils there can be no confusion.
When I discovered this problem existed at the King David High School, I did not remain silent. I discussed it with the local Rabbis, with the Chairman of the Governors, the Chairman of the King David Foundation, the Headmasters of both the King David Schools and the NUHT. The Headmaster of the Primary School told me that when he came to the school and was asked to enroll children whose mothers had had a Reform “conversion” he consulted with the Managers - they are the equivalent of Governors in a High School. The Managers ruled that anyone with one Jewish parent could be enrolled as a Jewish child. Having been enrolled as Jewish in the Primary School, they would naturally continue as “Jewish” in the High School.
I considered it was crucial for me to know which pupils were really Jewish and which were non-Jews registered as Jewish. The best way is to incidentally ask the pupil himself a few questions. Unlike a parent, a child will generally not know what to hide. One of the methods I often used was during their first lesson in the Barmitzvah or Eshet Chayil course in the 1st year. We would ask the pupils and write down which Synagogues their parents belonged to. A child aged about 11 is unlikely to answer Childwall Synagogue if their parents belonged to the Progressive Congregation. If the answer was the Progressive or no Synagogue, I would make further inquiries. For boys, there was a further check since about a year after they joined the school, they would register with the school for Barmitzvah tuition and we would enter in the Barmitzvah register at which Shuls their Barmitzvahs would take place.
On one occasion I was suspicious about the Jewishness of two sisters and I asked one of them a few questions. She obviously told her father, since he wrote a strong letter to the Headmaster saying he objected to his daughter having been questioned in this manner. “My daughters are Jewish” he wrote “and we are members of the Progressive Congregation.” The Headmaster replied that he was sorry that his daughter had been questioned, but that it was sometimes necessary for Rabbi Simons to know these facts. The Headmaster told me that he thought the girls were non Jewish. Very soon after, the two girls left the school.
At the beginning of 1974, I arranged a meeting between the members of the RAC, Rabbi Margulies (who was Rabbi of the local Shechita Board), the two Headmasters and myself to discuss the question of non-Jews being registered as Jews. I supplied a list of such pupils in the High School to the RAC. However the Headmaster of the Primary School declined to do likewise. On another occasion I asked him to give me such a list but he again declined. He said he would have to ask the Mangers about it. But I never received a list from him.
At the end of 1975, the question was discussed in a RAC meeting. According to the minutes: “The RAC is very worried by the fact that there are a number of cases of non-Jewish pupils being registered as Jewish and being admitted to Jewish Religious Instruction, and hope that a more effective system of registration will be devised.”
This question was brought up in the Jewish Studies sub-Committee a month later. It was decided to set up a sub-Committee to look into this question and the names of several laymen for this sub-Committee were approved. I said that such a committee must have a Rabbi on it. This suggestion of mine was not accepted and I was told that a Rabbi could be co-opted at a later date. One would have thought that Rabbinical representation on such a committee was a must!
In fact a few days later, Rev. Malits told me that he had been telephoned and asked to sit on this sub-Committee. Obviously, the conclusion had been reached, that such a sub-committee would look very strange if Rabbis were to be excluded. The next meeting of the Jewish Studies sub-Committee did not take place for over nine months. As was usual, the minutes of the previous meeting were only circulated just before the following meeting. According to these minutes, Rev. Malits had been appointed to this sub-Committee together with the other members at this meeting. I did not want this rewriting of history to go unchallenged. I therefore contacted the secretary and pointed out this inaccuracy. Either he claimed I was not correct or he could not remember. At all events he did not agree with me. I then spoke to Rev. Malits but he said he could not remember.
This sub-Committee met several times to discuss the question of Jewish identity. After that, I happened to notice in the Headmaster’s study a typed summary of the sub-Committee’s recommendation, which I felt it was legitimate for me to read. It spoke inter alia, about asking the Chief Rabbi or the London Beth Din (I cannot remember which) for a ruling on the matter. On the whole I found these recommendations quite acceptable. Sadly these were only draft recommendations. The final recommendations of this sub-Committee were to do nothing in this matter! I understand that they did, however decide “to ask for details of the date and place of the marriage of the parents of pupils enrolling in the Schools.”
