A tour of the Sternberg Centre in Finchley was the first visit to a Jewish institution by Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the head of England and Wales’s Catholics, since his appointment in May.
The Archbishop of Westminster, who has become a joint president of the Council of Christians and Jews through his new office, visited at the invitation of Reform president Sir Sigmund Sternberg.
While there, he recalled one of his “most important” interfaith experiences, which occurred a few years ago during his time as Archbishop of Birmingham.
He had invited Rabbi Leonard Tann, the late minister of Singers Hill Synagogue, to teach Hebrew to students at the local Catholic seminary in Oscott, where the rabbi made a discovery.
“At the bottom of a cupboard is a Torah scroll,” Rabbi Tann had told him. “Maybe you don’t understand but that’s a little bit like me keeping your blessed sacrament in the bottom of my wardrobe.”
Archbishop Nichols apologised but wondered how the scroll had got there. “And then unfolded a rather marvellous story. [There was] a priest in Oscott who taught German prisoners of war who were also students of the priesthood.
“One of them became a major scripture scholar and went to Jerusalem and acquired a Torah scroll. It was part of his library and when he died he left it to Oscott.” The scroll was formally presented to Rabbi Tann’s synagogue.
The Sternberg event was also notable for attracting both Jewish Speakers of the Houses of Parliament — the newly elected John Bercow, making his first visit to the Sternberg Centre, and his counterpart in the Lords, Baroness Hayman.
“What do you call two Speakers sitting by side by side?” asked Reform movement head Rabbi Tony Bayfield. “High fidelity.”