This weekend, during the festival of Shavuot, most synagogues throughout the United Kingdom will recite the special prayer which has been composed by the British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, in honour of the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth Ist. This is in the best tradition of the loyalty of the Jewish community to Britain as a whole, and to the Royal Family in particular. Similar prayers have been composed and recited at all major Royal anniversaries going back hundreds of years, while a prayer for the health of the Royal Family – rather than the British Government – is recited every Shabat in synagogues. Over the years, as the names of the immediate family have changed, the one constant has been that of the Queen herself – unchanging for as long a as most of us remember.
In many of the older Orders of Service, the national anthem, God save the Queen (both paragraphs) has been inserted in an archaic Hebrew, which used to be sang on special occasions. Today, if and when the anthem (often alongside the Israeli national anthem if it is an Independence Day service) will be sang in English.
This morning, the main Synagogue body in the United Kingdom, the United Synagogue, posted a video tribute to the Queen’s platinum anniversary on its web site (see: https://www.facebook.com/UnitedSynagogueUK/videos/976860933027805/), the Chief Rabbi, along with the head of the Board of Deputies (the main representative body of Anglo Jewry), Marie van der Zyl, will be present at the Thanksgiving service to be held at St. Pauls Cathedral, while in one of the main London synagogues, St. Johns Wood, the senior Rabbi, Dayan Ivan Binstock, has prepared a Shavuot lecture looking at the way in which the prayer for the Royal Family has changed over time, back to the days of King George III, through the lifetimes of Queen Victoria and successive monarchs, and the occasional removal or addition of names as members of the family have been born, died, divorced or married into the family. At one point, the name of Princess Diana was removed, while more recently (in the past few months) some synagogues have introduced the name of Duchess Camilla, to be the official Queen Consort if and when Prince Charles becomes the King of England.
As a boy growing up in the UK, I have only ever known Queen Elizabeth. She has been Queen for four more years than I have been alive. I recall my late mother telling me how the whole country tuned in, most for the first time ever on a small black and white television set, to her coronation back in 1952 – not least as it signalled the final withdrawal from the post World War II austerity into, what was then, a bright new future for the United Kingdom.
When the United Synagogue celebrated its 100th anniversary back in 1970, the Queen accepted an invitation to be present at their celebratory dinner – the first time she attended a major Jewish event. At the time, the organisers sought to have a youth guard of honour for her, and I was honoured to be one of the four people chosen from the Bnei Akiva movement to be part of that parade.
Other members of her family, including her late departed husband Prince Philip, and her son, the future King, prince Charles, have attended Jewish community events – including Israeli Independence Day celebrations and the inaugration of the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Mirvis, when he replaced Lord Jonathan Sacks, back in 2013. Few will forget the resounding Mazel Tov cheers with which Charles was greeted on that occasion, just weeks after his first grandchild, Prince George, was born – currently the third in line to the throne if the monarchy still exists by then.
The Jewish community in particular have always held the Royal Family in high regard – especially the Queen. It is their way of showing gratitude to Britain, a country in which they arrived as penniless immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century and, despite their relative small size (today numbering little more than 270,000 people) have been a success story in all walks of life, in a country which offers them freedom of religion and democratic participation – although many are worried by the recent upsurge in incidents of antisemitism throughout the country. In particular, the Queen (in contrast with many other family members) represents for them the solidity and stability of family values, married to the same man for over seventy years, proud of her children and grandchildren along with her deep religious values and spirituality, which many of them share.
This is just as strong within the ultra-orthodox – Hareidi – community, which now numbers almost a quarter of all British Jews. When the Queen celebrated her silver anniversary (25 years on the throne) back in the late 1970’s, she undertook a series of public drives (in a carriage) through different parts of the country. One of these drives took her through the neighbouring towwns of Newcastle and gateshead in the north-east of England. Gateshead is the home to the foremost Lithuanian style yeshiva community in Europe. The event took place during the period of the Omer counting, when Orthodox jews do not celebrate nor do they shave. The Rabbi of Gateshead at the time (the Gateshead Rov, Rabbi Rakow), announced that anyone in the community who had never yet had the opportunity of seeing the Monarch and had not yet recited, in their lifetime, the prayer to be said on such an occasiona, had an obligation to line the route and say the appropriate Blessing. Moreover, as an act of respect for the Monarchy, they should also shave for the occasion even though it was the Omer period – something previously unheard of.
