Future chief rabbis have come and gone at Western Marble Arch. And pre-pandemic, it was the go-to morning minyan for international visitors. There were Israelis by the score, American tourists and bankers, Brazilian families and always a smattering of visitors from Paris and Rome.
Amid this glorious array of Judaism, mourners, egos, judges, peers of the realm and the occasional knight and dame there has, for several decades, been one unifying and inspirational figure in the shape of Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld. His partnership, friendship and intellectual link with the late, great, former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is legendary.
They were the David and Jonathan of contemporary Anglo-Jewry. This sacred partnership, together with the Shabbaton Choir, were Britain’s box office hit at midnight Selichot services. Sacks is no longer with us, but lives on through his insightful commentaries to our daily prayer. And, this Pesach, Rabbi Lionel and Rebbetzin Natalie will in a new home in their beloved Jerusalem surrounded by children and grandchildren.
For much of Anglo-Jewry, Rabbi Rosenfeld is known as the go-to chazan/rabbi for that special occasion, whether it was singing in the snow for an episode of the TV series Call the Midwife, a wedding, a commemorative occasion or more balefully, a funeral or shiva.
There may be cantors with bigger voices, rabbis who are greater orators and yeshiva educators even more steeped in the Talmud. But those of us who witnessed his last, spiritual Shabbat at Western Marble Arch could not but recognise that here is a member of the rabbinate who had that something extra.
Lionel brought to his chazanaut, a knowledge of prayer, a joyousness and a precision of Ivrit second to none. He made it his mission that mourners, who wished to lead weekday Shacharit services, were properly coached so the Ivrit was acceptable, the timing in keeping with the needs of other members of the minyan and the experience meaningful. His own davening was pitch perfect and his leyning fast, accurate and infused with the meaning of the words.
During services at Western Marble Arch, every person called to the law is made to feel special. Memorial prayers are recited with meaning, not gabbled like a chore, and the blessing, after being called to the law, accompanied by a brief pen picture of the honouree.
An emotional ‘last’ Drash was technically about Vayikra. At first glance it is among the least satisfying of this year’s cycle because of its focus on the sacrifices that were halted with the destruction of the Second Temple. But, as Lionel observed, sacrifice also concerns the all-out effort that turns innate skills into something much greater. It is the antithesis of self-pampering, pomposity and ego.
I shall never forget the sacrifice Lionel made when, on a damp, windswept day in May 2019 he made the journey from the West End to Brighton to be with my brother Daniel and I when we buried my father Michael. It was not his responsibility, there was no great reward; it was just respect, doing that little extra.
Pesach is the festival of freedom and Rabbi Rosenfeld has earnt his, after decades of devotion to his music, his studies of Talmud and Ivrit and his devotion to community. As most of us pray to be in Jerusalem next year, he will be there. He moves onto the next stage of his life in the knowledge an indelible impression has been left not just on the communities where he has served, sung and preached, but to the good name and reputation of British Jewry.
Chag Sameach and a kosher and a healthy Pesach.