Community loses its Liberal voice

By Rachel Silver, January 22, 2009
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Tributes have been paid to the leading Liberal rabbi, Dr Sidney Brichto, who died on Friday at London’s Northwick Park Hospital, aged 72, following a stroke.

American-born Rabbi Brichto, the first chief executive of Liberal Judaism, held the post for 25 years and is credited with putting Liberal Judaism in the UK on the map.

His appointment heralded a period of expansion. A prolific writer, scholar and thinker, and founder of the Israel Diaspora Trust, he debated Torah, Judaism and Israel actively in the media. His most recent project was the “People’s Bible”, a series of translations of the Old and New Testaments.

Born in Philadelphia into an immigrant Orthodox family, Rabbi Brichto soon began to reject Orthodoxy in favour of Progressive Judaism and was ordained in New York in 1961. Moving to the UK, he became associate rabbi at St John’s Wood Liberal Synagogue in March 1964.

His successor as chief executive of Liberal Judaism, Rabbi Danny Rich, said: “Sidney was an inspirational leader of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues and oversaw its development as a national movement. His particular personality and views made him a leading member of the Jewish community.

“I have lost a teacher and a friend of more than 30 years, someone who encouraged me from the moment he heard I was interested in the rabbinate, until even last week. He was a passionate Zionist, always kind and thoughtful, even when we disagreed on Israel.”

Rabbi Brichto spoke out with anguish about the recent protest against the Israeli action in Gaza, which saw 5,000 people gathered outside the Israeli embassy in London.

He said: “The demonstration was easy to organise because most of the demonstrators want more than a ceasefire. Most of these people want the end of Israel. Hamas are able to plug into the latent antisemitism in the West. It breaks my heart.”

Rick Haller, chairman of the Israel Diaspora Trust, said: “Sidney founded the IDT more than 25 years ago to provide a forum for Jewish leaders of British political, academic and business life who were marginally involved with community affairs to educate themselves as to the issues affecting the community both at home and in Israel.

“While Sidney himself had strong views about matters affecting Israel and Jewish life in general and was never shy with expressing those views, he encouraged others with differing views to share those as well — and this often led to lively discussions at IDT events.”

Rabbi Brichto was also chairman of the Advisory Board of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and a governor of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies.

Baroness Julia Neuberger, herself a former leading Liberal rabbi, said: “Sidney and I often disagreed on a whole lot of issues, but his fundamental kindness was never in doubt, and I think of him as a man who was capable of extraordinary acts of kindness and generosity which he demonstrated in quite unexpected ways.”

Rabbi Brichto leaves a wife, Cathryn, and four children.

Stephen Pollard writes: It is difficult to imagine a world without Sidney Brichto. Sidney had 1,000 ideas a day, and most of them were uniquely brilliant. A scholar who wore his learning lightly, a thinker who always remained practical and a mensch whose indefatigable spirit touched many lives, he was an inspiration to those of us privileged enough to count him as a friend.

My first act on the day I was appointed editor of the JC was to commission a piece from Sidney.

    Last updated: 12:28pm, January 22 2009