| Magazine Feature |

Uncharted Waters

It wasn’t just Kingsbury, London that transformed under Rabbi Maurice Hool’s leadership; his vision affected the wider Anglo-Jewish community

Photos: Family archives

When Rabbi Maurice Hool assumed the position of rabbi in Kingsbury in 1959, the community, affiliated with the United Synagogue establishment, didn’t even have a shul, with the members, ranging from nominally-Orthodox-but-minimally-observant to middle-of-the-road Orthodox, davening in a local hall. In their newly hired rabbi, Maurice Hool, they may have thought they had found a suitably intellectual but low-key candidate to lead the community on its established path. Little did they know that they had hired a revolutionary.

By the time Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hool retired in 2005, they had drastically changed the lives of hundreds in their community and thousands beyond it. Kingsbury represented a turning point, and in some respects, the UK’s entire United Synagogue Anglo-Jewish establishment would never be the same again.

Rabbi Hool, who passed away on 9 Cheshvan at a young 95, may have appeared an unlikely candidate for a revolution. He was well presented, with an Irish accent and a gentlemanly manner. He wore a regular short suit, no rabbinical frock coat or rabbinic hat, and was a scholarly man with very solid yeshivah credentials. His integrity and sincerity were obvious. But underneath all that, he had a laser-like focus on doing what Hashem expected of him, steely determination, and the passion and creativity to bring people along with him.

Rabbi Hool changed so many lives; in his understated way, he was very powerful. He was a role model whom one knew was completely reliable. What you saw was what you got.

His schedule included shiurim for men and women, nurturing a busy youth program in which his sons would later play leading roles, and even giving a shiur for girls in his house on Shabbos afternoon, followed by the Rebbetzin’s ice cream. Although many families may have been lukewarm  toward Yiddishkeit, seeing it as not much more than a communal structure, a Friday night meal, shul on Shabbos morning, and of course weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals, Rabbi Hool sold to his community what he termed “maximalist Judaism,” the kind that is governed by halachah and embraces all of life. It was the real thing, never watered down, and as his congregation came to respect that, they were slowly drawn in.

There was one man who started coming to shul on Shabbos morning, then began to come back in the afternoon for Minchah and Maariv, staying for the Gemara shiur in between. Then he started coming to the mid-week Gemara shiur, too. When he was asked what inspired him to come closer to Torah and mitzvos, he said simply, “Watching Rabbi Hool.”

Rabbi Yonasan Roodyn, rav of the Finchley Federation shul in London and the dynamic educational director of the UK’s Jewish Futures Trust (run by yet another Kingsbury native, Rabbi Naftali Schiff) and chizuk kerovim organization Klal Chazon, as well as a popular speaker on TorahAnytime, was raised in Rabbi Hool’s community.

“I have no idea why my parents moved to Kingsbury,” he says. “I assume that affordable housing and a local shul were part of the cheshbon, but I imagine that they had no idea what the impact of that fateful decision would be. I am absolutely sure that had we not grown up in Kingsbury, our lives would have been very different both then and now.”

When Rabbi Roodyn was a child in the 1990s, it was pretty common for local children to study in a non-Jewish high school, and after going to a Jewish elementary school, Rabbi Roodyn attended the prestigious (non-Jewish) City of London School. He recalls Rabbi Hool’s power of influence, even on children. From 1991, when scuds rained down on Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Hool decided that the shul should start a Yom Kippur Katan minyan. He drew his people along with him, and Rabbi Roodyn, a school boy at the time, recalls that much as the l’chayim held after davening was an incentive, “an even greater motivation was knowing that I was doing something that was important to Rabbi Hool. In fact, on more than one occasion I bunked school and came back from City of London early to be able to make the minyan, something that I know he appreciated.”

Rabbi Hool knew that when the youth felt welcome, it was the first step in making the shul theirs

Everyone on Board

Maurice (Chaim Moshe Aharon) Hool was of solid Lithuanian stock on all sides, and was born in Dublin in 1927. He was 18, in his second year of medical school at Trinity College Dublin, when Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler arrived to collect funds — and bochurim — in the Irish capital and persuaded the talented boy to come along to Gateshead Yeshiva.

