The rabbi who had his brit when he was 20
Rabbi Jonny Hughes had ‘virtually nil’ Jewish background, now he teaches at an Orthodox yeshivah
Yeshivah teacher Rabbi Jonny Hughes with Ezra, the youngest of his three children
One of the phenomena of post-War Judaism is the ba'al teshuvah movement. Thousands of young Jews from secular or moderately traditional homes have opted for Orthodoxy and a more devout religious lifestyle. But few can have made quite such a leap as Rabbi Jonny Hughes.
He is on the staff of Midrash Shmuel, a yeshivah in Israel popular with English-speaking students. He has just published his first book on one of the luminaries of the Torah world, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik. But if you had suggested a decade ago where he would be today, he probably would have laughed in disbelief.
Now 28, he grew up in Reading, his mother Jewish, his father non-Jewish. "My Jewish identity was virtually nil," he recalled. "My mother told me she was Jewish; I wasn't fully cognisant of the fact that that meant I was Jewish." He never set foot in the local synagogue or saw Jewish practice beyond a few vestiges kept up by his mother. "My mother lit Chanucah candles every year which was funny - the Christmas tree was next to the menorah," he said. "But it was more of a foreign thing to us. I also remember she didn't eat on Yom Kippur. On Friday night she used to say 'Good Shobbes' to us - I thought that had some affiliation with shopping."
But in retrospect, he considers that it gave him "a little touch of something." By the time he went to University College London to study law at the age of 18, his interest in Jewish identity had grown. "It was based on a search for meaning in a godless universe," he said. "My friends were clubbing, drinking, having a great time and I felt a little bit of a vacuum of meaning – and the first place I sought for refuge was my roots. I thought maybe an answer could be found in my own heritage."
By chance, in his first class at university, he sat next to a religious Jewish student who had just returned from yeshivah. "There was one spare seat left, I came in my leather jacket and sat next to this kippah-wearing fellow and we became great friends," he said.
His new lifesyle came as a ‘big shock’ to family
His friend, who is from an influential family in Manchester, invited him to spend Shabbat in Hendon and went on to teach him aleph bet. But it was an incident that happened one day in his halls of residence in Tottenham Court Road that left a powerful mark on him.
There was a Jewish girl dating a non-Jewish student in the same block. "One afternoon, this boyfriend spent sometime with my next-door neighbour," he said. "It was a really hot day, the radiators had been left on and it was sweltering. Our doors were open and this fellow said to his friend within earshot of me, 'I'm hotter than a Jew in Auschwitz'. This paradox - he's dating this Jewish girl but he is like that - just woke me like an alarm bell."
He threw himself into exploring Judaism, attending Orthodox outreach institutions such as Aish and the Jewish Learning Exchange and spending Shabbat with families in North-West London. He moved to Golders Green for his second year. But he was conscious of a problem: he had never been circumcised.
"At the grand age of 20, I had it done," he said. "It was under local anaesthetic, I was fully conscious throughout. It was physically a painful experience, but emotionally very uplifting. I took three weeks to walk around without pain."
But he was able to attend a seudah, a celebratory meal, held by Aish on the same day of the ceremony. "I was on painkillers and the anaesthetic was still in the blood stream," he recalled.
After university, he went to study at Midrash Shmuel, a yeshivah founded by Rabbi Binyamin Moskovits from London. It is modelled on the Lithuanian school of learning but its classes are taught in English. During the seven years he has been there, his studies flourished to the point that he made the transition from student to tutor.
A year and a half after he came to Israel, he met his wife, Chana Simons, a former Jewish studies teacher at JFS, and they now have three children. It was Chana who suggested he write his new book, Understanding Reb Chaim, on the man he calls "the godfather of the yeshivah world now". A study of Reb Chaim's essays on Maimonides, it is the first time that the rabbi he calls the "godfather of the yeshivah world" has been translated and explained in English.
As for his family, his new lifestyle at first came as "a big shock" to them, he said, "because of the speed of the change… but now the relationship is fantastic. My parents are proud grandparents. I speak to them nearly every day, we visit them, they come to visit us in Israel, and we even have a kosher section of the kitchen in Reading."
Whereas most other ba'alei teshuvah had a cultural, if not religious, Jewish background, he came to Judaism with almost a blank slate. "Because of the difference of the two worlds - the world I had been steeped in and the world I was coming into - you see things in more black and white terms because you are not coming with any preconceptions or misconceptions about Judaism," he said. "You just see more clearly truth and falsehood - what is religious and what isn't religious - and combining that with my personality, which is all or nothing, I sort of leapt into doing trying as much as I can.
"What attracted me was a way of living with meaning all the time, trying to make every moment meaningful. For me, Judaism enabled me to do that - connecting on a spiritual level, trying to transcend the earthly shackles of what it is to be human and to be a bit more godly.
"The reason I'm not for the middle road is my thirst wouldn't have been quenched by compromise."
Understanding Reb Chaim is available in some Jewish bookshops at £15 or can be ordered through http://understandingrebchaim.com