The Queen and the Jewish Community
By Vicky Belovsky
When talking about the United Kingdom and the Jewish community, the phrase “malchus shel chessed” comes to mind. It’s used so frequently when discussing any law or development that affects the kehillah, that people probably do not stop to think about what it actually means, and that the chessed comes right from the top — the monarch.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the British monarch has generally had a very good reciprocal relationship with the Jewish community. In shuls and batei medrash around the country, a prayer for the Royal Family is a regular feature of the Shabbos morning davening. At many Anglo-Jewish simchos, it is still traditional to make a toast to the Queen and potentially sing the National Anthem during the dinner, a practice that has fallen into disuse in most other circles.
To find out more, Hamodia spoke to Professor David Latchman, Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck, University of London, and an expert on the history of the Jews in Britain. He explained that the Queen’s great-grandfather, Edward VII, was known for having a group of friends who belonged to the Anglo-Jewish elite and were widely known as Jewish — including the Rothschilds, the Sassoons and Sir Ernest Cassel. The King, known for his appreciation of the finer things in life, enjoyed their company, to the extent that when his son George V, who was much more sombre, ascended the throne, the famous cartoonist Max Beerbohm produced a sketch showing Edward’s friends standing at the door asking, “Are we still as welcome as ever?”
During World War II, the Queen’s future mother-in-law, Princess Alice of Greece, helped to rescue a Jewish family, later being recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. She was buried in Yerushalayim, and while the Queen herself never visited Israel, Prince Philip visited, both to accept his mother’s honor and to visit her grave. Prince Charles represented the Queen at the levayos of both Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres, taking the opportunity to visit his grandmother’s grave, and Prince William became the first member of the Royal Family to pay an official state visit to Israel in 2018.
The Queen made it very clear from the beginning of her reign, said Professor Latchman, that she was going to be the Queen for the entire nation, and that included the Jewish community. He described how “they celebrated her significant life events, and she, in turn, celebrated theirs.” Synagogue bodies held events to mark the coronation in 1953, the Silver Jubilee in 1977, and other subsequent anniversaries. The Queen met with Chief Rabbi Brodie, the President of the Board of Deputies and other representatives of the Jewish community in the early months of her reign. According to newspaper reports of the time, they “presented to her an address of sympathy on the death of her father, the late King George VI, and a message of congratulations on her accession to the throne.” The Queen thanked them for their good wishes. This was just the beginning of the monarch’s relationship with the U.K.’s Chief Rabbis.
The inimitable Lady Jakobovits reportedly had heard from her husband’s predecessor, Rabbi Brodie, that there was nothing to eat except fruit when invited to Buckingham Palace. Accordingly, the Jakobovitses sent a list of kosher caterers to the Palace, who employed them each in turn when hosting the Chief Rabbi. When the Chief Rabbi and his wife were invited to Windsor Castle for dinner, a significant honor, they had to explain that that day would be Pesach. Accordingly, the Queen’s officials checked the Jewish calendar and came back with a more suitable date on which “there appear to be no Jewish holidays scheduled” as well as a choice of kosher menu, to which they then matched the other guests’ food.
The Royal Household did not only provide kosher food for Chief Rabbis, but also for other Orthodox guests. Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, z”l, recounted a story of his late father, Rabbi Shmelke, z”l, who was followed around a royal reception by a waiter bearing a tray of kosher canapes. Reb Shmelke was unsure why this waiter was sticking to him and kept declining the food, until eventually, the waiter said to him, “Reb Yid, hob rachmanus! Please eat something!”
Lady Jakobovits delighted in recounting the story of her evening at Windsor Castle, where she and the Queen Mother very much enjoyed each other’s company. At the end of the evening, Lady Jakobovits asked permission to say a few words. She explained that only a few years beforehand, she, her husband and many members of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth “were treated like animals just because we were born Jewish.” Therefore, she said, “for us both to be celebrated tonight as we have been by the Royal Family is a blessing which neither of us … will ever forget.” This reportedly moved the Queen Mother to tears.
The Queen was a patron of the Holocaust Memorial Day for the first 10 years of its existence, passing the patronage on to her son, Prince Charles, in 2015. She inaugurated the U.K.’s first permanent memorial to the Holocaust in the Imperial War Museum in 2000. Her Majesty was known for interest and care for people, and this was perhaps never more evident than when she met a group of Holocaust survivors in January 2005, on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Royal Family runs to a very tight schedule — they arrive on time and they leave on time. However, on this occasion, the Queen did not leave until each survivor had had a chance to tell her their own story.
As the Chief Rabbi at the time, Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “It was an act of kindness that almost had me in tears. One after the other, the survivors came to me in a kind of trance, saying, “Sixty years ago I did not know if I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen.”
Lord Sacks described her as bringing “a kind of blessed closure into deeply lacerated lives.”
When Hamodia asked Lady Sacks for a recollection of the Queen, this was the incident that she mentioned, saying, “Her Majesty always showed respect for the Jewish community and an interest in other people.”
In 1996, during a visit to Poland, the Queen and Prince Philip added a stop at Umschlagplatz, Warsaw, the starting point for Nazi transports to Treblinka. The Queen laid a wreath at the memorial there and was presented with a menorah by a 10-year-old boy, who told her about the million Jewish children who were murdered in the Holocaust. Then-Polish Chief Rabbi Menachem Joskowicz praised the Queen’s visit, saying, “This shows that we are not alone, and that others care about the lessons of history as well.”
However, it was not until 2015, in one of her very last state visits abroad, that the Queen visited a concentration camp. During a three-day visit to Germany in June of that year, the Queen visited Bergen-Belsen, meeting survivors and British soldiers who had liberated the camp. She paused at a special memorial to Anne Frank, who was born in the same year as the Queen and perished in Bergen-Belsen, and laid a wreath at the memorial to all those who died there. Having spoken to those who experienced the camp, the Queen sympathetically responded, “It must have been horrific.”
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said, “The memory of the Holocaust remains such a fundamental aspect of modern Jewish identity that the queen’s journey to memorialize the victims will be viewed as tremendously significant by Jewish communities across the world.”
Survivor Rudi Oppenheimer commented on the significance for the British soldiers who, he said, “did so much. They never talked about it; they couldn’t talk about it.”
When the sad news broke on Thursday evening, the warmth of the tributes that flowed in from all parts of the Jewish community reflected the esteem and affection in which the Queen was held.
One particularly poignant tribute came in the House of Lords from Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, who commented on the brachah made when meeting royalty “Shenasan michvodo l’vasar v’dam,” quoting the Gemara that “royalty on earth is to reflect royalty in Heaven.” Lord Wolfson continued, saying, “To be royal requires the highest standards and impeccable behavior. It is an idea, I suggest, that Her late Majesty exemplified throughout her long reign.”
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