The learning and the Torah personalities of Gateshead drew young Maurice in, and each time he considered leaving yeshivah and resuming medical school, Rav Moshe Schwab, the mashgiach (brother of Rav Shimon and Rav Mordechai Schwab) would persuade him to stay. When he did move on, in 1949, it was not to return to Trinity College but to learn under Rav Yechezkel Sarna in Yeshivas Chevron, in Eretz Yisrael. Those years of learning were intense and rewarding. It was clear that Maurice Hool’s destiny was in the rabbinate, and he went to be tested on Yoreh Dei’ah by Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer. He received his semichah from Rav Sarna, and from Chief Rabbi Isaac Hertzog (who had actually been sandek at Maurice Hool’s bris during his tenure as chief rabbi of Ireland).

When it was time to go back home, he had been transformed. Returning as a yeshivah bochur to Dublin, he inspired several youngsters there to up the ante of their own Yiddishkeit, and all his three sisters, who were very committed to Yiddishkeit, to move to Gateshead, where they would marry into Torah families.

In 1956, still single, Rabbi Hool was hired for his first pulpit in the city of Portsmouth — home to a busy naval base on England’s south coast. He served his community with dedication, and tried to reach out to Israeli sailors when they were stationed at the port.

In 1959, he moved on to Kingsbury, London. Soon after he arrived, a shul building arose . The new rabbi insisted that the bimah be in the middle, as halachah dictates, and that all the pews face forward, so the men were not facing the women’s gallery above, both of which were not traditionally done in Anglo synagogues.

In 1961 Rabbi Hool married, finding his bride in Gateshead, the small community that had been the catalyst for his own transformation from Irish-Jewish medical student to budding yeshivah bochur. The young rebbetzin, Minna Hool (nee Weiner), who shared his Lithuanian roots, was the perfect partner to breathe life into the somewhat Anglicized community. With a fusion of warmth and vision, the couple brought Judaism to life and nurtured their shul into a large and vibrant one, close as a family, spiritually aspiring, and an incubator for the growth of dedicated young Jews. Around 30 rabbis emerged from the Kingsbury families during the Hools’ tenure — not counting the couple’s own sons.

The Hools brought the community up to their own high mitzvah-observance levels, Succos being a case in point. Very early on, Rabbi Hool enlisted the help of the shul’s (not fully observant) secretary to help him build his succah. In return, his family was invited to eat with the rabbi’s family. On each day of Yom Tov, after davening, the community was invited to the Hools for Kiddush. But not only that — every family who had a succah was encouraged to invite others over. On the way home from shul, the families would stop by others’ succahs. This helped create a warm, close-knit community, and also encouraged people to build succahs so they could host.

Rabbi Andrew Shaw, CEO of Mizrachi UK, became observant as a teenager in Kingsbury and has special memories of the shul.

“We went succah-hopping for hours, to cover 30 succot down Salmon Street or Valley Drive, singing our hearts out in the succah. I thought all communities did that.”

The young Rabbi Hool once challenged a teenager who expressed anti-religious feelings to attend just three shiurim: “If after you attend these three shiurim you are still anti-religious, I will leave you alone.” The boy attended the three shiurim and ended up going on to a religious educational program. Rabbi Hool’s fervent belief in the power of Torah empowered him to believe he could get others on board too.

He gave serious classic seforim like the Chayei Adam as bar mitzvah gifts, unusual presents for United Synagogue boys, but the recipients often grew into them.  And as opposed to some shuls where a boy’s involvement ends at his bar mitzvah, in Kingsbury, this was where things began, Rabbi Yonasan Roodyn explains. The boys had their own youth service, where they had a chance to learn how to lead the davening and lein as well.

“It was about having a place that was ours, with real role models to learn from, gaining skills for life by learning how to run a minyan rather than just take part in one,” Rabbi Roodyn remembers.

