| Magazine Feature |

Tell It to the Judge

A decade after removing the barrister’s traditional wig and robes, Judge Anthony Morris reflects on his years on the bench

Photos: Mendel Photography

Few of the litigants in the London courtroom of Judge Anthony Morris would have imagined that underneath the white wig and long cloak — the traditional British dress of UK judges holding court — was a chassidic Jew.

That’s because before entering a career in the judiciary, the rav with whom Reb Avraham Yaakov Morris consulted advised him to refrain from wearing any overtly Jewish symbols while seated on the judge’s bench.

It was never an issue for him during his 30 years in the judiciary, as he dealt primarily with civil disputes between people and companies, and legal issues within families — including divorce, maintenance, and custody of children. As a specialist judge able to deal with some of the more complicated disputes regarding children, while the more wide-reaching cases were heard in the main courtroom, many hearings were actually held in his private chamber (where someone might have noticed a framed photo of his shtreimel-clad son Reb Binyamin, a Boyaner chassid who is today menahel of the the Darchay Noam unit of London’s Menorah Grammar School).

But there was one incident in which his “secret” was exposed, and Judge Morris’s very much Jewish persona was present in the courtroom.

“In the 1980s, Britain was dealing with a severe economic crisis,” Judge Morris relates. “Part of that fallout was that many people were unable to meet their mortgage payments, which led to lawsuits by the mortgage companies to foreclose on the houses. There were times when I had to deal with 60 lawsuits like this per month — and there were two other judges in addition to me with a similar caseload. Many of these stories were heart-wrenching: families with children who were thrown out onto the street, or elderly people who lost all their savings. But legally, there wasn’t much I could do about it.

“One day, a Jewish fellow appeared before me after being faced with such a predicament. The mortgage company was demanding that an eviction notice be issued and that he immediately vacate the property. In response, the man asked for an extension of one day in which he would try to pay up the debt, which already had reached a steep 6,000 pounds. The prosecutor reacted with disbelief and objected — he claimed the defendant was just trying to buy time. ‘We deal with hundreds of cases like this,’ he said, ‘and we never encountered a debtor who was able to “arrange” 6,000 pounds within one evening.’

“I told him, ‘That’s probably because you never encountered Jewish defendants — among Jews, ‘social solidarity’ is not just an expression. There are wonderful philanthropic organizations and many good people out there. I think that in this case, we need to give him the chance until tomorrow.’

“It was not an accepted practice, but in the end the prosecutor agreed to my proposal and gave the man a 24-hour reprieve. To his shock, the next day, the man appeared with a payment confirmation for the entire sum. Among the non-Jews, he had never encountered such a thing. And so, he agreed to be more flexible with the Jewish defendants whose ability to come up with the funds, apparently, was much greater than he had anticipated.”

And one day, after trying to determine culpability in a two-car collision, Judge Morris adjourned court. As the pair of barristers for both sides of the case walked down the corridor to leave, they met the next pair of barristers coming in for the following case.  The incoming barrister asked them for the name of the judge, and one of the outgoing barristers said, “I don’t know, but he looks like G-d to me.”

To this day, the Jewish cemetery in Brynmawr is maintained, although the Jewish community – where Judge Morris’s father was born – has long disappeared

Wise Man on the Bench

From his modest home in Golders Green, London, Reb Avraham Yaakov Morris maintains an active daily schedule, and even began something of a new career after retiring from the bench in August 2011 at age 72. He “went back to school,” helping out the Tiferes Shlomo elementary school as a one-man remedial team, working on a one-on-one basis with children for whom keeping pace with the class was challenging.

“So what if I’d been a court judge for 30 years? Now I had the time that the teacher didn’t have because of the sheer size of the class,” he says, not even considering why someone might raise eyebrows at the new career frontier. “I worked with the boys at their pace to make sure they understood the material and could move forward and succeed.

“It was always a dream I had,” he explains. “A teacher doesn’t always have enough time to sit patiently with every student who struggles. I had a student who struggled with dyslexia and today he’s baruch Hashem one of the best students in the yeshivah. There are others who don’t have a specific issue but

simply can’t keep up with the pace of the class.”

