My two favourite rabbis have long been a female progressive rabbi from Finchley and a Charedi rabbi from Stamford Hill. Not being of the faith, or of any faith come to that, the idea of having one favourite rabbi is strange, let alone two. One of them died this week, and this is my tribute to him – Rabbi Avroham Pinter, principal of Yesodeh Hatorah Senior Girls’ School and trustee of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.
He was a mentor to many of the Jewish world’s stars, such as Canvey Island community leader Joel Friedman and Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl. To me, eight years ago, when I first entered the Jewish world and knew little of the difference between rabbis (some wore big black hats, others didn’t), he was just a contact. Slowly, he became a trusted source, then an educator.
You’d have to schedule time to talk to Rabbi Pinter, 30 minutes minimum. It became so well-known that if my editor called me angry that I hadn’t filed X piece or Y article I’d say I’d been speaking to Rabbi Pinter and all was forgiven. The man could talk. But he did so in a way that made you want to listen. The slower he went (and he didn’t start off fast) the more profound or important or sensitive you knew it was that he was about to say, which made the slowing down maddening at first, until you got used to it. He’d perfected the suspenseful pause while Simon Cowell was still in nappies.
In the early days he’d “go off-the-record” well. By that I mean he’d say “now, this bit is off-the-record” and you’d know to put your pen down. As the years went by, he forgot to go off-record. I’d get off the phone to him, look at my notes and think “I can’t print that,” even though “that” was a story in itself, often far better than the story I’d called about. I don’t regret it. If I’d done that once it would have hurt him and hurt our relationship. Our trust grew, which in turn grew the duration of our phone-calls. I never minded. I’d call in work-mode, but it was always a pleasure. In the last year or two, we’d typically sign off our calls with a joke, alternating between us who told it. His was quite the repertoire.
He was rightly proud of his school. The most hurt I ever knew him was when Ofsted downgraded Yesodeh. At the time, Yesodeh was topping Progress 8 tables, which measure progress made versus progress expected. I’ve spoken to other Charedi school leaders in the aftermath of their own Ofsted downgrades – most hang up the phone. One once asked me: “Why? Are you with us or against us?” I said: “We’re Jewish News, what do you think?” Rabbi Pinter never asked whether we were with him or against him. He knew “news is news” and was grateful that we gave him the opportunity to comment. Had others been as wise, our articles would not have looked as one-sided, but if the only quotes you have to report are Ofsted’s, what else can you do? Rabbi Pinter knew that we were as keen to report the good bits as the bad, and always returned my call. That’s what made him different.
Did he feel more at ease talking to a non-religious non-Jew from Dartmoor? I think it may have helped. Our worlds could not have been more different, but that mattered not a jot to him. He was fascinated to learn that our grandparents came from the same region (Galicia) and knew I wanted to learn, so he introduced me to Stamford Hill.
It was in his office that I first came across those incredible yellow Gemachim (lenders) directories. You want power tools? Call this guy. Extra pillows for your guests? Call Nina or Rachel. Polyester tablecloth? Mrs Levene. Baby-grow? Mrs Gluck. A bris pillow? Mrs Kramer’s your lady. He showed me how the Charedim organise themselves around the principles of helping others, sharing resources and always having an open door, embodying the most precious Jewish value of Chesed (charity), just as he did.
He also taught me that the community isn’t homogeneous at all but heterogeneous (and I’m not talking LGBT+ issues here). There wasn’t just Charedim, he said, but Bobov, Belz, Satmar, Visnitz, Biala, Gerer, Sulonim, Nitrah… The hats were different, and the politics, oy! Still, they usually managed to speak with one (Yiddish) voice, and that voice, to the outside world at least, was often his.
Since he liaised with the outside world, he found out what that world thought, which let him “see it from both sides”. This won him Charedi critics, some very vocal. When I asked him about them, he was polite as always, but his attitude could be summed up thus: “Who are they? Who do they represent? No-one? OK, so come back to me when they do.”
On the issue of safeguarding, he told me recently, he had sought to broker a mutually-acceptable arrangement between the yeshivas, the Union, and Hackney Council’s safeguarding commission, but had been dropped as a mediator by the yeshivas because “they saw me as a compromiser”. I could tell he was hurt by that. I said: “God bless the compromisers, Rabbi Pinter,” to which this most gentle of men roared with laughter, and – in part, I think – relief. It should not have taken a non-Jewish, non-religious Devon-dweller to tell a strictly Orthodox rabbi that he was right to try to forge a path through, to build bridges, to help people see things from the point of view of others. I’d have hoped that was just common sense.
We last spoke shortly before Pesach. It was a rushed call, just the 20 minutes or so, no time for a joke at the end, because I was right on deadline. Privately he was annoyed that some weren’t social distancing but publicly defended the Kehillah (congregation) as always. He told me how thrilled he was to be spending the upcoming holiday at home with his children and grandchildren, a joy brought about by the tragedy of the virus. Now he’s gone that tragedy is ours – mine and all else who knew him. Goodbye, my friend. I’ll miss you.