Following this, the RAC suggested a format for these forms and asked that they be sent to parents of pupils proposing to enter the schools in September 1976. Only the Headmaster of the Primary School immediately complied. The RAC “regretted that this had not yet been done for the High School.”
The Headmaster of the High School then complied but he added the comment, “Not required if already supplied to the Headmaster of the King David Primary School.” The RAC asked that this comment be deleted. Would a parent remember whether about seven years previously he had given this information to the Primary School? The parent had certainly told the Primary School the date of birth of the child but no one was likely to suggest that it was superfluous to give it to the High School. Is there any harm in giving the information about the parents’ marriage again? In fact a number of parents of the High School who did not answer the questions regarding date and place of marriage had not given it in the past to the Primary School. I therefore had to go to the trouble of telephoning these parents to obtain this information.
At the time, the Governors did decide “that the Headmaster was to speak to the parents of such non-Jewish pupils explaining the problems etc.” Afterwards he “informed the Governors that he had indeed spoken to parents of mixed marriages.” To which parents he spoke and what he said, I don’t know.
I spoke to Rabbi Bernstein, President of the National Union of Hebrew Teachers on this entire question and they asked for a ruling from the London Beth Din on this matter. They gave their ruling which they sent to the NUHT. In this ruling the Clerk to the Court wrote: “I am instructed by the Beth Din to advise that Limudei Kodesh can only be taught to non-Jewish children when their application for Geirut has been approved.” I should mention that some months earlier the RAC had also passed a resolution “that all pupils who are not Halachically Jewish should not be given Jewish Studies lessons.”
In December 1976 the NUHT sent a letter to the various Jewish schools in England informing them of this London Beth Din ruling. The words “limudei kodesh” which were written in the ruling in Hebrew, they translated as “Jewish Studies” which was the term popularly used in England for “limudei kodesh” and they explained the term “non-Jewish children” as “children who are not halachically Jewish” which was of course the intention of the London Beth Din. I first saw a copy of this letter from Rabbi Roberg who had got it from the Satmer School in Stamford Hill. Since obviously schools such as the Satmer school are not going to take in pupils not Halachically Jewish, their letter was marked “For information only.”
One of the recipients of this letter was the Headmaster of the King David High School. I should mention this occurred whilst the school was on holiday. Even before he received his copy, I had met with our staff and we decided on our response. Our shaliach at the time had spoken to the ZFET and they told him not to get involved. This left me, Michael Rothbard and Sam Kauffman to act. We wrote a letter to the Headmaster: “Following the binding Halachic ruling issued by the London Beth Din regarding the teaching of Jewish Studies to non-Jewish children, we are now no longer allowed to teach Jewish Studies to the pupils listed on the attached sheet. Would you therefore, please make the necessary arrangements to implement this ruling.” We enclosed a list of the non-Jewish pupils registered as Jews which contained 17 children from 12 families, adding that it was possible that there were others whom we did not yet know about.
Before he received our letter, indeed before we had posted it, I got a telephone call at home from the Headmaster. He had obviously gone into school during the vacation to collect post and do other jobs. He told me he almost cried when he received the NUHT letter. His tears should have been tears of joy! He now had the opportunity, which he could blame on the London Beth Din, of removing such pupils from being classed as Jewish in his school and thus help decrease the rampant intermarriage in the Anglo-Jewish community.
He asked what I was going to do about it. I pointed out that it was a Beth Din ruling and thus had to be obeyed. But the King David Foundation ruled otherwise, he argued. I answered that a Beth Din ruling overrules what the Foundation might have decided. He said he was writing us a letter informing us that “no Jewish Studies class is to be taught” if these non-Halachic Jewish children are excluded. He obviously telephoned all the Jewish Studies staff because he soon returned to me and said that Sam Kauffman had said that he would seat all such pupils in the back row. The Headmaster then said that “any separation of a pupil, even though he remains in the same room, would be considered as exclusion.” I met with Michael Rothbard and Sam Kauffman and we agreed that despite this, our letter to the Headmaster would of course still be sent, which it was. A few days later, I received a letter from the Headmaster containing the points he had told me over the telephone. He sent copies of his letter to all the Jewish Studies Staff, the Chairman of the Foundation, Chairman of the Governors, Chairman of the Managers and the Headmaster of the Primary School.
