Reverend David Kale heads Belfast Synagogue
In the summer of 2018, sponsored by a grant to my synagogue, Providence’s Congregation Beth Sholom, I traveled to Ireland and Northern Ireland to learn more about Jewish life and contemporary literature relating to the Jews there.
I was accompanied by my brother, Amir Afsai, a journalist who teaches Hebrew at Sts. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School in Jerusalem and has some knowledge of conflict areas. Like Jerusalem, Belfast is a city marred by political and sectarian strife, and Belfast’s Jewish residents cannot avoid its entrenched societal divisions.
One of the best anecdotes to illustrate Belfast’s long-standing social divisions, as well as the sometimes uncertain position of its Jews, is recounted by actor Harry Towb in his 1984 BBC2 documentary. Odd men, which tells the story of the Jewish community and the experience of Towb who grew up in the city:
I used to come here in the 1930s at Jaffe School for early evening Hebrew lessons. And one dark December night, I walked through the doors and was confronted by three young people. And the tallest of the trio grabbed the lapels of my coat and stuck me against the school gates. And he said, “Listen boy! What foot are you hitting with?
Now I knew what he meant. He meant: was I a Catholic or was I a Protestant? What I was at that moment was a terrified ten year old. There was only one thing to do and that was to assert the truth, and I said, “Well… I… I… I don’t kick with either one or the other. other foot. I’m Jewish.
And there was complete and absolute silence.
And the big guy looked at the other two and he said, “Listen! Do you hear what your man is saying? He says he’s Jewish! Well, boy, tell us this: are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew? “
You know, this is no music hall joke. It actually happened. And I have a feeling that it was quite common here, common to an unusual people.
Towb’s meeting took place in the 1930s, but current Jewish residents of Belfast cannot avoid the city’s social divisions either. Its few hundred Jews remain an unusual people. Over the past decades, many Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland have started to use the Arab-Israeli conflict as a proxy for their own political and sectarian tensions. More Palestinian flags than Irish flags decorate various Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast, while in Protestant areas there are murals in support of the State of Israel. Some of these murals are frequently the target of vandalism by anti-Israel Catholic activists.
This fixation with Israel was also apparent on the tours my brother and I took after arriving in the city. These tours were already sold out that day, but when I explained that I was in Belfast writing about its Jewish community and also looking to understand the larger historical context of the city, the guides and organizers of the Free Belfast Walking Tour and the Belfast political visit made special arrangements to reach us.
The first part of the Belfast Political Tour was led by a former IRA prisoner and the second part by a retired policeman from Northern Ireland, each presenting their account of the conflict without any pretense of objectivity. At the start of the tour, the ex-IRA prisoner asked the assembled group where the people were from. A number of countries were named. A couple said they were from England, and my brother said he was from Israel. The guide then said: “We have people here from England and Israel. I don’t want to offend you with what you’re going to hear today. I am only describing the truth.
Israel was not even mentioned once by the guide during the remainder of the tour, but the Jewish state has become something of a part of the conflict in Northern Ireland as the ex-IRA prisoner l ‘instinctively regrouped with the UK in his introduction. The retired policeman from Northern Ireland, for his part, was visibly delighted to learn that someone from Israel was on tour.
When my brother and I attended Jewish community services in Belfast, the last synagogue in Northern Ireland, and met Reverend David Kale, it was only his second Shabbat as community religious leader. He and his sister, Avril Kale, a retired pharmacist and, more recently, a continuing education teacher at the university, had only been in Belfast for 10 days. The congregation was extremely warm and welcoming to us and Kale did me the honor of delivering the Shabbat morning address at the end of the services. I spoke about Benjamin Franklin’s influence on Judaism.
The next day I visited Kale at his home, which is a short walk from Belfast Synagogue and where his former religious leaders also lived.
The exchange edited below is taken from that initial conversation at his home in Belfast, a panel discussion later held at the synagogue with Kale and other members of the congregation, and the email correspondence I have had with him. I had hoped for another chance to see each other in person now, but that had been hampered by the pandemic.
You are a reverend or a minister. Neither are titles that today’s Jews in America would tend to associate with running a synagogue.
A Reverend is an experienced and qualified person who is authorized by the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth to perform all the duties of a Rabbi or to act as hazzan [i.e., cantor] of a shul [i.e., synagogue], without having semicha [i.e. rabbinic ordination]. A reverend does all the work that a chair rabbi in America would do. Be a trained hazzan also bears the title of “reverend”. There are very few reverends today. The position will disappear.
