Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, one of the UK’s most eminent rabbis, is not a man to remain silent. Despite stepping down as head of the London Beth Din in 2006, he continues to make waves, this week by renewing his opposition to Orthodox Jews attending Limmud, in response to Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s intention to attend.
Dayan Ehrentreu was born in Frankurt in 1932 to a family of rabbis. His grandfather was the chief rabbi of Munich during Hitler’s putsch in 1923. When his family emigrated to the UK, his rabbi father became principal of Prestwich Jewish Day School. Young Chanoch went to school in Letchworth, and then, after the war, to Hasmonean School, before going on to study at Gateshead Yeshiva.
In 1960, he founded the Sunderland Kollel (a religious place of study for married men), where he remained for 18 years. In 1978, he was appointed Communal Rabbi of Manchester but controversially refused the title, instead styling himself Av Beth Din (Chief of the Court). This prompted outrage in the community, with some demanding to know whether the new role would be paid for by a levy on the price of kosher chicken.
While at the Manchester Beth Din, in 1982 he caused uproar by refusing to meet Pope John Paul II because a Reform rabbi was in the delegation. He also refused to attend events at the Manchester Zionist headquarters because it was concerned with “secular Zionism”.
Dayan Ehrentreu became head of the London Beth Din in 1984. Under his leadership there were many disputes, but also major steps forward for Jewish life in London and the UK.
His greatest success is often said to be the UK’s first public eruv in north-west London, which encloses Golders Green, Hendon and Hampstead Garden Suburb. The 11-mile enclosure, completed in 2003, makes life easier for the Shabbat-observant, particularly families with young children in prams or the elderly in wheelchairs. It acted as a model, and Dayan Ehrentreu as a mentor, for subsequent eruvim.
He was also instrumental in improving the situation of agunot (chained wives) by successfully lobbying for the 2003 Act of Parliament preventing men from getting a civil divorce if they do not issue a get (religious divorce).
Despite holding many conservative views, during his time in office the dayan secured many positives for women in Jewish life.
It was his intervention that secured a get for Beth Alexander, the British woman who has lost custody of her twin sons to her Austrian ex-husband. He ruled that women could join synagogue councils, though not chair them. It was also under his direction that a policy was reversed of not telling parents where their stillborn children were buried.
However, in 1995 he issued an opinion that United Synagogue rabbis should not attend Limmud, the Jewish learning conference, something for which he has long been criticised.
In 2003, the London Beth Din prevented Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the founder of Masorti Judaism, from being called up to the Torah at a family wedding Dayan Ehrentrau attended.
Despite this, Dayan Ehrentreu is also known as the man who improved competition for kosher outlets, resulting in a massive increase in the number of kosher products and restaurants in the UK.
Dayan Ehrentreu is known for upholding a gold standard for conversion and championing the rights of women.
On a personal level he is known as generous and caring. A former student praised him as both a teacher and a leader, saying: “He has done more to revitalise Jewish life in London than anyone else in the last 100 years.”