Lord Jakobovits

Joseph Finklestone
Wednesday 21 September 2011 16:41

The former Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits was an outspoken and brave personality who was constantly embroiled in controversy but whose honesty and intellectual and moral stature was never doubted.

The former Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits was an outspoken and brave personality who was constantly embroiled in controversy but whose honesty and intellectual and moral stature was never doubted.

He was highly admired by Margaret Thatcher and it was during her premiership, in the 1988 New Honours List, that he was made a peer. It was remarked that Immanuel Jakobovits, who had become Chief Rabbi in 1967, was more admired by the Prime Minister than was the Archbishop of Canterbury. One newspaper commented: "Unlike the meddlesome bishops of the Church of England, Jakobovits talks about God rather than spending cuts and emphasises the eternal Jewish virtue of self-help to solve the problems." Another remarked: "He is the one prelate whose preaching did not, in the views of Mrs Thatcher, give God a bad name."

As someone who saw himself as a refugee, Jakobovits voiced deep sympathy with the plight of the Palestinian refugees. It was this concern which led him to voice his deep desire for a peace settlement with the Arabs. His views were misinterpreted to imply that he was critical of Zionism as well as of Israeli governments. He came under severe criticism in Israel when he warned that the future of Israel was at stake if the government did not seek a way for peace with the Arabs. He was greatly hurt by this. As a pious Jew he saw himself as a true Zionist who wished for peace and prosperity for his people. But the criticism persisted and some observers believed that his chance of becoming Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel was destroyed by this misunderstanding of his attitude.

Other Jews had spoken about their unhappiness on the problem of refugees, but had done so mostly in private; he, on the other hand, voiced his views strongly in public and in talking to journalists.

The family was the centre of his understanding of Jewish life, a view in which he had the strong support of his wife, Amelie, an outstanding personality in her own right. He spoke against homosexuality. While never insisting that Aids and other plagues were a divine punishment for human misconduct, he argued that people were responsible for their actions. To many he was seen as a Victorian but this never troubled him; he was certain that his views on family life and fidelity were based on the fundamental values of Judaism and were a reason why the Jewish people had survived while other nations had disappeared.

Jakobovits believed in Jewish self-help. This was the main reason why he disapproved of the 1985 Church of England report Faith in the City. He was deeply sympathetic to the inner-city families who suffered from grinding poverty and despair and agreed that everything should be done by governments and society generally to help them. But he disagreed with the tendency in the report to blame the Government for their problems and look only to it to provide solutions.

He pointed out that Jews, too, had lived in inner cities and had been held back by terrifying poverty. They might have been hungry and ragged and lived 10 to a room but, mostly through their own efforts and the help of their neighbours and general community, they were able to overcome their adversity. This approach was not, however, universally accepted. He was again criticised, but he felt that his views were valid and based on Jewish teaching.

Immanuel Jakobovits was born in Germany, in Königsberg, in 1921. His father, Julius, was a rabbi of distinction who became a Dayan (judge) in the main rabbinical court in Berlin. He was a man of compassion as well as of learning and was able to co-operate with all sections of the community, including Reform, when it came to general problems. Immanuel saw the rise of anti-Semitism and particularly Nazism. There were attacks on Jews and, he recalled,

Sometimes, walking with my father, rowdies came behind and hurled insults and we walked faster. A little later they began hurling stones and we walked faster still. Sometimes we broke into a trot which my father hated, it was so undignified. It was unpleasant, frightening, but it became so normal that we eventually got used to it.

With the rise of Hitler in 1933 many Jews decided to leave the country. Julius Jakobovits felt that he had a duty to remain. But with the situation of the Jewish community becoming ever harsher he decided to send Immanuel to England.

For a young boy to arrive in a new country was not easy. But he showed great determination. He studied both Jewish and general subjects. He had no doubt that he wanted to follow in his father's vocation and become a rabbi. He became a Minister at the Brondesbury Synagogue in London in 1941, of the South-East London Synagogue in 1944, then of the Great Synagogue in 1947. He was noted for his outstanding sermons and it was not surprising that he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Ireland, in 1949, and then, after nine years, Rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York.

Jakobovits's selection as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth in 1967, a post which he held until 1991, was widely approved and he was considered one of the finest Chief Rabbis in the history of Anglo-Jewry. He received many honours, including several from leading Israeli institutions.

Immanuel Jakobovits, rabbi: born Königsberg, Germany 8 February 1921; Chief Rabbi of Ireland 1949-58; Rabbi, Fifth Avenue Synagogue, New York 1958-67; Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth of Nations 1967-91; Kt 1981; Fellow, University College London 1984-99; created 1988 Baron Jakobovits; married 1949 Amelie Munk (two sons, four daughters); died London 31 October 1999.

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