What made you enter the ministry?
I wanted to be a rabbi from a young age. My maternal grandfather was the rav [i.e., rabbi] by Machzikei Hadas in the East End of London. He was from Lithuania. My paternal grandfather was from Lodz, Poland, and was a founding member of the Ilford Federation Synagogue. I attended Etz Chayim Yeshiva at Golders Green in North West London and had private training to become hazzan, a baal koreh, and one baal tekiah [i.e., shofar blower]. i was a baal koreh and baal tekiah since the age of 13.
I grew up in Bournemouth, a seaside resort, which had about six large, Jewish-only kosher hotels similar to the Catskills hotels in America. Each hotel had its own shul and Shabbat services. Sometimes they also had weekday services. The mashgichim [i.e., kosher food supervisors] were also retired hazanim [i.e., cantors], and some gave derashot [i.e., sermons], too much. When these men came out of town on vacation, they needed someone to lead the prayers and lein [i.e., chant from the Torah] in their place, and my late father, alav hashalom [i.e., peace be upon him], would suggest replacing them. At 15, I started shofar blowing in one of these hotels. I started lein [i.e., chanting from the Torah] at thirteen and lein has become my forte.
Yet you did not become a rabbi.
My parents didn’t want me to make a career hazzan or a rabbi, but to have a profession. Therefore, I trained and then practiced for many years as a lawyer, what in America you would call a lawyer. However, I have regularly replaced rabbonim [i.e., rabbis] in London shuls when they were going on vacation. In addition, I regularly performed rabbinical tasks for the Yomim Noraim [i.e., the High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur].
The unrest has dramatically reduced the Jewish population of Northern Ireland and there may now be as few as 300 Jews here, most of whom are not young. What prompted you to minister in the Belfast Synagogue?
I consider it vital to keep everyone alive shuls, no matter where they are. In my opinion, it is so difficult to build a shul. It is very easy to close one. Years ago, Northern Ireland had several shuls. There is only one left. This shul must not be allowed to disappear. If, God forbid, he were to disappear, there would be no Jewish representation in Northern Ireland. I also think we should strive to keep communities going, no matter where they are. If we don’t, then in the UK, for example, there will only be Jewish life in London and Manchester. If we do not support the small communities, they will disappear.
How did it happen to be part of such a relatively small congregation, which has around 70 members?
Belfast’s Jewish community is known to be warm, kind, caring and caring. He strives to reach and welcome all Jews. Its doors are always open to visitors, who are welcomed with open arms. Serving a small community is very important. He really needs someone to guide them more than a large community. When you are in a small community, a few people carry the burden. Everyone is needed and you feel connected. It’s like a family. People look out for each other. They look forward to visitors and hope people will move in. A small community has a lot to offer.
Did you already know the Jewish community in Belfast before this position opened?
I have known the Jewish community in Belfast since I was a child. He has an illustrious history. One of his elders rabbanim [i.e., rabbis] was Rabbi Isaac Herzog, who served the Belfast community from 1916 to 1919 [later became the first chief rabbi of Ireland, succeeded Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook as Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine] then became the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. Rabbi Herzog’s son, Chaim, was born at Cliftonpark Avenue in Belfast. [A plaque marking Chaim Herzog’s birthplace was taken down in 2014 after anti-Israel graffiti was sprayed on the building and objects were hurled at it.] He later became the sixth president of the State of Israel. Belfast’s Jewish community has a reputation for being a very welcoming community.
Northern Ireland is a region and Belfast is a city known for its deep sectarian strife. Has it affected the way you see your role?
I have done interfaith work for many years. UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis believes there should be interfaith work between rabbis wherever they live. It will also help fight anti-Semitism and reduce the feeling of being threatened by each other. Relations between Jews and non-Jews saved lives during the Holocaust. My grandfather who was a rav to Machzikei Hadas gave tzedakah [i.e. charity] to the nuns who came. He said and believed that you should also show respect to non-Jews. I have a role to play in interfaith work and in ensuring and promoting better understanding between religions. I am here to serve the Jewish people and perhaps make Belfast more religiously vibrant.
Other versions of this article have appeared in The Jerusalem Report / The Jerusalem Post (22/29 July 2020) and at The daily life of wisdom (December 28, 2020). For more by Shai Afsai on the global Jewish community, see here.
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