When Covid came along, however, Judge Morris — due to an impaired health situation — had to stop, as he had to be extremely careful about exposure. “I miss the work very much,” he says. “I occasionally meet boys in the neighborhood whom I taught, and they not only remind me of the times we had together, but share with me their challenges, and their victories.”

More than a decade has passed since his retirement, but with three decades on the bench in the service of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, it’s hard to separate the court from the rest of life.

“There are a number of Jews who have served as judges in Britain,” he says, “but only a handful have been mitzvah observant. At the same time, my Judaism was never a problem. On the contrary, each year, I had a right to six weeks of vacation, which I arranged ahead of time in a way that I could be absent from work through all the days of Yamim Tovim, Purim, and Tishah B’Av, and still managed to go away for two weeks in the summer with my family.

“As for Shabbos observance, Friday is a regular workday in the English judicial system. In the winter, the days are very short and Shabbos begins early. All the staff teams I worked with knew that on a winter Friday, they couldn’t schedule me for hearings after 12 noon. That was when I left the courtroom and headed for home.

“But they also didn’t know that whatever paperwork I hadn’t finished writing until then, I would complete in my free time on Sunday, when the courtroom was not in session. I’d take a bag of files home for the weekend. What they did know was that when work began again on Monday, everything would be ready.”

Litigants generally didn’t know about the judge’s Jewish identity, but the chachmah and compassion of Torah sometimes seeped into his decisions, especially in complicated family cases in which he had to render judgments.

“Many of these cases involved difficult disputes and very complex family situations. One time, when I was dealing with an extremely stormy argument, I made my suggestions to both sides, and then advised them to think about it overnight and to reach an agreement. The next morning, I discovered, quite to my surprise, that the sides had accepted my proposal and had actually reached a compromise. Later, a colleague told me that they had told him that my appearance, with my ‘Jewish eyes’ and long white beard — a pretty unusual site in London’s courtrooms — had made an impression on them. They felt I was a ‘wise man’ and it would be a good idea to consider my opinion.”

Judge Morris’s family has its roots in Brynmawr, a small town in southern Wales.

“At the beginning of the last century, numerous Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled in the small hamlets of Wales. Many of those immigrants, like my grandfather, Jacob Morris, were peddlers. He got a job in a small village called Ebbw Vale, saved his money, and went to London to buy old clocks and watches, which he repaired and then peddled around the villages of South Wales. The Jewish peddlers sold on credit, and therefore they had to be in close proximity to their customers on Friday, when wages were paid, otherwise the peddlars had no chance of ever seeing payment. Once they were staying for Shabbos, they created their own kehillos with shuls and chadarim — although those communities have long disappeared.”

In fact, the Brynmawr Hebrew congregation was formed all the way back in 1888, and in 1901, they raised funds to build their own shul.

In 1905, Judge Morris’s grandfather married a girl from Manchester, and his father, David, was born in 1908. His father grew up in a community with a shul and a cheder, and in 1919, through the generosity of a wealthy donor, they acquired a large tract of land for a Jewish cemetery, but years later, the municipality wanted to purchase the land back from the kehillah, as the cemetery was largely empty.

“By the time the local town council wanted to buy the spare land of the cemetery, the community had already disappeared,” Judge Morris says. “My father was the one who negotiated the transfer of the land and suggested that the land be a gift to the town, and in exchange, the town would commit to cleaning and maintaining the cemetery forever. Indeed, to this day the local Jewish cemetery is beautifully kept up, despite the fact that there are no Jews remaining in the town.

“But my father passed away before the transfer was completed and I dealt with the remaining stages. We also ran into another snag, because the Charity Commission initially refused to give consent that the land be a gift of charity. It was only after we had a surveyor’s report stating that it couldn’t be used for building because of a water main running through it that the Commission gave its consent.”

When the shul officially closed down in 1963 and the building sold three years later, Judge Morris took the sefer Torah that hadn’t gotten much use in the few years before, restored it, and lent it to the Chabad shul in Golders Green, on condition that if the Jewish community would ever be reestablished in Brynmawr, the sefer Torah would be returned.

