Michael Rosen: Spiritual leader who sought interfaith understanding

Rabbi Michael Rosen was an unlikely mover and shaker – slightly built, quiet-voiced and diffident. Yet for more than a quarter of a century he stirred up Jewish communities in Britain and in Israel in his quest for authenticity in prayer and a desire to link Judaism with social justice.

Known to all as Mickey, he was born in Glasgow with an impeccable Orthodox lineage: his father was Rabbi Ya’acov Koppul Rosen, noted for his work in Jewish education (and founder of the public school Carmel College, in Oxfordshire, which closed in 1997). Rosen was ordained as a rabbi, as were his brothers, and he took up community work in Manchester. In 1978 he founded the organisation Yakar, near Stanmore, north-west London, and then moved it to Hendon. Yakar means “precious” in Hebrew.

He injected new thinking into Anglo-Jewry, stretching the boundaries within which synagogues functioned, through adult education – which began with, but went beyond, Jewish learning. That is how we met: Rosen had organised for Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak at Yakar and invited me along. From this followed our long collaboration, in which we presented an extraordinary range of speakers – including Bernadette Devlin, Donald Woods, King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho and the Israeli writers David Grossman and Yehoshua Sobol. Yakar also backed a committee formed to oppose torture: conferences were organised on police behaviour and on Northern Ireland.

The organisation pioneered the first public meetings between British Jews and Palestinians. At one of them, after several hours of discussion, a Jewish leader said, “This has been very interesting, but it’s going nowhere.” A Palestinian woman glared at him and hissed, “This is the first time in my life that I am sitting with Jews. I don’t want to kill you; I want to talk to you.”

He also had the former Tory right-winger Enoch Powell to speak. Mandla Mandela, a teenage grandson of Nelson Mandela (then still in prison), happened to be staying at my home and, unthinkingly, I took him to the meeting. We crossed a picket line of Jewish protestors outside Yakar and Mandla stopped to take pictures which he said would interest his grandfather. The next day the African National Congress in London severely rebuked me for exposing Mandla to Powell.

Rosen hoped to establish his organisation in Jerusalem. With financial support from donors, he eventually took over a large dilapidated building in the Katamon suburb of Jerusalem and in 1992 opened the Yakar Center for Tradition and Creativity. The synagogue was at the heart, but there were also facilities for learning Torah and for public meetings. But his aims went further: he wanted to blend religion with the arts and yearned for a coffee shop where people could come for intellectual talk within the synagogue setting. Unfortunately, neighbours objected and the city refused a licence. But he mounted poetry slams, supported an a capella choir, and held art and photographic exhibitions several times a year.

Rosen asked me to join him in Jerusalem in extending what we had done in London, and in 1997 I started Yakar’s Centre for Social Concern, dedicated to fostering thinking about current events, and creating contact between Jews and Arabs. In the Holy City, and for Orthodox synagogues, this meant leaping into the unknown.

Rosen shone a singular light into the maelstrom of religious passions that weave their way throughout Israeli society. Yakar is Modern Orthodox and is open to everyone. He practised a tolerance for the other, whether Jew or non-Jew, Israeli or Palestinian. He wanted Jews and Judaism to connect with the knowledge and wisdom of other peoples and faiths.

Hence Yakar hosted Jewish and Christian dialogues, while Jews and Muslims joined in study of each other’s texts. Yakar regularly provided a platform for Palestinian leaders to convey their criticisms of Israel and their hopes – and to face fierce challenges from often conservative Jewish audiences.

Rosen’s openness drew criticism from some, including his own congregants. Early in the Second Intifada, when Jews were dying in suicide bombings, he caused anger by continuing to argue for working for peace with Palestinians. Even that did not diminish respect for him: his strict adherence to Halacha (Jewish law) was his shield.

Suffering from a degenerative disease, he was driven by the knowledge that his time was limited. He succeeded last year in building a branch of Yakar in Tel Aviv. His book The Quest for Authenticity: the Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim, about a 19th-century Polish Hassidic rabbi, was published in 2008.

Benjamin Pogrund

Michael Rosen, rabbi: born Glasgow 21 January 1945; married Gila (six children); died Jerusalem 7 December 2008.

A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home