Two moments have marked my week.
I didn’t expect to find myself emotional while waiting at Luton airport. I was simply standing at arrivals holding a sign.
The flight from Warsaw had landed half an hour ago; the bags were now in the hall. I held up the board with the names higher and stepped into the middle of the walkway so that the Ukrainian family wouldn’t miss me, and felt suddenly moved.
I soon realised why. Who was the person who’d held up such a sign eighty-four years ago, when my mother landed with her parents that 9 April 1938 at Croydon Airport, they too arriving in a country in which they had never imagined they’d be forced to seek refuge?
Of everything my mother has ever said to me it may be this which has stayed most firmly in my mind. When she left the family who hosted her in Boxmoor during the war, she asked the lady of the house, ‘How can we ever thank you?’ ‘Don’t thank us,’ she replied. ‘One day you’ll do for others what we tried to do for you.’ I’m sure that’s what led me, with my wife Nicky’s encouragement, to be standing here at Luton with this sign. Look, that must be them…
The other moment which shaped my week in fact occurred earlier, when I learnt of the death in Jerusalem of my teacher in Torah Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky.
For five years after I graduated as a rabbi from Leo Baeck College, I went to Israel regularly to learn Torah daily from him and his Hasidic friend Reb Dovid. Despite the good rabbinic education I’d received I felt (and still feel) wanting in Talmud and classic Jewish texts.
Rabbi Strikovsky taught me Bameh Madlikin,the chapter of Talmud which treats of the lights for Shabbat and Chanukkah, and which contains that beautiful passage about the awe of God: whatever one’s learnt, if one hasn’t got a spirit of reverence and wonder, it’s likely to turn to dust.
I never knew the story of Rabbi Strikovsky’s life. But whenever he taught me a Hasidic text, and he introduced me to the writings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav and the teachings of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto who was murdered at Trawniki in 1943, – whenever he expounded these teachings, he would weep, his words coming slowly through his tears from his heart.
He belonged in spirit to that pre-Holocaust culture of complete immersion in learning and piety. He lived in the spiritual universe of Jewish knowledge and devotion, in that other-worldly, timeless discourse with the sages of all lands and eras about the service of God.
Yet tradition did not prevent him from courageously doing what he knew was just and right. It was at his initiative that to’anot rabbiniyot were introduced into the rabbinical divorce courts, women lawyers and para-rabbis to put the cases of wives and mothers before this daunting all-male enclave. He did not stop there: despite the entrenched establishment position, he gave semichah and ordained at least two women as rabbis, subsequently supporting them in their careers.
One day, too, after requesting to meet Nicky and our young son Mossy to bless him, he gave me his smichah too. I have it here, near me, with the signature Aryeh son of Baruch Strikovsky. May the memory of his righteousness be for a blessing.
A verse from Proverbs connects these two moments in my week: ‘Listen, my son, to the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the teachings of your mother.’ (1:8) (One’s Torah teacher is also understood, metaphorically, as one’s father.)
I hear that verse sung beautifully in our synagogue by a small family choir at the bnei mitzvah of their children. Right now, the words leave me feeling chastened by the loving trust and deep responsibility they bestow.