The ideal person to consult with at the time was Rabbi Roberg. Unfortunately however his mother had just passed away and he was sitting Shiva in Israel. I also telephoned Rabbi Bernstein and updated him and told him it could take a little time to implement such a ruling with which he fully concurred.
The Jewish Studies staff met together to formulate our reply to the Headmaster’s letter and we also had a discussion with Rev. Malits. We decided it was possible to implement the Beth Din ruling, until the meeting of the Foundation set for a few weeks later in which they would discuss this question, “in such a way that the change necessitated by this ruling will not be apparent to the pupils.” We sent him a letter to this effect. This was acceptable to the Headmaster. One might ask how this could be done. For example one could avoid talking directly with these non-Jewish pupils during the lessons. If done cleverly, this should not be apparent to the pupils.
The Jewish Studies staff wanted to travel down to London and update the London Beth Din on the attitude of the Headmaster to their ruling. However, the Beth Din was booked up on Sundays for the foreseeable future and the school would not give us time off on a weekday to travel to London.
The Headmaster had been in contact with the Chairman of the Governors and possibly other Governors and Foundation members. The following incident then happened. Outside the Headmaster’s study was a notice board and this was used to show matters of current Jewish interest. It happened, quite by chance, that immediately after giving our second letter to the Headmaster, I went to pin something on the Board. He was on the telephone - I don’t know to whom but obviously a Governor or Foundation member - and without intending to eavesdrop on his conversation, I heard him telling his caller excitedly what we had agreed to do.
Whilst all these discussions were in process, the Treasurer of the King David Foundation came to speak to the Jewish Studies staff. They were at the time planning a massive fund raising drive for the Foundation and they were obviously worried that all this could affect it. From my point of view this was irrelevant to the subject. He also said that the Reform might then insist in bringing in their teachers to teach their version of Judaism. The Headmaster had also made this point with us. However, I pointed out to the Treasurer that this would be against the agreements signed between the King David School, the ZFET and the Chief Rabbi which stated that “the education shall be based on Orthodox Jewish tradition.” He said he knew of no such agreement. Accordingly I wrote to the Chairman of the ZFET asking for a copy of this agreement. They sent me a copy and it indeed contained this provision. They also asked me whether “any problem had arisen” in implementing this agreement. I thanked him for the material and said there had not been any problems.
However, just as agreements can be kept, they can also be broken! It was just a few years earlier in 1974, after almost all the delegates had left the British Zionist Federation Conference, that the extreme left anti-Religious Mapam managed to push through a resolution - its delegates had deliberately stayed behind for this purpose - which effectively said that the Zionist Federation must also provide “secular Jewish schooling.” There were complaints and arguments that this broke the signed agreement with the Chief Rabbi. However, the resolution, although unrepresentative, was ruled to be legal and binding.
The King David Foundation met and “decided that there should be no change in the existing policy” regarding such pupils and added that they would ask for “a meeting with the Chief Rabbi in order to discuss this matter with him.” During the previous few weeks, we saw that in practice, we could implement the Beth Din ruling without it being apparent to these pupils and we thus carried on with this policy. This was probably the best solution under the circumstances. To have taken stronger and more decisive action at that time, could have easily ricochetted and made the situation even worse, such as giving the Reform a foothold in the School and possibly after that, in other ZFET schools.
Even before we received this Beth Din ruling regarding giving Religious instruction to non-Jewish pupils registered as Jews, needless to say, I would never allow any of them to act as Shliach Tzibur, be called up to the Torah, to lein or read a portion at the Model Seder.
Towards the end of the second year, we would have a Barmitzvah or Eshet Chayil examination, (which has already been described). Following this, a ceremony was held in which the successful candidates received a certificate and a book. I would never allow any of these pupils to even sit for this examination. There was also an additional reason for acting this way. No one knows where a pupil will be five years after he leaves the school, a time when he will possibly be getting married. Let us assume a pupil ends up in a country such as Peru or Zambia and goes to the local Orthodox Rabbi there to register for marriage. The Rabbi will ask him for evidence of his Jewishness. He may then produce this Barmitzvah or Eshet Chayil certificate as such evidence. On the face of it, it would seem reasonable evidence and the Rabbi might unwittingly perform a “mixed marriage.” Obviously in England he wouldn’t be able to fool the London Beth Din with such a certificate, but who says a former pupil won’t emigrate.
