Life & Culture

The Ark’s long voyage is done

This month sees Robin and Nitza Spiro closing down Spiro Ark, ending its function as umbrella and funder for their multifarious activities. It is the moment to celebrate all that they have done


Robin and Nitza Spiro sit side by side in their Hampstead sitting room — he a handsome, dignified man approaching his nineties, she in her eighties, a forcefield of energy, charisma and charm. For decades their commitment, generosity, imagination and pioneering spirit have made them superheroes of Jewish education. From Belsize Park to Boca Raton, from Chelsea to China, there are Jews and gentiles who have been illuminated by them.

This month sees the couple closing down Spiro Ark, their registered charity, ending its function as umbrella and funder for their multifarious activities. It is the moment to celebrate all that they have done. “Thank you dear Spiros,” says one letter, “I wish you both all the best, I am a disciple, a student and can hold my head high as a proud knowledgeable Jew due to your inspiration, teaching and example.”

“You have achieved so much and helped others to achieve so much by expanding their horizons helping them lead happier and more fulfilled lives,” reads another.

The couple met in Israel over half a century ago — Robin, an Oxford law graduate, who had come out to settle; Nitza, born in Jerusalem, the only child of a father from a Chasidic family in Brody, Ukraine, who found it hard to get work because he was a Communist but, a ferocious autodidact, eventually became a water engineer. Her mother, from Lvov, a teacher, had lost most of her family in the Holocaust. Wracked with anxiety and fear, she forbad Nitza to ride bicycles and held her back from school trips, a cottonwool wrapping that only provoked her adventurousness.

She trained as a teacher. In the army she taught Hebrew to volunteers from South America and South Africa. After the Six-Day War she was in charge of a programme of Hebrew for Arabs while Israelis learnt Arabic (to aid peace). In 1964, as part of a prize awarded to her ulpan she went to Scandinavia and learned Swedish.

Two years later, back in Israel, Robin — looking for Hebrew lessons — caught sight of her through a little classroom window, liked what he saw and joined her class. Romance bloomed but Robin had two children from a previous marriage and, when his father died, he wanted to be near his mother and his children.

He asked Nitza to come with him to England for a short while. They married in London.

In 1967 Robin pulled off a great coup for which Londoners and Jewish studies have cause to be grateful. Fighting off property developers with modern office-development plans, he saved St Christopher’s Place, a pedestrian street leading from Oxford Street to Wigmore Street, which became one of the capital’s most charming shopping and eating-out spaces. It made him rich.

A romantic soul, he invited Nitza to tell him where she dreamed of going. “India,” she said, They went there for nearly a year. In New Delhi they used to get the Jewish Chronicle (of course) and learned that Oxford University was setting up a modern Jewish studies department. Robin, always a little guilty that he had not even reached his father’s “wishy-washy” (says Nitza) level of Judaism, decided to go and read for a degree. They moved to Oxford. He studied, she lectured on Hebrew literature.

The battle of Waterloo may or may not have been won on the playing fields of Eton but a victory for Jewish education certainly owes much to the playing fields of Harrow. Robin had had a stellar career as a wicketkeeper in the school’s XI and was invited to the dinner at Lord’s to mark his cricket master’s retirement. He told his old teacher he wanted to persuade the Oxford and Cambridge examination board to introduce a modern Jewish studies course and he wanted to introduce it as a school subject to Jews and non-Jews alike. The teacher talked to the headmaster and Robin was in — his Harrow students included the crown prince of Jordan. Soon the course was being taught at 29 schools and he was commuting from Oxford to teach it. Eventually there were 20 teachers, selected from 150 applicants, trained on a summer course at the Hebrew University then supported for the next three years by a Hebrew University lecturer who stayed in London for the purpose. This was the start of a multi-faceted, non-stop odyssey for the Spiros, bringing Jewish experience in many forms — history, travel, Hebrew, Yiddish, art, drama — to people of all ages, often to folk others couldn’t reach, and more often than not making them love it. The couple are widely celebrated, and rightly so.

Eventually the Spiro Institute (their first incarnation) was overtaken by events. Robin lost his money, funds for the charity had to be found from elsewhere, a committee was formed, new forces took over. He removed himself from what he had started. The couple started again — Spiro Ark — and continued their work … to this day.

Closing Spiro Ark as a charity is an ending of course but certainly not the end. Nitza is still teaching and she has no intention of stopping. I have had a little experience of her magic, attending classes in this sitting room, conducted by her with Robin by her side. The small group who gathered to study poetry in the Bible included a Jewish doctor, a young non-Jewish woman who did social work in London’s East End, a retired orchestral violinist with excellent Hebrew committed to teaching her Christian community the central importance of the Old Testament, and an elegant young Chinese man who owns restaurants and was converting to Orthodox Judaism. An unusual collection you might think, but not all that unusual for Nitza. Spiro work knows no boundaries.

They have produced six children, they have enriched many lives. God said “be fruitful and multiply”. And they did.

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