Rabbi Neil Kraft


As a Christian Priest, to be so warmly welcomed into Jewish space and invited to share in Jewish prayers was both a blessing and a truly humbling experience. The world was better for having Rabbi Neil Kraft in it, and I am a better person for having met him.”

The Revd Mother Carrie Thompson, Vicar of Forton, Saint John the Evangelist, was describing the popular and charismatic Rabbi Neil Kraft, who has died of Coronavirus, aged 69. The rabbi, beloved by congregants, community leaders and people across the whole religious spectrum, was just weeks from retiring from Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, where he had officiated as Associate Rabbi for the last 17 years.

Rabbi Kraft’s death epitomised the tragedy of many funerals forced to take place without family present due to Covid-19. Visibly moved, Rabbi Emily Reitsma-Jurman, who was officiating, stood alone at Edgwarebury Cemetery while the rabbi’s widow, theatre producer Susannah Kraft-Levene, watched beside the couple’s sons Eli and Oscar as the funeral was livestreamed to some 1,300 members of the EHRS.

Rabbi Kraft, who was born and bred in Boston Massachusetts, is understood to have had an underlying health issue before becoming ill while conducting part of the Shabbat service via livestream, on March 21.

Described as “the people’s rabbi”, Neil Kraft could interact with all ages, due to his sense of humour and warmth. According to Rabbi Reitsma-Jurman , this derived from “a deep love for people.”

Tributes poured in for Neil Kraft from the Board of Deputies, from Mark Goldsmith, Senior Rabbi at EHRS, author Debra Barnes from AJR, and Rabbi Henry Goldstein, who said: “We had the good fortune to have the amiable and learned Neil Kraft in our midst, shockingly still too young to disappear from our movement. Only a fine, friendly and knowledgeable human being can earn the good name that Neil did.”

“I worked alongside Neil at EHRS for 18 months and often told him that it should have been 18 years,” said Rabbi Stephen Katz who retired last year. “As a dear colleague and friend he was a joy to work with and the supreme definition of a mensch _ warm, empathetic, caring and generous.”

Susan Bustin described her meeting with Rabbi Kraft on her conversion at the Liberal Synagogue in Streatham. “Neil was a beautiful soul, funny, kind and wise. I liked him immediately, feet up on the desk, mug of coffee steaming, an American accent, Marlboro red next to his finger tips and the Torah the other side, he taught me love, loyalty, wisdom, and most of all humour.”

Faith and a sense of fun brought the rabbi friends from all walks of life. With his gentle and unobtrusive charm Rabbi Kraft also enabled many to celebrate barmitzvahs and other occasions under extreme pressure. Michele Robey, whose son Hadley’s barmitzvah took place just 24 hours before her father died of a brain tumour, was helped by Rabbi Kraft to bring the date forward and hold a joint ceremony with Hadley’s grandfather.

Neil Kraft was the eldest child of Sumner, an attorney, and Beatrice, a respected Jewish educator and principal of the local afternoon Hebrew school. He grew up with siblings Debbi and Jeffrey in Malden, near Boston, Massachusetts.

His lifelong passion for cooking was nurtured by time spent with his beloved maternal grandmother. Years later, he would experiment with ingredients at home, exchange recipes with congregants, and write a cookery page for the EHRS newsletter. He grew up spending happy summers at Camp Yavneh, a summer camp and school in Northwood, New Hampshire, which he said was the basis for his fluency in Hebrew. He later returned as a junior counsellor.

He gained a BA in Psychology from the University of Cincinnati and an MA from Spertus College, Chicago. He began his rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College and completed them at Leo Baeck College, where he was ordained in 1988. A student rabbi at Woodford and District Liberal Synagogue, which he served following ordination, he became Minister at South London Liberal Synagogue followed by West London Synagogue as Director of Education. In 2002, he moved to Edgware as Associate Rabbi at what is now Edgware & Hendon Reform Synagogue.

Recalling their first meeting at South London Liberal Synagogue in Streatham, where Kraft succeeded Rabbi Julia Neuberger, his wife Susannah spoke of “the invisible cord” that tied the couple together.

“He knew about my life in the theatre and I found out about his varied career pre-SLLS. Elie and Oscar were born while we were at SLLS and it was a happy, rough-and-tumble time in Streatham. He officiated at the barmitzvahs of both our sons, Elie and Oscar, and was immensely proud of both them and their achievements.

“He had a relaxed approach to parenthood but the defining feature was that he sat them in front of WWE wrestling matches in their car seats and explained the intricacies of back-breakers, choke-slams and pile-drivers. They were known on the wrestling circuit and welcomed into the wrestling community with Neil having photos taken with the wrestlers where possible.

“He touched everyone of all faiths and none, and was genuinely interested in people’s lives and families. He listened to a broad spectrum of music at home including liturgical music. He held strong views, which he did not hold back in expressing.

“He was equally at ease discussing the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, frequently incorporating them into his sermons, as he was discussing Reform Judaism.

‘‘He saw the different worlds of Judaism as complementing each other and not separate. A Chasidic friend said of him that, according to the Rebbe, in Judaism age doesn’t go according to passports. Once they have fulfilled their lives’ mission, their soul is returned to its Creator’.

“He also made the best etrog vodka which he gleefully provided for the EHRS congregation every Succot, and chocolate vodka at Purim, acting as bartender and dispensing it personally to everyone. He was a very private man — happy to listen to music, read, garden, cook and catch up with his family.” He is survived by his wife Susannah and sons Elie and Oscar.

Rabbi Neil Kraft: born September 13, 1950. Died March 27,2020

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