I would explain to such pupils why they could not take this examination. Almost always the pupils did not care. On one occasion it seems the pupil wanted to take the examination and the Headmaster asked me if I would give him a copy of the paper which he would then pass over to the Reform minister, who would set this boy the examination. I categorically refused. Even the Governors realised that they could not give a certificate to such pupils.
In the top streams in each year, the pupils learned more Oral Law, and even before the Beth Din ruling, I would “arrange it” that none of these pupils could be in a top stream. Usually this could easily be done, since such pupils were generally uninterested in Jewish Studies. Occasionally they were interested in Jewish Studies but they were still not put in a top stream. On no occasion did a pupil or even his parents make a fuss about this. There was one occasion when the Headmaster asked me why one of these pupils was in the top stream for Modern Hebrew but in a lower stream for Jewish Studies. I “explained” that this pupil was good at languages but had no interest in Religious Knowledge!
A problem did in fact arise in putting such a pupil in a lower stream, whereas had he been Jewish would have been in the top stream. When it came to the examinations at the end of the year, he might well come top in his class. It was traditional that the top pupil would be presented with a prize at the annual speech day. I felt it would be very wrong for such a pupil to receive a prize for Jewish Studies. I therefore did some “mark manipulation.” The Jewish pupil who had the highest mark would have his marks raised, whereas this non-Jewish pupil would have his mark lowered. In this way, a Jewish pupil would have the highest mark in his stream and would thus receive the prize. I felt this manipulation to be perfectly legitimate, since this non-Jewish pupil was not entitled to be in any Jewish Studies class. If he had been awarded the prize, he would have deprived a Jewish pupil from receiving it.
Pupils received free Barmitzvah tuition at the school. Had one of these pupils requested it, I am sure that neither Sam Kauffman nor Rev. Malits would have been prepared to teach them. In fact this question never arose all the time I was in the School. The closest we got to this was when one of these pupils asked me about Barmitzvah tuition. I must have mentioned it to the Headmaster, because he wrote to the boy’s parents saying that his son had asked me about such tuition. The Headmaster then nipped this matter in the bud by saying that he believed such tuition did not arise with their son. Nothing more was then heard of it. An interesting situation might have arisen had one of the very few Jewish pupils who belonged to the Progressive congregation requested Barmitzvah tuition for his Barmitzvah at such a congregation. But it never arose.
What was the situation at other Jewish schools? I asked several of the Jewish schools in England about their policy in this matter. The JFS in London wrote in their prospectus that the school was open to anyone “recognised as Jewish by the London Board of Jewish Religious Education.” This London Board (which administers the school together with ZFET) is part of the United Synagogue, whose religious head is the Chief Rabbi. Thus the JFS only takes in pupils Halachically Jewish. The Head of Jewish Studies there told me that they make a check on the Jewishness of each pupil that applies. The Headmaster of the Avigdor Primary School in London asks to see the Ketuvah of any parents he doesn’t know personally. In doubtful cases he asks the Rabbi of the school for his ruling. When I inquired what is meant by doubtful cases, I was told people coming from abroad.
Throughout my stay at the King David, I never found any such pupils taking any interest in participating actively in a Jewish Religious service, with one exception. This was a boy who had transferred to the High School from a non-Jewish school in Liverpool. He would turn up to services wearing Tephillin.
One of my duties in the services was to go around the pupils, check they had the right place in their Siddurim, adjust their Tephillin to the right position, adjust the Tephillin knots when necessary and if I saw they needed blackening ask them to give them to me after the service for this purpose. I would perform these functions for the boys sitting to the right and to the left of this non-Jewish boy, but pass this boy by as if he were not present. It might have seemed heartless, but I considered it more important to show to the rest of the pupils present that this boy was non-Jewish.
