Obituary: Sidney Brichto

Born Philadelphia, July 21, 1936. Died London, January 16, 2009, aged 72.

February 5, 2009

The first executive director of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, Rabbi Sidney Brichto steered the movement for 25 years along the lines he felt were true to Judaism today: intellectual honesty, Jewish unity and Israel’s centrality.

His stance set him against the Orthodox establishment, which ignored his attempts to reach accommodation. While respecting its leaders, whose background he shared, he tried vainly to persuade them to be more open and flexible.

But he achieved a pivotal change in British Liberalism’s attitude to Zionism: previous leaders shrank from the accusation of dual loyalty. Rabbi Brichto, with a family history that embraced both pre-state Israel and the USA, saw no reason for these fears.

Thanks to his efforts, the 1966 ULPS Kol Nidre appeal targeted Israel, even before the Six-Day War changed diaspora attitudes. Until then, he felt that Anglo-Jewry suffered from a timid, ghetto mentality, which stifled discussion.

Sidney Brichto was the son of Palestinian-born Orthodox Jews, who moved to the US. His rabbinical father, who worked as a shochet, sent him to a well known New York Orthodox school: Yeshiva University’s Talmudical Academy. At 16 he realised that, apart from the often hypocritical observance he witnessed, he could not believe in the Sinai version of the Torah’s origin — and was expelled.

He turned to the Hebrew Union College, seat of American Reform Judaism — equivalent to Liberal Judaism in Britain — following his brother, Herbert, a future HUC professor of Bible. Sidney was a student rabbi while taking a philosophy degree at New York University. He was ordained by HUC in 1961 and given an honorary doctorate in 1986.

He came to London University as research student and part-time minister at the Liberal Synagogue, St John’s Wood. He worked full-time from 1962- 64, when appointed the movement’s first ever executive director. Within two years his dynamism earned him the honorary title of executive vice-president. He stayed senior vice-president when he retired in 1989. The ULPS, founded as the Jewish Religious Union in 1902 in an attempt to stem assimilation was seen by Rabbi Brichto as an umbrella organisation for non-fundamentalists. Its challenge lay in the tension of living as a Jew in an open, democratic society.

But on the most common practical problem — conversion — Rabbi Brichto’s negotiating skills failed to find a satisfactory solution.

Proposals in the 1970s and 80s for merging or co-operating with Reform or the United Synagogue foundered, largely on the Jewish status of the children of an originally non-Jewish mother or a Jewish divorcée. A move to set up a Liberal Beth Din also fell through.

Progressives gained equality on the Board of Deputies when their status was recognised in 1971, during an upswing in membership. But the “clause 43” amendment led to the secession of strictly Orthodox groups.

Anxious to build bridges, Rabbi Brichto joined the Orthodox in initiatives such as Jewish-Christian relations and the 1970s Soviet Jewry campaign, monitoring Vatican statements and defending shechitah in the 1980s.

In 1968 he was a founder member and, in 1974, chairman of the Council of Reform and Liberal Rabbis, formed when the Chief Rabbi refused to hold a joint service for Israel’s 20th anniversary. From 1973-75 he chaired the ULPS Rabbinic Conference. He was active in the Joint Israel Appeal, convening its first Rabbinic Advisory Council in 1978.

In 1984, with antisemitism growing and support for Israel eroding during the 1982-85 Lebanon invasion, he co-founded the Israel Diaspora Trust. One of its projects was an exchange programme between senior UK and Israeli judges.

He made no secret of his belief in the vital importance of Israel and distrust of Arab intentions towards fellow-Arabs brought under Israeli rule in 1967.

Under the British mandate, he noted, his father had been a Palestinian. The concept of a uniquely “Arab Palestinian”, he maintained, was created after the Six-Day War, to hurt Israel.

With changing social attitudes in the 1980s, and a downturn in Liberal membership, he was concerned by the increased divorce rate and new trend for cohabiting. He called for more Jewish education and youth work, to stem the increase in marrying-out, affecting the Orthodox as much as Progressives.

A regular broadcaster and a prolific writer of books and journalism, he translated and commented on the Bible, wrote his memoirs and contributed to the JC. From 1992-2002 he was director of the Joseph Levy Charitable Foundation. He was associated with the Oxford Centre for Jewish Studies from its birth in 1972 and a governor from 1995-2002.

His first wife, Frances — with whom he had two children, Anne and Daniel — died in 1969 in a car accident in which he was driving and in which he was badly injured. In 1971, he married Cathryn, nee Goldhill, with whom he had two sons, Adam and Jonathan.

He is survived by Cathryn, his four children and three grandchildren.

Last updated: 4:40pm, September 23 2009