Rabbi Hool invested tremendously in the youth, starting by making sure they felt welcome. Rabbi Roodyn still remembers the combination code for the back door of the shul, which allowed the boys to come in at any time.

“That meant that we could come and learn when we wanted, and also play football (soccer) in the shul hall for hours before Minchah on long summer Shabbosim. We felt that it was our space and no one ever told us not to. Having Shabbos-friendly activities for teenagers, whether organized Bnei Akiva groups or informal ones, like playing ball games in the shul, significantly reduced the nisayon of chillul Shabbos, something that sadly wasn’t the case in other places.”

Because the community was so close-knit and friendly, the youth who went away to learn or study looked forward to being back in Kingsbury, back in the shul that felt like home. Rabbi Hool succeeded in persuading many to attend yeshivah, and the younger boys gained immeasurably from seeing them.

None of Rabbi Roodyn’s friends from other communities had heard of Gateshead Yeshiva or Mir or Ponevezh, he says, but meeting and davening with yeshivah bochurim, and especially the “Hool boys,” made the most incredible impact on them.

“It meant that the olam hayeshivos was not a strange or foreign concept. Rather, it was part of our lives, something we too had a connection to and knew that we would ultimately become a part of.”

Rabbi Hool was so invested in sending Kingsbury boys to yeshivah and the girls to seminary that when he and the rebbetzin retired in 2005, instead of accepting the customary testimonial gift check, he asked for it to be used to establish a fund to send youngsters to study Torah, if their parents couldn’t afford the cost.

Rabbi Yonasan Roodyn before his chuppah. “Because of Rabbi Hool, the olam hayeshivos was no longer a foreign concept”

Make It Beautiful

Ultimately, it wasn’t just Kingsbury that transformed under Rabbi Hool’s leadership; his vision affected the wider Anglo-Jewish community as a whole, and gained him tremendous respect across England. When Rabbi Hool became a rabbi, his post was under the jurisdiction of the United Synagogue, the UK’s central body of synagogues, which is an Orthodox body serving congregants who are mostly only minimally observant. The United Synagogue had dozens of constituent synagogues, but not one mikveh. All mikvaos in London were either private or belonged to the (chareidi) Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, and taharas hamishpachah was not part of the mainstream Anglo-Jewish conversation or culture. This was a situation Rabbi Hool was determined to change: Kingsbury would have a mikveh.

The battle dragged on against powerful lay leaders who were either not interested in a mikveh, or outright opposed. The eventual agreement was that Rabbi Hool would raise all the funds for the mikveh’s construction, and that if he could manage this, the board of the United Synagogue would help with the running costs. True to form, Rabbi Hool was not satisfied until the mikveh was mehudar according to all opinions, and Rebbetzin Hool chose the tiles and curtains for every room, so that the facility would be beautiful.

The rabbinic couple then used all their energies and creativity to promote the concept among the lay people. Besides teaching every individual couple who booked their marriage under the synagogue’s auspices, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hool saw it was necessary to educate and enthuse the wider community, and held public meetings with prominent speakers such as Dr. Judith Grunfeld. Rabbi Hool also turned to legendary philanthropist Reb Getzel Berger and asked him to donate an engraved silver becher to every couple whom the Hools taught — another creative way to bring taharas hamishpachah to the forefront.

One of Rabbi Hool’s more memorable ideas was the kosher “Afternoon Tea” he arranged. Hoping to bring some glamour to the concept of taharas hamishpachah, Rabbi Hool suggested arranging an event at one of London’s luxury icons, the famous Dorchester Hotel. He raised the funds to subsidize entry, and a huge crowd of women attended the posh tea. It was followed by a fashion show with selected appropriate dresses shown by leading fashion houses and designers, including Sir Norman Hartnell, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite designer. Afterward, Rebbetzin Amelie Jacobovits, then newly arrived in England with her husband the chief rabbi, addressed the crowd and spoke about taharas hamishpachah. Unsurprisingly, the high-profile event was hugely successful.