The Tephillin this boy was wearing were obviously an old pair, since they needed a real blackening. One day he asked me during the service whether I would blacken them. There and then he received a categorical “no” from me. Each week, one of my lessons to many of the boys in his class (but not him) was partly devoted to the pupils asking questions of Jewish interest. This class took place that very day. The first question, which I could see they were burning to ask, was why I refused to blacken his Tephillin. I told them that they knew full well that this boy was not Jewish according to Halachah and therefore I could not in full conscience blacken his Tephillin. I explained that if I were to go round blackening the boys’ shoes, I would make no distinction between him and them in this matter. A few weeks later, one of this non-Jewish boy’s friends brought me a pair of Tephillin to blacken which really needed blackening. I strongly suspected that these were this non-Jewish boy’s Tephillin and I made some excuse why I couldn’t do so. I also told Rev. Malits that should this boy bring round a pair of Tephillin for blackening, he should check carefully whose Tephillin they were.
One might ask, if such a boy was interested enough to attend services and put on Tephillin, why I did not encourage him. I must here stress that Judaism is not a missionary religion. On the contrary, we do our best to discourage prospective converts. The procedure, if the boy really wanted to convert, would be to go to the London Beth Din. If they were satisfied with his sincerity and were to give him the green light to study Torah and start practice in keeping Mitzvot, I would be happy assist. But not until then!
I might add that if this boy thought that having the same standard of observance of most of his friends would be sufficient for conversion, he would be sadly mistaken. Conversion requires a complete observance of the Mitzvot. It is true that numerous Jews don’t observe Mitzvot, yet they are still Jews. However, once a Jew, always a Jew. One might compare this to a citizen of a country who breaks the laws. He will be punished, maybe imprisoned, but he will remain a citizen. A person applying for citizenship would have to undertake to observe all the laws of the country. It would be no answer for him to say that there are numerous citizens in jail because they broke the laws and so why should he have to undertake to keep them all.
In order to check that pupils attended services, we decided to appoint monitors who would go round and tick off those attending in a register. I prepared such lists and deliberately omitted these non-Jewish pupils from the list. A few weeks later I saw that the monitors had added their names to the lists. I called the monitors together and explained why I had not put these pupils on the list and that they were not required to attend services. I also called these non-Jewish pupils to my study and told them the same thing.
Until I had been in the school a number of years, to the best of my knowledge, all such non-Jewish pupils in the High School had graduated from the Primary School. However, suddenly, the Headmaster of the High School started enrolling such pupils. On one occasion I was suspicious about a pupil he had just admitted to the school, and I questioned him on this matter. He admitted that this pupil was not halachically Jewish and he gave me a photocopy of the pupil’s parents’ Reform “Ketuvah.” I asked him why he had not given it to me before. He answered that since it was a Reform document I would not be interested in it. I said exactly the opposite was the case - because it was a Reform document I had to examine it.
There was also a case where the non-Jewish mother of two siblings in the High School suddenly decided to be Jewish - no conversion and certainly not one in accordance with Halachah. But the Headmaster still decided they should now attend Jewish Studies lessons.
Fortunately, with over ninety per cent of the pupils there was no problem with their Jewish status. The other ten or so per cent I had to investigate.
There were a few cases, and really just a few, where both parents were Jewish, yet they were members of the Progressive congregation. They had got married in an Orthodox Synagogue in Liverpool. By law, Synagogue marriage registers are open to the public. I went to the Synagogue where the parents told me they had got married and asked to look at the register. The secretary said that the gabbai had told him that should someone ask him for details of a marriage, he should look it up himself and tell them, but he should not let them look at the register themselves. I prefer to see things with my own eyes and I told him I was legally entitled to look and he finally let me.
One of these pupils to join the school was the son of the Progressive Minister of Liverpool. On his application form to the school, the Headmaster had written that this Minister had got married in a particular Reform Congregation and that his wife’s parents had got married in a particular Orthodox Synagogue. I don’t know whether the Headmaster had asked this pupil’s parents for this information or he had obtained it from other sources. I also made discrete inquiries and verified that both parents of this pupil were Jewish. A number of years after I left the school, I heard that this boy was studying in the Yeshivah in Liverpool. I hope he goes the way of his paternal grandfather, who I understand was an observant Jew.