Some weeks later, the then Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovitz, recounted that he had met prince Philip at an event. The latter told him that while driving through Gateshead, they had seen orthodox Jews lining the route and all mumbling something as they went by. When Rabbi Jakobovitz then told him about the prayer which was said in synagogues every week, Prince Philip is reputed to have said that this is a lot more than what is said in the weekly Church of England services, of which the british Monarch is the head (ever since the days of King Henry VIII).
In turn, Prince Charles developed a strong personal relationship with the late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (dating back to the private plane ride Charles gave to Sacks following their attendance at the funeral of Yitzchak Rabin back in 1995), and was the guest of honour at the latters’ retirement dinner. Charles lamented the fact that while they were both born in the same year – the year of Israel’s Independence in 1948, Sacks was now due to retire while he, Charles, had not yet started the main job of his life. With the gradual withdrawal of the Queen, at the grand age of 96, from many public engagements in recent years, Charles has stepped in for her – even, for the first time just a few weeks ago at the official State opening of Parliament – but he will not become King until Qeen Elizabeth dies, or is unable to function – neither of which seem probable at the moment. She belives firnly in the Divine Right of Monarchs and is not about to abdicate – even if eh passes on some of her ceremonial functions. If, and when, Charles does become King, it will bring about the biggest change to the Prayer for the Royal Family which is recited in the synagogues of the UK every Shabat.
There has been criticism that the Queen never visited Israel, despite travelling the length and the breadth of the globe. Other members of her family, Philip, Charles and more recently William, have all visited Israel and it remains to be seen whether a future Monarch will do so. Israel actually hosts a small organization, known as the IBCA – the Israel British Commonwealth Association – which could do a lot more to strengthen Israel-UK ties, but it is unfortunately controlled by a small clique group of ex British pensioners living in the centre of the country – for whom an annual Balfour Dinner and an annual tea on the lawn of the British Ambassador (back to the days of the Raj and the mandate) is sufficient. The fact that there are tens of thousands of ex-British and ex-Commonwealth olim living in Israel who could contribute so much more, appears to be irrelevant.
Neither is this helped by the low level diplomatic representatives which each country presently has, unlike the previous decade or more when both Britain and Israel sent high level, communicative, non-political, members of the diplomatic core to represent their respective countries. Perhaps this reflects the fact that Britain has ceased to play any significant role in Middle East politics, a situation which has only worsened since their decision to leave the European union as part of the Brexit strategy -and which removes them from any significant global diplomacy.
My only complaint about the British Royal family is that when I was awarded, in 2013, the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for promoting scientific cooperation between Israel and the UK, I chose to attend the particular ceremony which took place at Windsor Castle, rather than at Buckingham Palace, as I was told that all such events at Windsor are presided over by the Queen, not by one of her other family members. And imagine the disappointment on the morning of the event when, as we approached the majestic castle, to be told that the Queen was feeling unwell and had deputed her daughter, Princess Anne, to come in her place. Not that I have anything against the Princess Royal – but the photos on the wall would have looked even better had they had the Queen herself presenting the award.
Whatever one thinks of the institution of the Monarchy in the year 2022, one can not ignore the amazing service that the Queen has given to her country for the past seventy years. She made a promise at her Coronation to devote her life to her people, and that is precisely what she has done. The UK Jewsh community has much to be grateful for living under her rule – and that of her successive governments – in her life she has seen off no fewer than 14 Prime Ministers, from Churchill to Boris Johnson – and it is highly fitting that the Community pay tribute to her as she celebrates this momentous occasion.