Guest Blogger: Rabbi Ian Shaffer
Within the select group of anglo Jewish scholars who have recently passed away, mos tof the focus was directed to the tragic passing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks just over a month ago.However the passing of another great British scholar around the same time almost went unnoticed, that of Rabbi Irving Jacobs from London UK. He was the principal of Jews College during the period when I studied there, and it was due to his major efforts that the college managed to survive the turbulent part of its recent history,before it became transformed into the London School of Jewish Studies.Rabbi IrvingJacobs ( not to be confused with Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who became the first Masorti/Conservative rabbi in the UK) was a towering figure in the life of the college both in terms of having been connected to the previous generation of famous scholars who are known through their work on the Soncino Talmud and Bible translations (Isidore Epstein, Eli Cashden and many others) and also in terms of his own scholarship, especially in the area of Midrash, which he lectured on extensively in the College degree programs.His teaching partner during these ‘golden’ years of great teachers was Rabbi Sidney Leperer, probably the most learned and unassuming scholar I have ever met, whose areas of expertise were in Jewish history, both ancient and modern. The college also had many other notable teachers who I was fortunate to connect with, such as Rabbi Isaac Bernstein , who I learned Talmud with for 2 years,and of course Rabbi Sacks, who taught comparative Ethics courses. I think what made R’ Irving unique was the majestic manner of his presentation and his menschlichkeit,which was evident all the time. He taught me Tehillim as well as Siddur and Midrash,and I always felt challenged and inspired by his style and presentation. Every lesson was a chavaya (experience) as it was when I had studied with Nechama Liebowitz in Israel a few years earlier. Both R’Irving and Nechama would never take anything for granted and they forced you out of your ‘comfort zone’ to be prepared to tackle issues and concepts with a keen and fresh approach.On a personal basis, as I moved to the US in 1998 and visited my family in the UK at least twice a year for the next 16 years, until my father passed away in 2014, this afforded me the constant opportunity to contact and share observations about communal situations, when I spoke to him in London. His keen wit and irrepressible sense of humor were infectious, and I always enjoyed hearing his perspective on current Anglo Jewish events. He was very forthright in his comments and was not afraid to ‘call a spade a spade’ when necessary, and I suspect this may have cost him dearly in the very small world of Anglo Jewish leaders who did not share his point of view. His efforts for the College cost him dearly and he retired early at the age of 55 and had relatively poor health for the remainder of his life. However he never lost the ‘joie’ of learning and he continued to give lectures to many communities and also to the Montefiore College students who were studying for semicha. Some of these lectures are available online and you can hear the wonderful tones of his voice and subtle nuances that he made in every shiur that he gave.I think the reason I really connected to him was because we were kindred spirits, both having ‘tasted’ the joys of communal Rabbinate and then moving into academia, which divorced one from the constant pressures and challenges which the Rabbinate afforded.The satisfaction of sharing an insight or a new approach to a text was his constant joy,and his shiurim on the Hagada were some of the most memorable he ever gave. The last time I saw him in person was when he came to be menachem avel when my father died in 2014, and he told me only recently that he had been living ‘on borrowed time’since then,as his doctors had diagnosed his health as being seriously compromised. I was so appreciative that he came to be with me, and it was the same R’ Irving as he always had been, although clearly older and not as hale and hearty as he had been in the old days. He had told me once that the College was like a finishing school for those who had attended formal yeshivot (I had studied in Gateshead and in Israel) and were now about to enter the Rabbinate or the world of chinuch. He added immeasurably to this process , helping me in my own teaching style and I will be forever grateful to him for his kindness and personal interest. As my father (who knew Rabbi Jacobs in the context of my father’s work as the ‘deli’ man in the local Kosher store) told me once when discussing R’ Irving: ‘they don't make them like that any more’. A true loss forAnglo Jewry and for Klal Yisrael. May his memory be for a blessing.