Sometimes a problem arose when a pupil’s father was non-Jewish. In cases, where I had a doubt over the Jewishness of the mother, I would check on the marriage of the maternal grandparents of the pupil. I would contact the mother of the pupil and ask her the place and date of her parent’s marriage and also for a copy of her birth certificate. I would then write to the London Beth Din and ask them to confirm the accuracy of this marriage. I never found any mother who had supplied me with incorrect information. On one occasion I had to write to South Africa to get confirmation of a marriage.
I had one complicated case in this matter. The mother had come from Egypt and her parents had married there. She also had a brother living in Haifa. For some reason I cannot recollect, I was unable to confirm directly details of her parents’ marriage. She did however supply me a document in a barely readable state in Arabic, which she said was her birth certificate. I contacted the University of Liverpool and asked whether they had someone who could, for a fee, translate a document from Arabic. They provided me with someone for this purpose. The translator contacted me and said that since it was very difficult to read the name on this certificate could I tell it to her so that she could put it in the translation. I replied that this was the whole object of the exercise to know whether it was a particular person’s birth certificate. She also told me that the sex of the person was not stated. I received a translation and we paid the translator the fee of one pound. However, the name which the translator succeeded in reading was not the name of the mother of the pupil. I understand that someone else who looked at this certificate said it could be the mother’s name. In conclusion nothing definite could be obtained from the certificate. My investigations led me to the conclusion that the mother was very likely Jewish. I was not sure what to do and so I contacted the Head of the Manchester Beth Din. He said that I had sufficient evidence to take the boy into Jewish Studies classes.
This boy lived with his family in a very small Jewish community just outside Liverpool. A few months before his Barmitzvah, the gabbai of the Synagogue where he was scheduled to have his Barmitzvah, contacted me in connection with this boy’s Jewishness. He said that since his Synagogue was a small one, a mistake in this matter could be very harmful to his Shul. (I might add that in fact it would be harmful to any Shul, whether big or small.) I told him the results of my investigations on this matter and we decided we needed further consultations with the Manchester Beth Din.
We accordingly made an appointment for a Sunday morning to meet with the Beth Din. On the Sunday morning the family together the Minister of that Synagogue collected me from my house and we drove to Manchester. We got lost in Manchester and by the time we found the Beth Din, it was well after the time of our scheduled meeting. The members of the Beth Din were just about to leave but Dayan Golditch, the Head of the Beth Din, saw us in one of the offices. It was felt that we needed to get more information from the mother’s brother in Haifa.
The Shul told the family that they would have to pay any expenses involved including telephone calls to Haifa, to which they agreed. In those days to telephone abroad was not like today. It was then relatively difficult and expensive. Rabbi Margulies, the Rabbi of the Shechita Board was active in these investigations and he told me that one of the telephone calls to Haifa had had unfortunate results. A telephone call had been made to the brother and after several minutes, it was discovered that they had a wrong number. This added several pounds to the family’s expenses. I believe the Haifa Beth Din entered into the investigations.
The Manchester Beth Din passed the matter on the London Beth Din who investigated the matter and then ruled that the boy was Jewish. His Barmitzvah then took place in that Shul just outside Liverpool.
After the Barmitzvah the question was raised whether the boy had had a Brit Milah. We asked the family who answered that the hospital had done it. In such cases, one takes a drop of blood from the place where the Brit Milah is done. We told this to the parents and they agreed. It was arranged that a Mohel from Manchester would come and do it in the presence of three people, including myself, at the offices of the Shechita Board.
At the appointed time we all assembled in the place and waited for the boy to arrive. When he didn’t arrive, we telephoned the family and they said “he wasn’t feeling too well.” The Mohel understood and said this was obviously embarrassing to the boy and we would go to his house to do it. The Mohel explained to us that for this he doesn’t take all his bags of instruments which would unnecessarily frighten the boy but just a knife in his inside pocket.
We arrived at their house. (We looked for a Mezuzah but didn’t see one. The Mohel told us afterwards that he saw in on the other side of the door.) The Mohel said to the family that we would go upstairs to the boy’s bedroom and five minutes later we would return and it would all be finished. We went upstairs and the Mohel prepared to take the drop of blood, when he suddenly said you have never been circumcised. We returned downstairs and told this to the family. The father explained that when the mother had given birth, she had been seriously ill and nearly lost her life. The Mohel explained that he was not blaming anyone. He explained that for a boy of his age, the Brit would have to be done in a hospital and London was the place for this. The mother asked whether it could be done in Manchester, but the Mohel said that London was the best place to do it.