Another time, at the culmination of an intensive “teach in,” a series of varied foundational shiurim on Yiddishkeit by top speakers, he arranged for a group of young women to take a tour of the new mikveh, and raised money to buy every single one of them a gold bracelet. He wrote an inspiring note to each, expressing his hope that they would set up a real Jewish home. “I remember how tremendously impressed the young women were, and how deeply touched at the note,” says teacher Mrs. Chana Rakow.

By the mid-1970s, the mikveh was up and running. Other shuls in London and the provinces followed suit, and today the United Synagogue has mikvaos on their premises all over the country.

Speaking about Rabbi Hool in his later years, Chief Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jacobovits referred to him as “the Kohein hametaher — the Kohein who purifies” — saluting his efforts to strengthen observance of taharas hamishpachah.

Ever Higher

“My father had a way of thinking out of the box in order to promote Yiddishkeit,” says Dayan Yehonoson Hool, the rabbi’s son, who is a member of the Federation Beis Din in London. As early as the mid-1970s, Rabbi Hool was one of the very first UK rabbis to visit and teach refuseniks in the USSR, along with Rabbi Alan Plancey. They were openly followed by the KGB, but this didn’t stop Rabbi Hool from taking his wife along in 1977 to teach women. When he applied to the Russian Embassy for a visa again, they asked why he wanted to visit.

“Because it’s a beautiful country,” he replied.

“But you saw it already. You traveled to Moscow last year!”

“Yes,” he retorted, “and I was so impressed that I want to show it to my wife.”

He continued to play an active role helping Russian Jews and olim. “Once, when Avital Sharansky visited Kingsbury, campaigning for her husband’s freedom, she had a meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher scheduled for Friday afternoon, and she asked my father what to do if the meeting extended into Shabbos,” recalls Dayan Hool. “He told her to arrange local accommodations, which she could walk back to afterward. But he also decided to give her campaign a spiritual push. He called up BBC Radio 4, told them about Avital and the meeting, and asked them to broadcast a request for all Jewish women to light Sabbath candles that afternoon and say a prayer for her husband’s release. When they declined, he called LBC, the popular London radio station. They agreed, and 20 minutes before the zeman, they put his request on air.”

Under Rabbi Hool’s leadership, Kingsbury hosted the first Project SEED center in London, and Rabbi Hool’s adaptation of the program Rabbi Avi Shulman had originated in the US became standard in the UK. He got 50 members of his community to sign up for weekly chavrusa learning sessions, and asked his nephew in Golders Green to find 50 balabatim who could tutor them. A vibrant learning program was born, with many of those chavrusas lasting 25 years or more. One community member, who described himself as “traditional,” was profoundly impacted by the Perek Eilu Metzios which his chavrusa taught him. Later, living in Eretz Yisrael, surrounded by frum children and grandchildren, he was able to learn Eilu Metzios with his grandson.

Rabbi Andrew Shaw became religious as a teenager due to involvement in the shul and its programming. After returning from yeshivah, he attended the University of Leeds, and upon graduating he became a major force in the Union of Jewish Students. One Shabbos back home, Rabbi Hool asked him to come over to his house, as he had something to show him.

“He showed me an article he had read, about how 20,000 children had learned in memory of a kadosh their age, who had died in the Shoah. These children had completed the learning of six million Mishnayot in memory of the kedoshim. His eyes lit up as he spoke to me. ‘You work with students. This is something wonderful, to learn Torah l’illui nishmas the kedoshim. Maybe not Mishnayos, but something similar. You should do something for students.’ I could feel real warmth and real determination in how he spoke. That discussion led to many meetings with student leaders and Chief Rabbi Sacks, which eventually led to the launch of our learning program with a collection of inspirational essays about Judaism, to be learned each day for 50 days in memory of a victim of the Shoah, ‘50 days for 50 years.’ This of course led years later to the ’60 days’ and ’70 days’ learning programs, which reached nearly 250,000 people globally. All from an idea from a remarkable rabbi who was a great man.”

