When, in August 2018, I visited the Belfast Synagogue, the last Jewish house of worship remaining in Northern Ireland, and met Reverend David Kale, it was only his second Shabbat leading the congregation. He and his sister, Avril Kale — a retired pharmacist and, more recently, a continuing education university teacher — had been living in Belfast for just ten days. The congregation was tremendously warm and welcoming, and Reverend Kale gave me the honor of delivering the Shabbat morning talk at the conclusion of the services. I spoke on the topic of Benjamin Franklin’s influence on Judaism. The next day, I visited Reverend Kale at his home, which is about a three-minute walk from the Belfast Synagogue, and is where its previous religious leaders have also lived.
The exchange below is drawn from that initial discussion at his Belfast home, from a roundtable discussion held at the synagogue with him and with other members of the congregation the following day, and from our ongoing email correspondence.
You are a reverend, or minister. Neither of these are titles that Jews today in America or Israel, for example, would tend to associate with synagogue leadership.
A reverend is an experienced and qualified person who is authorized by the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth to carry out all the duties of a rabbi, or to act as hazzan [i.e., cantor] of a shul [i.e., synagogue], without having semicha [i.e. rabbinic ordination]. A reverend carries out all the duties that a pulpit rabbi in America would carry out. Being a trained hazzan also carries with it the title of “Reverend.” There are very few reverends today. The position is going to become extinct.
In a small community such as Belfast, a reverend usually leads all services as hazzan; acts as ba’al koreh [i.e., Torah chanter]; delivers a sermon on Shabbat and Yom Tov morning; delivers shiurim [i.e., religious classes]; visits the sick; conducts funerals and stone settings; is responsible for kashrut and acts as a mashgiach [i.e., kosher food supervisor], insuring all kiddushim [i.e., refreshments served at the synagogue] and functions held in the shul are strictly kosher; carries out interfaith work; and attends the Cenotaph [i.e., the war memorial] to remember the Jewish men and women who gave their lives in two world wars. Every town and city in the United Kingdom has its own Cenotaph where services are held on the Sunday nearest to the 11th of November to remember those soldiers, sailors, and airmen killed in both wars. I carry out all the above duties in Belfast.
What led you to enter the ministry?
I wanted to become a rabbi from an early age. My maternal grandfather was the rav [i.e., rabbi] of Machzikei Hadas in London’s East End. He came from Lithuania. My paternal grandfather came from Lodz, in Poland, and was a founding member of Ilford Federation Synagogue. I attended Etz Chayim Yeshiva in Golders Green, in North West London, and trained privately to become a hazzan, a ba’al koreh, and a ba’al tekiah [i.e., shofar blower]. I have been a ba’al koreh and ba’al tekiah since the age of thirteen. I trained as a hazzan with Hazzan Aaron Segal, of blessed memory, who was the brother of the late rosh yeshiva [i.e., rabbinical dean] of Manchester Yeshiva.
I grew up in Bournemouth, a seaside resort, which had about six big kosher hotels catering solely for Jewish people, similar to the hotels that were in the Catskills in America. Every hotel had its own shul and Shabbat services. Sometimes they had weekday services, as well. The mashgichim [i.e., kosher food supervisors] were also retired hazzanim [i.e., cantors], and some gave derashot [i.e., sermons], too. When these men went out of town on holiday, they needed someone to lead prayers and lein [i.e., chant from the Torah] in their place, and my late father, alav hashalom [i.e., peace be upon him], would volunteer me to substitute for them. When I was fifteen, I started shofar blowing at one of these hotels. I started leining [i.e., chanting from the Torah] at age thirteen, and leining became my forte.
Yet you did not end up becoming a rabbi?
My parents did not want me to have a career of a hazzan or a rabbi, but to have a profession. Consequently, I trained and then practiced for many years as a solicitor, which in America you would call an attorney. However, I regularly substituted for rabbonim [i.e., rabbis] in London shuls when they went on vacation. In addition, I regularly undertook rabbinical duties for the Yomim Noraim [i.e., the High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur].
The Troubles drastically reduced Northern Ireland’s Jewish population, and there may now be as few as three-hundred Jews here, most of whom are not young. You were the minister at Staines and District Affiliated United Synagogue, about two miles from Heathrow Airport, for just over ten years, and of Barking and Becontree Synagogue, in North East London, for seven years. What drew you to minister to Belfast’s synagogue?
I consider it to be vital to keep alive all shuls, no matter where they are situated. In my personal opinion, it is so hard to build a shul. It is very easy to close one down. Years ago, Northern Ireland had several shuls. It is now down to just one. This shul must not be allowed to disappear. If, God forbid, it was to disappear, there would be no Jewish representation whatsoever in Northern Ireland.
I also think that we should strive to keep communities going no matter where they are situated. If we do not do this, then in the United Kingdom, for example, there will only be Jewish life in London and Manchester. If we do not support the smaller communities, they will disappear. This will make it extremely difficult for Jewish businessmen who still need to travel from place to place to conduct business. It would also restrict one’s choice of where to find work, as there will be no shul to daven [i.e., pray] at on a Shabbat, and no other Jewish people to mix with outside those cities.
The presence of smaller communities also enables the members of other religions to see and mix with a Jew, and not be frightened that we are different. It therefore provides an opportunity to foster good relations with other religions.
How has it been to be part of such a relatively small congregation, which has about seventy members?
The Belfast Jewish Community is known for being warm, kind, considerate, and caring. It tries very hard to reach out and welcome all Jews. Its doors are always open to visitors, who are welcomed with open arms. Serving a small community is very important. It really needs someone to guide them more than a large community. When you are in a small community, a few people carry the burden. Everyone is needed and you feel connected. It is like a family. People look out for one another. They look forward to visitors more and hope people will move in. A small community has a lot to offer.
