In an open letter written to his community by Rabbi Kopul Rosen, in the mid-1940s, when he had just been appointed Communal Rabbi of Glasgow, he said: “In its widest sense, Kashruth covers Taharath Hamishpachah - family purity. Not only does Kashruth train the individual in abstinence and self control, but it is also a great social factor in Jewish life.” I shall therefore write about both the Mikva and kashrut of food in Liverpool in this same chapter.
A Mikva is an essential amenity in a Jewish community. In fact building a Mikva in a community takes preference over the building of a Shul. When I arrived in Liverpool there was an old but Kosher Mikva in an area of Liverpool where Jews had once lived. The Jewish community had migrated mainly to the Childwall area, but the Mikva had not kept pace. The area was not a very savoury area - women who had to use the Mikva at night would take a taxi right up to the door. Even when I went during the daytime on erev Yom-Tov, I would take a taxi.
The Jewish caretaker of the Mikva who lived on the premises to look after the upkeep of the place was a law unto himself. He would not let anyone else, whether the lady attendant or even the Mikva Committee have the key to the place!
His family had been caretakers of the Mikva for decades. The Chairman of the Mikva Committee said that he had seen in the old Minute book, that in the 1930s, when Rabbi Unterman was Communal Rabbi of Liverpool, it had been decided to dismiss the caretaker - but the decision was never implemented!
This minute book was of course important archival material of the Liverpool Jewish Community. But by the time I arrived in Liverpool it had disappeared. I tried to track it down but sadly, without success. Maybe, by this time it has resurfaced.
On one occasion when erev Yom Kippur occurred on a Sunday, the caretaker who was also in charge of one of the cemeteries, where he expected large numbers of visitors to arrive, said he would not open the Mikva that erev Yom Kippur. Even in Liverpool, a number of men used to go to the Mikva on that day. A number of those on the Mikva Committee even suggested breaking down the door if he refused to open. We would have been legally fully entitled to do so. The property was in the legal custodianship of the Mikva Committee. In the end he agreed to open the Mikva until about nine o’ clock in the morning. Since the new Mikva was already in the course of being built and we were sure that by the following Yom Kippur we would have already moved, we did not take the matter any further.
Before he left Liverpool in 1971, the Communal Rabbi, Rabbi Plitnick, had started planning a new Mikva to be built in the grounds of Childwall Synagogue. Plans had already been drawn up. But we were held up by just one major problem - money! Unfortunately the Mikva was not a popular place in Liverpool. According to the lady attendant only about 16 ladies used it. Allowing for those who were pregnant etc., one would estimate about 20 users. And there were about 2,000 Jewish families in Liverpool at the time!
A gabbai of Childwall Shul was the Chairman of the Mikva Committee and I was one of its members. This committee had since its establishment in 1896, officially been called the “Ritual Baths Committee” but the Chairman decided to call it the “Mikva Committee.” It met on several occasions to try and advance the building in accordance with the money available. A suggestion to refurbish the old Mikva was proposed but rejected, since one of the main problems was the area in which it was situated.
Suddenly an idea was put forward. There were a number of large classrooms in Childwall Shul which were no longer in use. Maybe the Synagogue would let us convert one of them into a Mikva. The Chairman said he would put this idea to the Shul. If it would be the Shul Committee who were to decide on this question, he thought he could get it through. If on the other hand the matter were to be put before the Trustees, he wasn’t so sure. The Chairman carefully prepared a detailed case to put before the Shul. He came back to us and happily reported that the Shul Committee had immediately agreed. He did not even have to put before them all the hard work he had done to prepare his case.
We brought in the Mikva designer and expert, Rabbi Meir Posen from London, to draw up the plans. We were fortunate that we had on our committee a building architect and he agreed to supervise the building process. We found a builder whose quotation approached our budgetary resources and he soon began work.
Since we still needed more money to complete the building, the Chairman asked each of the four big Synagogues to each give two hundred and fifty pounds. As far as I recollect they all, or nearly all did. When the Fairfield synagogue closed down, the proceeds from its sale were distributed to the other Synagogues in Liverpool. I wanted some of the money to be given to the Mikva but I was told that there were legal obstacles in doing this. Instead, the Chairman arranged with each of the Synagogues to give one hundred pounds of what they received from Fairfield to the Mikva.