Reb Avraham Yaakov’s parents were not Shabbos observant, but they did keep a kosher home and attended shul on Shabbos. They moved to nearby Newport in South Wales, where Anthony/Avraham Yaakov was born and where he was one of five Jewish children out of 500 in the local public school.

“Just like the early Jews who spoke a broken English with a Yiddish accent, the Welsh minority in England also spoke a broken English, so the Jews didn’t feel so out of place,” Judge Morris says of his father’s childhood. “In addition, the Welsh are very devout people so the Jews also felt comfortable in that very religious and conservative environment. My bar mitzvah came out on a Sunday, and while I celebrated in shul on Shabbos, my parents pushed off the meal to Monday, because on Sunday, all the stores and businesses in the town were closed, and it was not accepted to hold big parties with music and catered food, and certainly not alcohol.”

He began to keep Shabbos on his own at age 16, after spending summer vacation at a Jewish youth camp and seeing authentic Shabbos observance according to halachah for the first time.

“It was a spontaneous decision,” he says. “I just knew that this is what I wanted. When I returned home, I told my parents, and they accepted it graciously, with no hassles.” In time, he would discover that his wife, Patricia, had attended that same youth camp, and had also begun to keep Shabbos as a result.

Years later, Reb Avraham Yaakov would discover a tragic yet inspiring story about his great-grandfather’s own mesirus nefesh for Shabbos. In Russia, the family had been timber merchants and bought forests on government contracts. His great-grandfather had been returning home on a winter Friday when his sleigh fell through the ice. He was fished out of the freezing waters in the lake underneath, yet insisted on continuing his journey home in time for Shabbos, instead of warming up and looking for dry clothes to change into. As a result, he contracted severe pneumonia and passed away. He always wondered if perhaps that dedication is what helped awaken his own soul.

As a newly-minted judge (left); a document to Queen Elizabeth authorizing the appointment of Judge Morris as a district judge for the county courts

Always with Compassion

While he didn’t attend yeshivah after he became frum, by age 19, in 1958, Judge Morris had moved to London and connected with Munk’s Shul in Golders Green, coming under the mentorship of Rav Eli Munk a”h. Later he joined the Bridge Lane Beth Hamedrash led by Rabbi Shimon Winegarten, who made aliyah in 2019 after 40 years as leader of the congregation.

“He gave a devar Torah one morning about laying tefillin, from which I realized that I had always been putting on my tefillin the Chabad way,” Judge Morris remembers. “That was interesting, because after we sent our two daughters to the Lubavitch school we discovered that both my wife’s family and mine had Lubavitch roots.”

(While Judge Morris and his wife Patricia are affiliated with Lubavitch in London, his family has branched out to encompass chassidus around the world. His son is a Boyaner chassid, and his youngest daughter is married to a Breslover, with married grandchildren living in Eretz Yisrael, London, and the US.)

While Reb Avraham Yaakov began his training from age 19, he was officially admitted as a solicitor after his marriage at age 25, following in the footsteps of his father, who was also a solicitor (in England, a solicitor is a lawyer who deals with legal matters from an office, as opposed to a barrister, who represents clients in court). He worked in civil and criminal law, as well as in family law.

At one point he heard that the justice system was looking into candidates for judges.

“I submitted an application, but didn’t get a response for a year,” he relates. “So I decided to see for myself what was going on. It turned out that the minimal age for the job was 40, one year older than I was at the time. The head of the department had seen my application and told me that once I turned 40, I’d be eligible for an appointment if one came up. I was almost 43 when I was finally appointed — one of the youngest district judges at the time. In my time that was the way judges were appointed. Now candidates have to first attend courses and are then subject to grueling interviews.”

On a visit to New York, Judge Morris was given a charter that kept him focused for the rest of his years on the bench. “I went into the Lubavitcher Rebbe when he was distributing dollars,” Judge Morris remembers. “One of the secretaries told the Rebbe my name and that I was a British judge. The Rebbe replied with a brachah and added that ‘you should judge compassionately.’ This was a very significant statement. Over my career, there were many cases where I had to find the fine balance between firmness on the one hand, and compassion on the other.”

