Obituary: Michael Rosen

Born Glasgow, January 25, 1945. Died Jerusalem, December 7, 2008, aged 63.

January 22, 2009

The founder of Yakar, a pioneering centre for popular yet serious adult Jewish education when it was set up in 1978, Rabbi Michael Rosen — known as Mickey — became a national figure in Anglo-Jewry, writes Mordechai Beck.

But he had already experimented in this field as the unorthodox Orthodox rabbi of Sale, Cheshire, where he introduced a mikveh, advanced adult education and Hebrew literacy for women.

From the start he had wanted to broaden the concept of halachah without challenging its primacy, despite the occasional clash with fellow rabbis. He wanted Jews to feel as emotionally and intellectually comfortable within Orthodoxy as in the outside world.

His ambition led him to gather a constellation of Jewish academics and philanthropists to create Yakar, (an acrostic of his father’s name, Yaacov Kopul Rosen, and also the Hebrew for “dear” or “precious”), set in a former stately home, last used as a hospital, in Stanmore, North West London.

This was the springboard for an independent framework for Jews of all backgrounds and outlooks to examine Jewish texts together in a free and unfettered way.

Born in Glasgow to a well-known rabbinic family, Mickey was educated at Carmel College, founded in 1948 by his father, Rabbi Rosen, who sought to combine Jewish Orthodoxy with the discipline of the English public school.

He studied at Jews’ College for a London University degree in Semitics before going to Israel to study at the yeshivot of Beer Ya’akov, Slobodka and the 1931 American-founded yeshivah, the Harry Fischel Institute. Of his two rabbinic ordinations, the second came from Chief Rabbi Isser Unterman.

Out of loyalty to his father, who died in 1962 when he was 17, Mickey returned to England in 1974 with his American-born bride, Gila Ratzersdorfer, an outstanding future educator, and became minister of Sale and District Hebrew Congregation.

It was his burning desire to make Judaism accessible to the broadest possible spectrum of British Jewry that brought him to London to set up Yakar. Its popularity took it to Hendon in 1983, drawing in even more people.

Unsurprisingly, he was involved in the launch of Limmud, the experimental cross-community educational seminar, at Carmel College in December 1980.

Yakar was marked by its refusal to be narrow. Its often controversial guest speakers included Arab speakers, church leaders, dissident Jewish authors and South African politicians.

In 1991 he settled in to Jerusalem to create a new Yakar community, combining study with social action. It became known for its warm intimate services and the uncompromising intellectual honesty of its beit hamidrash.

One of his innovations was a study session in the middle of Shabbat morning service, led by men and women, rabbis and lay people. Another was the kloyze, where a talmudist, mystic, historian and halachist could stimulate each other’s learning.

Yakar also served as a platform for the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s unique hippie style of outreach. He established a social programme to help less fortunate Israelis and opened a branch of Yakar in Tel Aviv.

In 2008 his doctoral thesis on the early 19th-century Chasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pesischa (Przysucha) was published in book form. Its title, The Quest for Authenticity, reflected his life-long intellectual restlessness.

Born with a rare physiological condition, mitochondrial myopathy, he controlled it with remarkable efficiency. He is survived by his wife, three sons, three daughters and seven grandchildren.

Last updated: 4:40pm, September 23 2009