The rugby rabbi’s conversion

By Simon Rocker, February 27, 2014
Rabbi Yitzchak Greenblatt

Rabbi Yitzchak Greenblatt

He could have been the answer to the England rubgy team’s prayers during its testing Six Nations tie against Ireland last weekend.

Instead, Rabbi Yitzchak Greenblatt, a former front-row forward for England at under-16 and under-18 levels, was reciting Shabbat prayers in London.

Rabbi Greenblatt, of Orthodox educational group Ohr Somayach, gave up slugging it out in the scrum for the mental gymnastics of the Talmud when he was a university student.

He said: “The hardest thing for me in becoming religious was to stop playing rugby. But it was worth it. Everyone has their specific challenge and that was mine. I even looked into whether you can put an eruv around the field!”

Rabbi Greenblatt, 33, in the UK last weekend to speak at St John’s Wood Synagogue, is from a traditional Jewish South African family who settled in Bournemouth. Jared Greenblatt, as he was known, won a scholarship to Polack’s House, the Jewish boarding house at Clifton College, and became head of the school in 1998.

Yitzchak Greenblatt (centre) with teammates

Yitzchak Greenblatt (centre) with teammates

Before he even arrived at Cambridge, where he gained a doctorate in Aramaic, he was touring with the university team and won a rugby blue. “I think the first week I went to JSoc but I very soon stopped doing anything,” he recalled. “Most of the time I was perfectly happy going to rugby dinners and May balls.”

But one Friday night he was heading off for a drink with his teammates, when he ran into some American friends, one of whom was not Jewish.

“He said ‘we’re going to Chabad, this Jewish Friday night thing, they have meals’. Then he looked at me and — it shocked me to my core — said, ‘hey, you’re Jewish aren’t you — why aren’t you going?’ That got me thinking. The next week, I think, I went.”

The rabbi at Chabad, Reuven Leigh, proved to be “a big role model”. Another influential figure was Rabbi Akiva Tatz, of the Ohr-Somayach-linked Jewish Learning Exchange in London.

“I started going to his shiur,” he recalled. “I had no idea of the depth and rigour and analysis there was in Judaism. That was my first taste of real Jewish learning.”

Having made aliyah, he got a job as a researcher at Tel Aviv University, combining it with Jewish studies at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem.

Now a father of two, he works with visiting youth who come to Israel on Ohr Somayach trips. But he can still enjoy a game of rugby long-distance.

“My wife knows, after Shabbos goes out, not to talk to me for an hour because I am catching up on the Six Nations.”

Last updated: 1:01pm, February 27 2014