We then returned to Liverpool. There was at the time some apprehension that the family would not agree. Had we known about this problem before the Barmitzvah, we would have had a greater leverage. But this apprehension was unnecessary. The family agreed and the Brit was done in the Jewish Hospital in the East End of London.
This was a hospital which was built, at least in its initial stages, from the pence and shillings of the poor Jewish immigrants to England in the early part of the 20th century, over the active opposition of Lord Rothschild. One of the donors was my great uncle, Hyman Richardson, and a certificate he received is reproduced as a frontispiece in a book on the history of this hospital. The hospital closed at the end of the 1970s.
There was one case where the family was registered with the London Beth Din for conversion and for some considerable period I felt it would end with a conversion. The Jewish father had married out and had two sons. He had had neither of them circumcised - in fact there was no reason to do so as they were non-Jewish. One of them he even called Christopher. On this he said to me “see how far I had gone from Judaism.” Then the family decided to convert. They were registered with the London Beth Din and we were allowed to give them Jewish Religious Instruction. Christopher even participated in our two seminars at Port Dinorwic. I spoke to him before the Shabbat at the seminar and told him he must not touch the wine bottle. However, before any conversion could take place, for same reason, they lost all interest and the father wrote that he was withdrawing the boys from Jewish Studies. This example shows how right the Botei Din are in going very very slowly in the conversion process. A person who converts, but does not observe Mitzvot is a heretical Jew. Better to remain a non-Jew and keep the seven Noachic laws.
There were also cases which required a ruling of the London Beth Din, where they ruled that the pupil was non-Jewish.
In one of these cases, the mother of two children at the school brought me a conversion certificate signed by the then Head of the Glasgow Beth Din, although on the Rabbi’s private note-paper and also a Ketuvah signed by this Rabbi. She told me that the London Beth Din was not prepared to accept this conversion and wanted her to do further study. I asked her point blank whether any money was handed over before she got the certificate and she answered that she would not tell me in order not to prejudice her case. From this reply, I had my answer!
I decided to go to the London Beth Din myself to get more details as to why they did not recognize this conversion. I met with Dayan Swift and he told me that this Head of the Beth Din was over 90 and senile and there was, a Chazan who would take advantage of this to manipulate this Rabbi. He would get the Rabbi to sign sheets of blank paper and he would put the “conversion” details in later. Dayan Swift pointed out to me the large space between the end of the letter and the signature of this Rabbi, indicating that the signature came before the letter. He took out this woman’s file and told me that when she had appeared before the Beth Din, she was wearing trousers and could not answer questions on which berachot are said over various foods. If a person does not know such berachot, they obviously don’t say them, and observance of Mitzvot is an indispensable factor for conversion.
Soon after, the mother wrote a letter to the Headmaster saying she was withdrawing her children from Jewish Studies. The Headmaster passed me on this letter with his added comment, “the end of a sad story.”
On one Chol Hamoed I needed some item of work to be done, which was preferably to be done by a non-Jew. I deliberately chose this women’s son to do this job to give active substance to the ruling of the London Beth Din.
Another case involved a father who turned up one day at the school with his 11 year old son. He showed the Headmaster and me a “conversion certificate” on Jewish Agency paper signed by some Sephardi Rabbi in Marseilles. I answered that if the London Beth Din was prepared to certify this conversion, I would accept him as a Jewish pupil. I telephoned Marcus Carr who was the Clerk to the London Beth Din and as soon as I mentioned the name of this Marseilles Rabbi, he told me the conversion was not valid.
The family was rather interesting. The father had divorced his non-Jewish wife who had been “converted” by this Marseilles Rabbi and had married a woman from a very religious background. Unfortunately she had a mental illness. The question was therefore only the conversion of this boy.
I reminded the Headmaster that our agreement was that the boy would only attend Jewish Studies lessons, if his conversion was recognised. The Headmaster wrote to the father that he would be reluctant to remove the boy from Jewish Studies lessons but he would have to do something about the conversion.