Judge Morris explains that because almost all the cases that came before the court involved non-Jews, there was no problem for him, as an Orthodox Jew, to rule according to British law. “But I did not suffice with the dry laws,” he says. “I always tried to fulfill the Rebbe’s words of guidance, and to insert a bit of Jewish compassion into the picture.

“This was especially important in cases of family litigation — when I had to decide the fates of children, especially in dysfunctional families. These are the types of complex cases where only a combination of firmness and standing on the principles of justice on one hand, and a hefty dose of compassion on the other, can lead, with Hashem’s help, to the right ruling. I felt that I was given the opportunity to help people, especially children, and to try to make their lives better.”

Judge Morris’s wife, Mrs. Patricia Morris, is a biochemist by profession. Around the time they visited New York, she had received a job offer from a well-established, highly-specialized laboratory that had just opened in London, and she deliberated whether or not to take the job, concerned that she wasn’t experienced enough.

“On that same visit to 770, in coordination with one of the secretaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, it was agreed that when my wife’s turn would come to receive a dollar, she would be able to present her dilemma,” Judge Morris relates. “That’s what happened, and the Rebbe’s answer was to take the job. He then added the words, ‘It will be good for you and for the klal.’ Of course, at the time, we had no idea what he was referring to, but it didn’t take long until things became clear.”

Mrs. Morris began to work at the new lab that was directed at the time by a Jewish professor and senior researcher by the name of Professor Dr. Ed Thomson.

A few years later, Rabbi Yosef Eckstein, founder of Dor Yeshorim, came to London. He was looking for someone with the right training to direct the nascent British branch of the organization, a service for screening prospective couples for genetic diseases before deciding to marry. There were not too many chareidi Jews with professional training in biochemistry and genetics, and it wasn’t long before he met Mrs. Morris. She arranged a meeting between Rabbi Eckstein and Professor Thomson. While Rabbi Eckstein had only a typical cheder and yeshivah education, he’s accepted as one of the world’s leading experts in genetics and their related diseases.

“At first, Professor Thomson looked amusedly at the chassidic Yid who entered his office, and didn’t really know what he wanted,” Judge Morris says. “Then, when he heard what it was about and realized that Rabbi Eckstein was in fact a walking encyclopedia of genetics, he was immediately on board: It turns out that he’d done his doctoral research on Tay Sachs disease, one of the primary conditions Dor Yeshorim tests for. The cooperation that grew out of that meeting led to the establishment of Dor Yeshorim in England, and we were able to fully understand the Rebbe’s words about my wife’s new job at the lab being a benefit for her and for the klal.”

After his retirement, Judge Morris “went back to school” to help struggling children keep up with their classes. “The boys still share with me their challenges and their victories”

Not all the cases that came to his court dealt with family issues. Once a year, he had to serve on rotation for a month as a criminal trial judge in Canterbury Court, which covers the British port town of Dover — famed for its white chalky cliffs — and the Dover docks. As it’s an important ferry port, many of the cases he dealt with were related to smuggling illegal materials and substances.

“One of the cases I tried involved a defendant trying to smuggle five million pounds worth of cannabis through the Dover docks,” he relates. “He ended up with a 14-year prison sentence.”

(He says he’s lucky that he doesn’t have to deal with the docks today, as now it’s not only illegal substances, but human cargo that plagues the Dover port. Human smuggling has turned into a major political crisis, as authorities seem helpless to stop the boatloads of migrants from coming across the English Channel from the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe via France. Last year, over 10,000 Albanians alone crossed into Britain via this route.)

Still, family cases were always the ones closest to his heart. In fact, the last case he worked on before retiring was a complicated family issue, in which he wrote a detailed plan regarding the family’s future.

“When I put my pen down at the end of the day, I knew I wouldn’t be picking it up again,” he says. “I announced the following to the court: ‘Not long ago, I received a message from the court administration that as I had already turned 72, I would have to retire. The court secretary asked me to complete all the cases in my docket until that date. Thankfully, I have met that goal and made every effort to judge with compassion.’ ”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 944)

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