When Kingston Synagogue was looking for a rabbi, they wanted someone “a bit different from the classical candidate”, said the successful applicant, Yechezkel Mandelbaum.
He certainly fits the bill — he plays the piano, he paints and he is the only United Synagogue rabbi who was raised on a farm in the Alps.
When he used to supervise milk for Swiss chocolate, the farmers might think to themselves, “Here comes the rabbi, he doesn’t know the difference between the front and the back of a cow”. But they were deeply impressed when he could identify the utensil used to help extract a calf from its mother’s womb.
That he now has a pulpit is credit to a programme that was set up a few years ago to bring rabbinic training back to the UK.
Remarkably, Rabbi Mandelbaum discovered his Jewish roots only as a student. Now 45, he was raised in the village of Monstein in Switzerland by adopted parents, his father a farmer and his mother a teacher in the village school. “I grew up as a religious Christian,” he said.
When he went to university to Basel, he studied theology because a local reverend who gave him books had nurtured his interest. “I had to learn Greek, Latin and Hebrew. I started to learn the Hebrew Bible and that made me think.”
He began to wonder whether the Hebrew Bible stood on its own, independent of the New Testament. “The Torah spoke about mitzvot. Before I knew any Jewish people, I walked into a Jewish bookshop in Basel run by a very elderly gentleman and asked him if he had a book about how people perform mitzvot. He sold me the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch [the abridged Code of Jewish Law] and a siddur.”
He started praying, practising kashrut. When he walked into a synagogue one Succot with his DIY lulav and etrog, courtesy of the local botanical gardens, “people were amazed”.
As he grew more involved, people showed him what to do. “Most important, my parents told me they could understand my choice — because I have actually a Jewish background in my biological family.”
The turning point came when “I went to Lugano to visit my sister and we bumped into a Chasidic community.” Its rabbi, Benzion Rabinowitz, the Biale Rebbe of Lugano, commuted from Israel and he persuaded Rabbi Mandelbaum and his wife Shulamit to go to study in Jerusalem. When they returned a couple of years later, “my connection with the Biale Rebbe would be very close, we would learn daily if he was in Lugano.
“He used to receive lots of phone calls from all over the world. I could see how he dealt with questions and people. The most striking thing was he never started with halachah, he always wanted to know what the problem was that was perhaps hiding behind a halachic question.”
After some years, the Mandelbaums and their children — they now have five — decided to make aliyah. He studied in kollel, but Shulamit was dissatisfied and wanted to make use of her academic learning.
When she was accepted for a maths degree at Oxford University, they moved to the UK. Rabbi Mandelbaum also studied, earning a master’s in musicology from Oxford Brookes University with a dissertation on a baroque opera in Hebrew about Queen Esther written by an Italian rabbi.
Although his Swiss Chasidic community was “a bit shocked” at the move, he felt at home in Oxford. “It broadened my mind. It was completely different from everything I ever saw because I suddenly found myself in a Talmud shiur together with ladies. It was a big surprise.
“I also had never encountered people from different denominations. Discussing and engaging with them I found a big gain. It was inspiring, because if you know where your heart is, you can go out to discuss with other people who have other views on Judaism.”
His wife went on to a doctorate and a job in Whitehall. His thoughts turned to the rabbinate. “My rebbe invested so much time in me, he built me from scratch so I felt very much obliged to bring that to fruition.”
When he heard about a programme to train rabbis in London, he applied. The Montefiore Kollel was launched in 2006 by the then spiritual head of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation, Rabbi Abraham Levy and Lucien Gubbay, with money from the legacy of Sir Moses Montefiore. They wanted to revive semichah for the central Orthodox rabbinate in Britain, the London School of Jewish Studies (Jews’ College as was) having ended its own ordination course.
“When Rabbi Levy interviewed me, I asked them do you need rabbis? They said very much so.”
The kollel was intended for men who might need to combine part-time work with study and had a practical focus with sessions on counselling, Anglo-Jewish history and sermon-giving as well as rabbinics.
And so blending the spiritual warmth of Chasidut and the intellectual openness of Oxford, he arrived as a Montefiore graduate in south London two years ago.
His community, he says, have come to accept his idiosyncrasies — he does his pastoral rounds by bike rather than car, which will no doubt earn him eco-brownie points.
There are some synagogues in the States now which run their own urban farms. If ever Kingston chose that, they would have the ideal rabbi.