Golders Green’s eminent Rav Chuna Halpern was overjoyed by Rabbi Hool’s “maximalist Judaism” movement among his Kingsbury congregation

The Next Frontier

Once the taharas hamishpachah in his community was on par with Torah-observant communities everywhere, Rabbi Hool turned his attention to another area. The United Synagogue had a burial society of paid employees who would do taharos in their buildings at the cemeteries. He felt that the proceedings could be much improved on, both from a halachic standpoint and for the kavod of the niftarim. Things came to a head when a Kingsbury congregant passed away, and the rabbi was told that the burial society would only do the taharah and burial the next day. His plea that it was far better for the deceased to be buried as quickly as possible went unheeded, but Rabbi Hool was undeterred.

“If I arrange for the taharah to be done today, can you do just the burial today?” asked Rabbi Hool.

They agreed.

He got on the phone to the North West London Chevra Kadisha , affiliated with the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, and their volunteers agreed to come and do the taharah immediately. Soon, Rabbi Hool had arranged for this chevra kaddisha to train volunteers from his own community, and established the Kingsbury chevra kaddisha, who performed their great work exactly in accordance with halachah and tradition. This groundbreaking move set a trend, and many communities expressed interest in following suit. Their rabbis turned to Rabbi Hool, and soon enough, the Kingsbury chevra kaddisha trained in a new Wembley chevra kaddisha, a Southgate chevra kaddisha, a Hampstead Garden Suburb chevra kaddisha, and an Edgware chevra kaddisha.

Today, the United Synagogue boasts 20 volunteer chevra kaddisha groups — together forming the largest chevra kaddisha in Europe — who maintain high standards of halachic practice.

“In 2019, my father told me he was going to the annual chevra kaddisha seudah for this group,” says Dayan Hool. “Characteristically, he didn’t even tell me that he was being invited as the guest of honor. He was the one who set them into motion.”

The revolution In 2005, when the Hools retired, the Kingsbury congregation was already significantly smaller than it had been in its prime, a victim of its own success. Boys raised in the community had taken rabbinic positions across England, and Kingsbury families and youth had grown to love “maximalist Judaism” so much that they’d moved on from their neighborhood to make aliyah, or to larger centers of Yiddishkeit where more educational opportunities were available. The little street where the shul stands, named by the local council, “Hool Close,” may be quiet once again, but in Har Nof and Ramat Beit Shemesh, Manchester and Golders Green, former congregants owe their families’ vibrant and committed Jewish lives to Rabbi Hool.

Rav Henoch Padwa, Stamford Hill-based Rosh Beis Din of the Union, much admired Rabbi Hool, as did Golders Green’s eminent Rav Chuna Halpern. At a Chevra Kaddisha seudah for the North West London chevra, Rav Halpern introduced Rabbi Hool as the guest speaker by quoting a pasuk in Vayikra  (11:44). “The pasuk instructs, ‘V’hiskadishtem vehiyisem kedoshim — and you should sanctify yourselves and be holy.’ The Gemara says this refers to mayim rishonim and mayim acharonim.” Rabbi Halpern then drew a moving parallel between the Gemara and Rabbi Hool’s monumental achievements. “The mayim rishonim refers to the mikveh he constructed, and the mayim acharonim refers to the chevra kaddisha he established, which purifies after a person’s death.”

The retirement dinner for Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hool was graced with the presence of Rav Avrohom Gurwitz, rosh yeshivah of Gateshead Yeshiva. The other guest of honor was Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. These two very different personalities were united in their appreciation and respect for the principled rabbi who had led a revolution in purity and halachic integrity.

In his speech, Rabbi Hool said he would like to be remembered with the pasuk about Shaul Hamelech — “and there went with him an army whose hearts had been touched by G-d.” After the event, a congregant wrote a letter, thanking Rabbi Hool for inspiring him to make a closer connection with Yiddishkeit. “With tears in my eyes, I heard you say that you would like to be remembered as a rav who had with him a band of men whose hearts had been touched by G-d. I sincerely hope that I can be included in that band of men.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 940)

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