Anglo-Jewry embraces a familiar King

While still in mourning, our community looks to a future in safe hands


Jews rend their clothes when mourning, while members of the royal family dress up in military uniforms or formal costume. Neither can disguise the deep pain of the permanence of loss.

Only weeks ago, we saw Paddington Bear, a character inspired by the Kindertransport, live out every child’s fantasy as he enjoyed tea in the palace with Her Majesty.

As she reached into her iconic handbag to retrieve a marmalade sandwich, her sense of humour and warmth shone through. She was not just our monarch, she was our national bubbe. Baruch Dayan Haemet. Blessed is the Judge of Truth.

By Friday, with Shabbat approaching, synagogues, Jewish schools and institutions searched for the best way to pay their respects in accordance with Jewish custom, seeking also to show the community’s allegiance to our new King, Charles III.

Students at the Jewish Free School took part in a minute of silence at ten o’clock, with some teachers choosing to display photographs of the Queen for their pupils.

Meanwhile, rabbis around the country prepared prayers and drafted memorial sermons which would express British Jewry’s sadness at the Queen’s death and gratitude for her long life of steadfast service.

For the centuries-old Anglo-Jewish community, it was an echo of times gone by. The first death of a monarch reported by the JC was that of Queen Victoria, in 1901.

Her reign had bestowed upon Jews “an absolute equality with their fellow-citizens — political, civil and social,” the report said.

In 1910, we reported on the death of Edward VII; in 1936, that of George V; and in 1952, the passing of George VI, our late beloved Queen’s father, whose reign gave sanctuary to refugees from Nazi persecution, and formed “cordial relations” with the new Jewish state.

Yet it was still a shock. As the impact of the Queen’s passing sank in, the prayer for the monarch and royal family — recited on every Shabbat in every synagogue for over 70 years — had to be rewritten.

For the first time since 1952, we would no longer pray for the life and strength of “our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth”. Instead, “He who gives salvation unto kings and dominion unto princes” would be asked to protect, guide and strengthen her son, Charles. She was gone.

As the Accession Council met on Saturday morning at St James’s Palace, the official residence of the sovereign, weekly synagogue services were already under way.

Sixteen years ago, in the lavish, red-and-gold room where the new King was proclaimed, Her Majesty had greeted 500 members of our community to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the readmission of Jews to her realm.

The late Chief Rabbi Sacks had presented her with a silver menorah as a sign of light and hope. She had conversed with our community’s leaders, as others had elbowed to the front to catch a better glimpse of her.

Against even the most modern and rational of instincts, in the presence of the Queen, everyone in the room had felt a private thrill.

And now she is gone. Less than 48 hours after the news was announced, Shabbat services across the country were in progress and synagogues were adapting to reflect the mood of the nation.

Some looked to history for guidance. Others took a more modern approach.
In London’s leafy Maida Vale, Dayan Danny Kada at the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue — the oldest British Jewish community in the country — read an adapted version of a prayer written for the death of George V by the congregation’s late Haham Moses Gaster in 1936.

His sermon was delivered, unusually, before the prayer, and was dedicated to the memory of the late Queen.

Nearby, at the New London Synagogue, worshippers were shown the cover of the historic 1952 edition of the Jewish Chronicle, which featured a prayer recited on the death of George VI.

Adapted for the passing of the Queen, Cantor Yoav Oved’s rendition brought congregants to tears.

Liberal synagogues adopted a new prayer, written by the senior rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood, Alexandra Wright, which remembered Queen Elizabeth’s “enduring devotion and grace, uniting races, creeds and tongues”.

Whether Orthodox, Reform, Masorti, or Liberal, Sephardi or Ashkenazi, in more than 450 synagogues across the United Kingdom, we searched for a way to express our gratitude for a monarch passed, and optimism for what is yet to come.

For while we mourned the passing of the Queen, we immediately rejoiced in the ascendance of our new, familiar King.

Many congregations chose to sing the national anthem, the change of words jolting us from auto-pilot and adding new acceptance of their meaning.

No royal has been more openly connected with us than our new King. This is a man we have seen in our synagogues wearing his own embroidered kippah, visiting our beloved state of Israel, learning from our Holocaust survivors and immortalising them in art.

In fact, it may be that the new King, as he travels to Scotland, London, Northern Ireland and Wales in the aftermath of his mother’s death, is a little envious of our tradition of sitting shiva at home.

King Charles III, Defender of the Faith, spoke long ago of his desire to be defender of all faiths, including our own.

He was good to his word. In 2019, as British Jewry was left sleepless by the looming election, with the prospect of Prime Minister Corbyn, the future King seized the moment to convene a Chanukah reception at Buckingham Palace.

Delivering a characteristically powerful and well-considered speech, he recognised how Jews had “literally transformed this country for the better”, despite a history “shadowed by persecution”.

He told the 400 guests assembled: “In every walk of life, in every field of endeavour, our nation could have had no more generous citizens, and no more faithful friends.”

As a tiny minority group in our country, we have indeed served this nation disproportionately. We have been good to Britain, and Britain has — in recent centuries at least — been good to us.

In the new head of the Church of England, we recognise a sensibility that understands our own community, and appreciates our complex and layered identity. The King’s involvement has been personal as well as official. A private donation he made to World Jewish Relief (WJR) earlier this year was made without fanfare.

Clarence House declined to discuss the details when approached by the JC at the time. WJR President Henry Grunwald described the future King as “an amazingly tuned-in patron”.

While Queen Elizabeth II never entered the Holy Land, apparently prevented from doing so by the Foreign Office’s reluctance to risk upsetting Arab nations, King Charles has done so several times, attending the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, as well as making an official visit in 2020 to appear at the World Holocaust Forum.

Thus, with Charles III’s accession to the throne comes the hope that we might see our nation’s first visit to Israel by a reigning monarch.

Yet as the moment of historic transition continues, some of us feel sadness, some numbness, some perhaps a degree of hesitation about the monarchy. After all, there is no more a single Jewish identity than there is a single British one.

King Charles once described the United Kingdom as a community of communities, a description which could also well describe Anglo-Jewry.

Among us are royalists and republicans, Orthodox, traditional and secular Jews, those of the political left and the political right. We are all fellow countrymen and fellow Jews, who loved and respected Her Majesty the Queen and welcome our new King warmly.

The Talmud teaches that royalty on earth reflects royalty in heaven. Upon meeting a king, we praise God “who has given of His glory to flesh and blood.” In Britain, the respect is mutual. Queen Anne is even said to have donated an oak beam from a Royal Navy ship for the roof of our oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks.

As one of many threads in the rich and chaotic tapestry of British life, we Jews know that our fortunes are intertwined with those of the nation and its leaders. And we are in safe hands.

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