The building plans included one central Mikva, two bathrooms with toilets, each of them to be tiled with different colour tiles, a hairdressing room and an entrance foyer. One problem which emerged was that of drainage. There was no sewage at that side of the Childwall Shul. The closest drain was in the grounds of the neighbouring Harold House building but it was uphill and would thus have required continual pumping. A drain further away but at a lower level was in the grounds of the King David Primary School. We approached the King David Foundation who readily agreed for us to use their sewage system.
As the building proceeded it was supervised by Rabbi Posen who made periodic trips to Liverpool and by our building architect. There were also inspections by the Local Council to check that the pipes were properly sealed, which they did by putting smoke bombs into them and seeing if smoke leaked out anywhere.
It was decided to invite Rabbi Plitnick, who was by then living in Israel, to come over to formally open the Mikva. He had been instrumental in starting the project and it was thus appropriate that he should be involved with the completion of the project. His fares to and from Israel would be paid for from the Mikva funds.
The Mikva Committee met to arrange a suitable programme for the day and to decide to whom to send invitations. The programme would begin with a service in the Childwall Synagogue and I remember our arguing regarding the seating. Some wanted the women to sit downstairs on one side of the Shul, whilst others, including myself, said they had to sit in the ladies’ gallery. The matter was resolved when I contacted Rabbi Posen. He said that the ladies had to sit in the gallery. There were also arguments, believe or not, on whether to use supervised or unsupervised milk at the reception to follow the opening.
The ceremony took place on 16 May 1976 in the presence of Rabbi Plitnick, Dayan Golditch and Dayan Krausz, both of the Manchester Beth Din and many dignitaries and members of the Liverpool community. Following the Synagogue ceremony, Rabbi Plitnick formally declared the Mikva open and a reception in the Synagogue hall followed. Some representative lay leaders of the community, one of whom spoke, were also present and even though they were far removed from using a Mikva, they realised it was an essential feature in any Jewish community. The opening made the headlines in the following edition of the “Liverpool Jewish Gazette.”
Even though the Mikva had been formally opened, there was still work to be done before it could be used. A heater had not yet been installed to heat the Mikva water.
The “heart” of a Mikva is the tanks of natural rain water which are directly connected to the Mikva. The laws regarding the water permissible for this purpose are complicated and if the waters are not connected according to the strict letter of the law, the Mikva can be disqualified. Rabbi Posen therefore came to Liverpool to supervise the rigorous drying out of the tanks before rain water could be collected. We then prayed hard for rain and soon sufficient rainwater which had fallen on the roof of the Synagogue filled these tanks. The Mikva was ready for use. Since it was in the “Jewish area” of Liverpool, it could also be used on the nights of Shabbat and Yom Tov. Only on two nights of the year was it closed - on Yom Kippur and on Tisha B’Av.
I had taken it upon myself to use the Mikva on the first erev Shabbat it was ready, even though I generally only used the Mikva on erev Yom Tov and not on erev Shabbat. However this first erev Shabbat occurred before Tisha B’Av and only one who uses the Mikva every erev Shabbat during the year is allowed to use it on that erev Shabbat. I therefore had to wait until the following week.
The caretaker of the old Mikva bought the house for about three thousand pounds. We made it a condition of sale that for the first three months, we would be able to use the old Mikva if necessary, since we were worried that there might be teething problems. Fortunately this was not necessary. We did have some problems with the tiles in one of the bathrooms which started to fall off. I understand the reason was that the walls had not sufficiently dried out before they were tiled.
Even now nearly thirty years later, the centre of the much reduced community is still in Childwall, and so no new site has yet to be looked for, as was necessary in the 1970s.
I shall now move on to the kashrut of food in Liverpool.
The Liverpool Shechita Board had its office in the same building as the Yeshivah. When I arrived in Liverpool, the Rabbi of this Board was Rabbi Rogosnitzky. Whilst I was there, he moved abroad and his place was taken by Rabbi Margulies, who lived in Manchester. Although it was called the “Shechita Board,” its functions were more than just Shechita. It would also grant kashrut licenses to caterers, produce a yearly calendar with the times for Shabbat and Festivals, arrange the sale of Chametz, and so on.
