Bevis Marks: a very fishy row

Why does a shul executive seek to fire a rabbi who is fighting hate and exploitation?

By Jonathan Freedland, August 27, 2009

They say there’s no war so bitter as a civil war, to which we can surely add an amendment. There is no broiges quite so acrimonious as a synagogue broiges. If you want a row that has fear, loathing and everything in between, look no further than a bust-up in a shul.

The sensible JC columnist would steer well clear. It’s impossible to write about a synagogue dispute without one faction — sometimes both — denouncing you in the following week’s letters page for totally misunderstanding the entire business. Still, every rule is made to be broken — so here goes.

The row in question is boiling at Britain’s oldest shul, Bevis Marks in the City of London. As diligent JC readers will know, the rabbi of that community, Natan Asmoucha, is by all accounts extremely popular with his congregants, but has fallen out of favour with the shul’s masters, the mahamad, or executive, of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation.

First they placed Asmoucha, little more than a year in the job, “in a redundancy process”, claiming they were too hard-up to afford a rabbi. Then they suspended him, handing him “a final warning” for hosting a controversial event on the premises without seeking prior permission.

And what horror was entailed by this event that it brought such stern disciplinary action? It was the launch of a campaign to put a 20 per cent cap on interest rates, supported by religious leaders from the three main faiths. All have seen congregants hammered by extortionate loans and they know that the sacred texts are utterly unambiguous on the topic. To quote Exodus: “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you… extract no interest from them.”

So when London Citizens, an alliance of voluntary organisations and religious congregations, decided to march on the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland last month — in order to hand the RBS chairman a Koran, New Testament and a Soncino edition of the Chumash — Asmoucha agreed to let Bevis Marks be the starting point. It was a richly symbolic location, a rebuke to those antisemitic persecutors who, through the ages, branded Jews “usurers”. It said that Jews and Judaism are as appalled by exploitation of the vulnerable as anyone else.

I spoke to two, unconnected people who were there that morning — including one who’s been a Bevis Marks regular for an astonishing 70 years — and both used the same word to describe it. They said it was “beautiful” to see a large, diverse crowd of Londoners — black and white, young and old, Jewish, Christian and Muslim — stand inside the ancient Bevis Marks synagogue, taking what was a moral lead from a rabbi. Instead of arguing over the Middle East, Jews and Muslims were joining hands on a pressing ethical question right here at home.

You’d think Rabbi Asmoucha would be applauded. But no. The mahamad was furious that he’d allowed a bunch of young Muslims to enter his synagogue without first calling the Community Security Trust. As if this should be a rabbi’s primary response when working with a congregation from another faith: call security.

The head honcho of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Board of Elders circulated a letter scolding Asmoucha for taking part in a demonstration “that had not been authorised by his employer”. As if a rabbi is no more than a paid subordinate, not allowed to take a moral stance without first clearing it with the bigwigs who sit on the grandly named committees.

Some suspect the key element here is the power of money. Bevis Marks has close, long-established ties to the City of London: the last thing the moneymen want is a turbulent priest in Bevis Marks, pricking their consciences by recalling the awkward bits from our holiest books. It would surprise nobody if the burghers of the City had a quiet word in the ear of the mahamad about the troublesome Rabbi Asmoucha.

Can Asmoucha’s backers save him? They are up against a foe with much greater power than them. But they have right on their side — and that ought to count for something.

Last updated: 12:18pm, August 27 2009