My brother and I indeed felt welcomed and embraced by the congregation when we visited. Tell me a bit about a reverend’s hiring process at this Orthodox synagogue.
I visited Belfast three times — once for an interview, once for a weekend to conduct services and meet the congregation, and once to meet the outgoing rabbi. On the Shabbat that I conducted services, I also gave a shiur [i.e., religious class] at 9:30 in the morning. There was a lot of audience participation. My shiur was about the question of environmental responsibility. What responsibility does a Jew have for the environment? Does a Jew have a greater responsibility for the environment than other people? In addition, I delivered a sermon during the service which connected the sedra [i.e., Torah portion] of the week to the then-current affairs.
For me, an exciting part of visiting the synagogue was seeing this large and beautiful building that is so lovingly depicted in Harry Towb’s 1984 documentary, as well as meeting in person community members who are featured in Aaron Black’s 2014 documentary The Last Minyan: A Belfast Jewish Story, which Aaron’s father, Michael Black — the chairman of the Belfast Jewish Community — and mother, Margaret Black, had shared with me before my trip to Northern Ireland. Were you already familiar with the Belfast Jewish Community before this position opened up?
I have known about the Belfast Jewish Community since I was a child. It has an illustrious history. One of its former rabbanim [i.e., rabbis] was Rabbi Isaac Herzog, who served the Belfast community from 1916 to 1919, [later became the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland, succeeded Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine,] and then became the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the state of Israel. Rabbi Herzog’s son, Chaim, was born in Cliftonpark Avenue in Belfast. [A plaque marking Chaim Herzog’s birthplace was taken down in 2014 after anti-Israel graffiti was sprayed on the building and objects were hurled at it.] He later became the sixth president of the state of Israel. The Belfast Jewish Community has a reputation of being a very warm community.
This is a city and region known for entrenched sectarian strife. Has this affected how you see your role here?
I have done interfaith work for many years. The Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Ephraim Mirvis, feels there should be interfaith work among rabbis wherever they live. This will also help to combat antisemitism and reduce a feeling of being threatened by one another. Relationships between Jewish and non-Jewish people saved lives during the Holocaust. My grandfather who was a rav in Machzikei Hadas gave tzedakah [i.e. charity] to the nuns who came around. He said and believed you must also show non-Jews respect. I have a role in interfaith work, and in ensuring and promoting better understanding among the faiths. I am here to serve the Jewish population and maybe make Belfast more religiously vibrant.
What has your interfaith work in Belfast, and in Northern Ireland more generally, involved?
There is the Council of Christians and Jews, as well as the Three Faiths Forum. I have spoken on local radio about how Jewish people celebrate at December time. I highlighted how Jewish people volunteer to help in the hospitals and old age and care homes at this time of the year so that our Christian brothers and sisters can celebrate their festival with family and friends instead of being chained to their job of caring for others. I have also been featured in a video about the Belfast Jewish Community by the Racial Equality Subgroup. I have spoken on several occasions to hospital staff in the many hospitals across Northern Ireland, explaining the needs of Jewish patients. I have always found the questions raised after the talk to be extremely sensible, and there is a genuine thirst for information to ensure that the Jewish patient feels at home in his or her new surroundings. The interfaith work has been very rewarding. Very good friendships have been struck up.
The non-Jewish Belfast community is very active in remembering and honoring those who died, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in the Holocaust. There is a lot of support for remembering the Holocaust, as well as for Israel. Each year a very impressive memorial ceremony is held in a prestigious part of Belfast. Since I came in 2018, it has been held in the Belfast City Hall. That year, two local councils in Northern Ireland got together and invited all the various groups who suffered in the Holocaust to design and produce two stained glass windows. These windows were produced in time for Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2019, and they toured around the whole of Northern Ireland. At the end of the tour, they were presented to the Belfast Synagogue and installed there. These are the only two stained glass windows in the shul. In May 2019, Prince Charles, together with the Chief Rabbi, visited the Belfast Synagogue to unveil the windows. There is one Christian group in Northern Ireland that set up a home in Israel for survivors of the Holocaust. It financially maintains the home. Every year, close to Kristallnacht, it brings a survivor from the home at its own cost to the Belfast Synagogue to address the community.
The COVID-19 outbreak has deeply altered the Jewish communal experience. How has it impacted your efforts as a reverend in Belfast?
There are no services or meetings in shul. I try to send an email every day to congregants. I also send a very lengthy newsletter, which not only contains news and details of members’ yahrzeits [i.e., anniversaries of their passing], but an in-depth look at the sedra of the week and the haftorah [i.e., weekly prophetic portion]. I phone every congregant at least once a week, and sometimes two or three times. There is a saying, which is “every cloud has a silver lining.” The silver lining for me is that I have built up a rapport with several members who have not attended synagogue for years. Some congregants have asked of me that if I am phoning every member of the synagogue, could I phone their Jewish friends who are living in Northern Ireland who are not members. I replied, “Of course! It will be my pleasure.” I have discovered a few Jewish people that the synagogue did not know existed, and in a small community every single person is extremely important. We are looking forward to the time when we can get back to normal by attending services and socials in the synagogue. We hope to open for Rosh Hashanah.
An earlier version of this article was published in The Jerusalem Report‘s August 3, 2020 issue.
Shai Afsai (shaiafsai.com) lives in Providence. His writing has focused on Thomas Paine, Jews and Freemasonry, Zionist historiography, religious traditions of the Beta Yisrael Jewish community from Ethiopia, emerging Judaism in Nigeria, aliyah from R.I., Jewish pilgrimage to Ukraine, Benjamin Franklin’s influence on Judaism, Jewish-Polish relations, Jews and Irish literature, and Judaism in Northern Ireland.