The father had been in contact with the London Beth Din and they had laid down certain conditions regarding the religious observance of the family. One of them was that the father stops working on Shabbat. I spoke to the father about that but he said he could not. So nothing further moved, at least while I was at the school, with the conversion. The Headmaster, however, did nothing about removing him from Jewish Studies lessons.
As the boy approached the age of 13, the father told the Headmaster and me that a Sephardi Shul in Manchester was prepared to allow the boy to have a Barmitzvah there but who would be there for the Barmitzvah, he lamented. The Headmaster said that he himself would attend. The Headmaster asked me whether if the Sephardi Beth Din were to recognise the conversion I would also do so. I pointed out to him that in England, we have to accept only the ruling of the London Beth Din in these matters.
In one case when I investigated two siblings, I found that neither parent was Jewish. I first invited the father to my house and in our discussion learned that he was not born Jewish. I don’t know whether he had a reform “conversion” or not. What I was of course interested in, was the status of the mother. He gave me a few rambling unclear details of her ancestry. I then invited the mother. From her conversation, I saw clearly that she was not Jewish. She then starting crying and asking whether we would make her children leave - I don’t recollect whether she said the school or the Jewish Studies lessons. I gave her a cup of tea to calm her down and pointed out that I would have to put the matter to the Rabbis in Liverpool. When I told Henry Lachs of this case, he answered that even according to the school’s criteria of admittance they didn’t qualify from the Jewish angle, since neither parent was Jewish.
Another point I sometimes had to investigate was in the case of adoptions. It often happens that Jewish parents adopt a non-Jewish child. Adoption does not make the child Jewish. The child has to be converted. There is however a difference between when an adult is converted and when a child is. With an adult it is absolutely irreversible. With a child, when the child reaches the age of Barmitzvah or Batmitzvah, it has the option of renouncing. But it must be done immediately they reach this age.
One adopted girl, whose intelligence was not of the highest, keep saying in her Jewish Studies lessons that she was not Jewish. Her friends kept trying to shush her up. They knew that any suspicion might cause me to investigate. This family had also adopted another girl. The mother was invited to the school and she sat together with me and the Headmaster in the latter’s study. I told the mother what her adopted daughter kept saying. The mother then produced two conversion certificates, one for each of the girls. One was on London Beth Din note-paper and other on the note-paper of Rabbi Plitnick, which said he was acting with the agreement of the London Beth Din, certifying the conversions. I asked the mother if I could photocopy them. She agreed, asking me to be careful, since it had been hard enough getting them.
In another adoption case, I had no doubt about the Jewishness of the boy, but I had a different problem which arose when the boy reached the age of Barmitzvah. The adoptive father was a Levi. The adoptive parents did not want the boy to know he had been adopted. Every Thursday morning there was leining in the Shacharit service. All the Barmitzvah boys in the service, and there was not such a large number, got called up. I could not call this boy up for the Aliyah of Levi. How would I get over this problem without letting this boy know that his adoptive parents were not his real parents? I discussed this with the Headmaster and he said call him up as a Yisrael and if he asks tell him to ask his father. This solution in no way appealed to me, since I wanted to fully respect the view of his father in connection with the adoption.
I therefore went to the London Beth Din to discuss this question with Dayan Swift. He took out this boy’s file and said that he was not a Levi. He suggested I call him up for acharon. However this was not possible on weekday mornings when there is no acharon. How then did I solve this problem? I would give this boy Hagba, or, when there was no Cohen present call him up for the first Aliyah. If there is no Cohen in the Shul, one may call up a Levi or Yisrael for the first Aliyah. On one occasion, when he was present, I had a problem. There were two Cohanim present and no Leviim! There is a method which may be used on weekdays - to ask the Cohen to forgo his right to the first Aliyah. I asked these two Cohanim, without of course telling them the real reason, and they readily agreed.
Towards the end of my stay in Liverpool, in November 1977, the Chief Rabbi made a pastoral visit to this city and amongst his activities was a meeting with the local Rabbis and Ministers. I had this question of non-Jewish pupils being registered as Jews put on the agenda. He had heard of this problem but understood it was just one or two pupils. When I said that it was over 20 he was horrified.
When I left the school, the number of such pupils due to be in the High School in September 1978, had risen to 23.