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Elie Jesner


I want to tell you a story of Chelm (the mythical community of Jewish fools) that is, in fact, true. True of Anglo-Jewish establishment Orthodoxy.

I have known the Jesner family, the pillar of Orthodoxy in Glasgow, since 1968. They, as a successful business family, took responsibility for Jewish life in Glasgow, supporting its rabbis and yeshiva and contributing handsomely to such bastions of Torah Judaism in the UK as Gateshead and Sunderland. The family has always been passionately committed to Judaism and Zionism. It suffered a great loss when one of its very talented children, Yoni Jesner, was killed in a terrorist attack in Israel. His family has devoted itself to keeping his memory alive by funding causes that promote Torah and peace. In short, a treasure of a family. The sort that keeps Judaism thriving.

As in any family, succeeding generations have chosen their own paths. Some are in the rabbinate, some outstanding lay leaders, and others simply upholding and sustaining Jewish life. Every one of them that I know, I love and admire. It therefore strikes me that something is terribly wrong with Orthodoxy if it can ostracize and try to silence one of them simply because he chooses to take an independent line.

Elie Jesner is a very gifted communicator who, according to a recent article in the UK Jewish Chronicle, has been blackballed by certain Orthodox institutions. He is a Cambridge University graduate and has studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Gush. He is not a professional educator in the sense that it is his only career. He has worked in finance, and he is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. And having heard him personally, I know him to be a great teacher and a first-class exponent of committed Torah Judaism. He combines an intellectually open approach to the varied voices and opinions in the Torah world with an analytical and critical mind. He belongs to and regularly attends an Orthodox synagogue. Above all, he is a really good, caring human being. There are not many people like him. I would have thought we should treasure such a gifted member of the community. But no. The Anglo-Jewish Orthodox establishment has declared him persona non grata.

I accept that there are times when one has to fight to protect one’s position and one’s values. Sometimes there are assaults that need to be fought off. But is this such a case? What are his terrible crimes and heresies?

Because he teaches a non-fundamentalist, nuanced Orthodoxy, he was banned from teaching at the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) and from the educational programs of Kinloss (Finchley United Synagogue), the Orthodox synagogue where he is a member. He offers his educational services to the Louis Jacobs Foundation. He has helped organize a partnership minyan and has dared to question the condemnation of such services by the rabbinic council. He has set up educational programs for 1,300 students at JCoSS, the Jewish Community Secondary School.

The London School of Jewish Studies is the last remnant of what was once Jews College, an academic institution to train rabbis and other clergy for the Anglo rabbinate. It included outstanding, internationally known Jewish academics of impeccable credentials and reputations, such as Isidore Epstein, Kopel Kahana, Naphtali Wieder, and H.J. Zimmels, to mention the last of the greats. The school began its decline in the late 1950s, when senior lecturer Louis Jacobs was blocked from succeeding Epstein on the debatable grounds of his heterodoxy. The final nails in its coffin were the supremacy of Israeli yeshivot and Chabad, whose graduates competed for the same market and in effect took it over. The LSJS has emerged from the shell to become a center for adult education. It is pretty good at most of what it does. Except it is under the scrutiny and control of the Chief Rabbinate and the London Beth Din, which see their role as protecting Jewry from unsuitable ideas.

I have personal experience of this. Jews College once produced a magazine called L’Eylah, devoted to scholarly articles. I used to write for it, until I submitted a book review that said that the exclusion of someone as significant as Rabbi Louis Jacobs was a loss to Anglo-Jewry. For that alone, the editor told me, on superior instructions, no more of my articles would be accepted.

For some reason this ancient battle, now over sixty years old, still rankles. One can argue till kingdom come about what Rabbi Jacobs said and meant. Whether he made mistakes or not. But the undisputed fact is that he, personally, remained punctiliously observant. He cared deeply for Torah Judaism and was committed to it until the day he died.

What is wrong with people, still so fearful of some sort of heretical virus, that anyone who reads, likes, or teaches anything he wrote, or tries to keep his memory alive, is regarded as a dangerous heretic? Dear reader, can this make any sense to you? Can we be dealing with reasonable, intelligent people?

Another issue has become the testing ground of heresy. Women! Tell it not in Gat. More and more, highly educated, learned, committed Orthodox women want to play a more active part in religious services while still remaining committed to Torah and its commandments. In Israel for many years now women have been running services for women. I used to encourage them when I was in Yakar in London. There was no attempt or desire to interfere or change the established Orthodox tradition, just to allow for an extra dimension, an option that would encourage the desire to pray together in an atmosphere of female spirituality. Such developments were supported by highly knowledgeable rabbis of impeccable pedigrees and scholarship. But it is true that the mainstream preferred to ignore them.But still, praying is hardly undermining the Divine Will!

Out of this new dynamism amongst the ranks of learned and motivated women grew something called the partnership minyan. In this variation, separation is maintained. Men conduct those parts of the service that are exclusively obligatory to men. Women do those parts which are not. Certainly this is a controversial step, but it hardly undermines or seeks to replace the established order of Orthodoxy. It simply wants to offer an extra option. And people will choose. Reasonable, no?

Of course not! This is the thin end of the wedge, the tipping point, the end! Anyone expressing any sympathy whatsoever is, as with Elie, a danger to Jewish survival!

And finally, JCOSS. Since Anglo Jewish day schools, for historical reasons, have been under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, they have excluded anyone who is not 100 percent Orthodox. That means that there are numbers of Jews (however you want to define it) who are excluded from such schools. You would have thought that Chief Rabbis concerned with the community at large, not just their constituency, would relent and follow the practice common, say, amongst the Orthodox communities of Canada, Australia, South Africa, and, yes, the USA, and be flexible. But this is Anglo-Jewry, where a Chief Rabbi wasted millions going to court to uphold his refusal to allow the child of a convert to attend the Jewish Free School (which is the oldest, the largest Jewish community secondary and State supported school in London).

As a result, an independent group of educators and donors set up another school that welcomes anyone who wants his or her children to have a Jewish education. Again, no threat to the established Orthodox community, just an alternative. All Elie did was simply assist them with their Jewish education. And this makes him a danger to Orthodoxy!

I know Elie to be a man committed to Torah. Are we to assume that there is no place in Orthodoxy for such a person? Are they scared that he will undermine the foundations of Torah? Obviously so. In Anglo-Jewry.

Thank goodness for Israel. For there, at least, in addition to the obvious Charedi options, you can find enlightened, Orthodox communities and synagogues that can offer such people a warm welcome, respect, and validation. Universities and academic institutions where independent, openminded thinkers are encouraged, not muzzled or excluded. And where scholarship and Torah flourish. Were Elie to go east or west, he would be welcomed with open arms, and it would be yet another loss for Anglo-Jewry.

2 thoughts on “Elie Jesner

  1. Having been a Masorti Member for a number of years, however felt recently that movement had lost its way, and was considering joining my local United Shul.

    However reading of this incedent, makes me feel inclined to stay put. I am reminded of how the Late Rabbi Louis Jacobs was denied an Aliyah on the occasion of his Grandsons Weeding.

    Were it not for these kind of polices it is unlickly Masorti would have ever existed in the first place.

    Steven in UK

  2. Yes Stephen
    I think you are right on both counts! The atrocious and non halachic way the Chief Rabbis and Beth Din treated Louis was indeed a scandal and paved the way for the Masorti movement and the current pettiness does indeed prevent a significant number of possible returnees from making the change.
    And I agree that although there is much to admire in the Masorti movement and Rabbi Wittenberg, it has allowed itself to be drawn further and further away.
    Still one goes to where one feels most comfortable!

    Shabbat Shalom

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