All in the family: father and son become rabbis on the same day

An ordination ceremony for new rabbis and dayanim proves a double celebration for one family


New rabbis: Michael Gabai (left) and father Yosef Gabai (right), with Sephardi community trustee and Wembley Synagogue member Jack Zelouf (centre)

It can’t be often that a father and son are ordained as a rabbi on the same day, and it may well never have happened before in British Jewry.

But on Sunday, Rabbi Yosef Gabai and his son Michael formally entered the rabbinic fold at a ceremony at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Lauderdale Road, west London.

It was a double celebration as the latest cohort of students from the Montefiore Endowment semichah programme graduated alongside the first set of rabbis to qualify from its unique course to train diaspora dayanim.

Rabbi Gabai senior, who is from a Moroccan background, came to the UK from Israel around 20 years ago. He founded the Ohel Shalom Sephardi Synagogue in Stamford Hill and also runs a wholesale bakery business.

His son Michael, 23, has a degree from UCL and is now studying for a doctorate in biophysics in London, looking at how to improve cancer drug design. He also studied at Gateshead Yeshiva, and when he was looking for somewhere to continue his Jewish learning, it was his father who recommended the Montefiore course.

The programme, Rabbi Michael said, “is not only about becoming an expert in halachah but also about the extra-curricular activities, including public-speaking and counselling. It became clear that this is something I wanted to stick with long-term.”

Rabbi Michael is now in his third month as rabbi of Wembley Sephardi Synagogue, having deputised over the past two years for its previous rabbi, Jeff Berger, who is also a Montefiore alumnus. “It’s a lovely and warm community,” Rabbi Gabai said. “It’s small but there’s fire and passion there, and you need to bring that out of the members there. They have been so welcoming.”

The course was launched 18 years ago by the chairman of the Montefiore Endowment, Lucien Gubbay and the late spiritual head of the S & P Sephardi Community, Rabbi Abraham Levy, who wanted to restore rabbinic ordination for the centrist Orthodox community in the UK. It allowed students to continue in their careers while studying part-time and, as Mr Gubbay emphasised at Sunday’s event, it was committed to “Torah in the everyday world and not Torah in the ivory tower”.

While a home-grown initiative, it also enjoys international input from Israel’s Eretz Hemdah Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies, combining in-person and virtual learning.

After the anxieties of Saturday’s night, with Iran’s attack on Israel, the verses of thanksgiving at the ceremony rang out even more powerfully than usual.

“We need good rabbis like we need air,” said SPSC senior rabbi, Joseph Dweck.

Also joining the Gabais in top hats specially worn for the occasion and newly presented tallitot were new rabbis Glenn Bezalel, James Mindell, Harris Bor, and Oren Yefet.

Rabbi Bezalel is deputy head at City of London School for Boys and author of the recently published Teaching Classroom Controversies, which tackles the teaching of complex issues. Rabbi Dr Bor is a barrister and author of Staying Human: A Jewish Theology for the Age of Artificial Intelligence.

Rabbi Mindell was previously interim minister at Northwood United Synagogue and is now building the community of Karmei Hanadiv in Kiryat Malachi in Israel. Rabbi Yefet, who is from an Adeni background, is an engineer in high-rise construction who teaches at the Adeni Kol Yaakov congregation in Finchley.

The new dayanut course’s graduates include two United Synagogue ministers, Rabbi Dr Michael Harris of Hampstead Synagogue and Rabbi Mendel Cohen, of the Saatchi Shul. A number of other US rabbis have followed in their footsteps and joined the course as students.

So far, the only graduate currently serving on a beth din is Dayan Daniel Kada, of Holland Park Synagogue, who sits on the Sephardi Beth Din.

The other graduates are Rabbis Avrohom Brief, who leads the new Chasidic community in Westcliff, Natan Peres, Binyomin Marks and Chaim Kanterovitz. Rabbi Kanterovitz, the former senior rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue, is now the mashgiach - spiritual supervisor - at Orayta Yeshivah in Jerusalem.

Eretz Hemdah’s own dayanut course takes eight years full time but the Montefiore programme was specially adapted, focusing on areas of divorce, marriage and conversion. While it was scheduled to take five years part-time, in the event, it took seven.

Dayan Ofer Livnat, of the Sephardi Beth Din, who was the instructing dayan on the course, said the learning there was “the highest” he had ever experienced.

The qualification is recognised by the main centrist Orthodox rabbinic body in the USA, the Rabbinic Council of America.

One dayanut student, Rabbi Yehezkel Mandelbaum of Kingston Synagogue said a special feature of the programme was that it attracted both United Synagogue rabbis like himself along with others “from Stamford Hill. There is such a broad variety. This is unique for me.”

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