Views on the Borderline
In the Shabat morning service, there is a prayer for the welfare of communities which is recited just before returning the Torah scroll to the Ark. In this prayer we give thanks to “those who devote their lives to the public out of selflessness and in good faith” (loose translation).
Communities around the world exist and function due to their selfless community workers who are on call day and night, come rain or shine, to ensure that everything functions, representing the community to the outside world and always ready to fill in when, as often happens, unexpected emergencies arise or other volunteers fail to turn up as promised. Every community has those people who, they know, they can call on whenever necessary, and without whom the community would not function.
One such person, largely unknown outside the United Kingdom but well known within the british Jewish community, passed away this week in London, and was taken back to his home town of Newcastle upon Tyne to be buried. Dr. Lionel Kopelowitz, former head of the British Board of Deputies and, during his working career in the north east of England before he retired to London, was one of the country’s leading GP’s (general practitioners) – an occupation which he undertook when he wasn’t busy dealing with the many concerns of both the local and the national Jewish community. Newcastle, like so many other provincial communities, have declined, and in many cases ceased to function altogether, as the younger generation has either assimilated or migrated to the major Jewish centers in London, Manchester and Israel.
Just three months previously, another life long community civil servant, also largely unknown outside the UK, Alan Greenbat, passed away and was buried in the famous, heritage listed, Willesden cemetery in the north west of London, alongside former Chief Rabbis of the UK, many community leaders and Rabbis. This famous cemetery contains the graves of most of the Rothschild Family in family vaults. Unlike Kopelowitz who also had a medical profession to pursue, Greenbat was a full time employee of various Jewish and communal organizations, always in the background. Never demanding a large salary of other perks, but devoting himself, day and night, to the welfare of the community and its institutions – from Jewish youth clubs, to the confidante of Chief Rabbi lord Jonathan sacks, to roving minister of small and dying communities in the peripheral areas of the country – you name it, he did it, but without fanfare and trumpets.
Both Kopelowitz and Greenbat were awarded the prestigious OBE in the annual Queens honours list in recognition of their services to the wider community – which is also an important recognition of the contribution of the Jewish community to UK society.
Shortly before he passed away I was fortunate enough to record Greenbat’s life history in a two hour video on my smartphone, parts of which were broadcast at his memorial service. I had intended to do the same with Dr. Kopelowitz during the coming summer, but unfortunately left it too late and he has now gone to his grave with many events, secrets and, no doubt, share of community scandals, hidden away inside his head.
In recent years there has been a growth of recording the oral testimonies of the last remaining Holocaust survivors, so that their stories will not be forgotten for future generations. One only has to go into You Tube and search for such testimonies, to understand just how important a resource this is for a generation who will never meet survivors first hand – and a generation who from birth are now tunes into the social media for their information, rather than the papers and documents of old.
It is equally important to record the histories and stories of these many community workers who are now passing away. Their stories and anecdotes bring back an era which has disappeared and provides an insight into their survival throughout the twentieth century, pre and post World War II, accompanying many of the major events impacting upon the Jewish world – from Holocaust to the establishment of Israel – and incorporating these tumultuos events into their own communities.
Community archives are an important source of information, and the Anglo Jewish community does not lack these. The London Metropolitan Archives houses the repositories of most of the major Jewish organizations — including the Office of the Chief rabbi, the Beth Din, the United Synagogue, the Board of Deputies, the Federation of Synagogues and other smaller community organizations – in some cases as far back as the late nineteenth century. They include fascinating personal letters and correspondence of such community luminaries as Chief Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz, and Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky (to name but two of the most prominent).
Thanks to a grant from the Rothschild Foundation, the many archives at the LMA have now been catalogued (and can be searched online) making it easier to track down names of people, events and communities, even though in most cases it still requires going to the library to see the physical documents and to read the material, as the cost of digitising millions of pages is far too great for even a generous donor. It makes for fascinating research, often leading you into directions you had never planned or foreseen. Only just recently, while looking for material on issues relating to geopolitics and the Middle East in the early twentieth century, I digressed and ended up discovering a file containing seventeen original letters written by my great grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Rabinowitz, then the rabbi of Edinburgh, in the period 1914-1917 (during World War I) in a heated correspondence between him, the then Chief rabbi Dr Hertz, and the local community.
Another important repository of Jewish community history in the UK, in addition to the many books which have been written on the topic, is to be found in the James Parkes Archives at the University of Southampton – Parkes was a philo semite who, in a period when people were too busy surviving to pay attention to historical archives, collected material relating to the Jewish community and ensured its survival for today’s scholars and many amateur Jewish historians.
Not only do we need to ensure that these archives are not disposed of and that they are open and accessible to the public (too many community archives are unfortunately closed and require special permission to access them), but also that more recent computerised and digital files are not deleted , and that oral testimonies are recorded with those who will not be around much longer to tell their tales.
But we also need to create a world wide bank of oral histories and testimonies (perhaps at Beit Hatefutzot) , which can be accessed online, where we , and our children, can learn about Jewish life from a forgotten era. It doesn’t require huge professional resources – a good smartphone will suffice where resources are not available. Schools can initiate such projects with their students, interviewing elderly members of their community, while storing such material on computers does not require large amounts of physical space or library basements which are difficult to access.
Kopelowitz and Greenbat are but two individuals of many. Every country and every community has had these public servants, many of whom now in their eighties and nineties, are passing away – not all of them have written testimonies and documents. Their memory may often be selective (and often by choice) but remain an invaluable source of information. For the sake of the future generations we should ensure that their stories are not forgotten and lost as we continue our transition from a word of paper and boxes to one where everything can be accessed within seconds on social media.