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.