It was the first such body in Britain, to insist that wines and brandies in functions under its supervision must be kosher. On one occasion, it told the caterers to stop using lettuce, due to the difficulties in completely cleaning them from insects.
This Shechita Board had a Committee known as the Ecclesiastical Committee. On this Committee sat the local Rabbis (including myself) and Ministers of the various Shuls. But this was not the entire Committee. People who were on the periphery of being called “Ministers” were also on this Committee, a thing I could accept with some difficulty. What I could not accept was that this Committee also included layman simply because they were members of the Executive of the Shechita Board. This was supposed to be an Ecclesiastical Committee!
A meeting of this Committee was once called by the Rabbi of the Shechita Board. What had happened was that a certain Jewish public body in Liverpool had opened a restaurant and had publicised it to be kosher in the “Liverpool Jewish Gazette,” but did not have a kashrut license from the Shechita Board. The Rabbi wanted to put a notice in this same paper saying it was not under his supervision and he wanted this Committee to authorise this notice.
At this meeting one of these laymen was present Instead of acting as a member of the Committee, he acted more as the advocate for this public body. He said that if they did not get a kashrut license, the body would have to close down completely - a gross exaggeration, in my opinion! He also obviously knew the editorial board of the Gazette, since he said that the paper would refuse to publish the announcement from the Shechita Board. The Rabbi answered that it would be hardly right to publish this public body’s announcement but not the Shechita Board’s. I added that we could take such a matter to the Press Council, which would have been quite legitimate, but this layman just ridiculed my statement.
Had this public body regretted their announcement in the paper and requested a kashrut license, I would have been in favour of giving it serious consideration, since one should strive to have as many public bodies as possible under kashrut supervision. But even though they did not do this at all, this layman pushed and finally succeeded in “steam rollering” through giving this body a kashrut license.
I should add that after they received their kashrut license they acted properly. They asked the Rabbi whether they could open on the fasts of 17 Tammuz and 9 Av - they didn’t decide this by themselves.
It was in my first year (or one of my first years) in Liverpool that the question of the sale of Chametz by the Jewish grocer shops in Liverpool, which was done by the Shechita Board, came up in this Committee. I suggested that a list be publicised of the shops who had sold their Chametz, but I was told that this was not necessary. When after Pesach I inquired whether they had sold their Chametz, they all (or at least almost all) said they did not know they had to do this. Since the Chametz had been in the possession of a Jew during Pesach, even accidentally, not only was this food forbidden to be eaten, but no benefit might be got from it.
Before a subsequent Pesach, the Rabbi went round to the various shops to ensure the Chametz would be sold. One shop-keeper said he was prepared to do this sale of Chametz, but during Pesach he would still sell Chametz to his customers! The Rabbi therefore refused to make a sale of Chametz with him. Afterwards he found a responsum by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who spoke about this exact situation and ruled that one could make a sale of Chametz with such a shop.
At one of the meetings of the Ecclesiastical Committee, a member of the executive of the Shechita Board read out a letter he had written to a caterer under the Board’s supervision. The caterer had asked regarding catering for the Liberal Congregation. In this letter, which I thought to be excellently written, the Board wrote that in order that Jews should be able to eat kosher food, the caterer could supply it to this Congregation. However they added a number of limitations. I cannot remember the details, but they were surely of a type such as not sending any of their crockery there.
This Liberal Congregation once asked whether the functions following one of their weddings could be held in the halls of one of the Orthodox Synagogues. This question was passed on to the Chief Rabbi. He answered that if the wedding could have taken place in an Orthodox Synagogue, then the function could take place in one of these halls. The Liberals didn’t like this answer - it made a distinction between different weddings they performed!
Having written about the Shechita Board, let me now say something in general about Shechita. It was before a General Election in Britain. A candidate in the area of Childwall was Jewish and the Merseyside Jewish Representative Council arranged a meeting with him. At this meeting he was asked how he would vote if the question of Shechita came up in Parliament. His answer - “What is Shechita?!”