The Chief Rabbi visited Exeter on 8th June 2003

Chief Rabbi's visit to the Exeter Hebrew Congregation was even more successful than had been hoped for. There was a full house, a rapt though not uncritical audience and copious copies of Dr Sacks's books for the signing.


It might not have been so. In fact it never has been so. This was the Chief Rabbi's first visit to Exeter - the first, in fact, of any Chief Rabbi at all since our lovely mid-Georgian shul was built in 1763. Why no Chief Rabbi before, and why this one now? Judging by the scant history of almost-enacted visits, there were two sides to the scenario. On the one hand, all other visits seem somehow to have, quite by accident, bypassed Exeter. That's not difficult to understand, the South-West, being, well, west of London. And thus most decidedly south-west of Bushey, Hendon, Mill Hill, and all other outposts of Golders Green. And perhaps there may have been something in our defiantly free-thinking Exeter congregation of the I-wouldn't-belong-to-a-club-that-would-have-me-as-a-member school of thought.

But - Sunday, the Chief Rabbi came to Exeter. And you have to take your hat off to him (well, maybe not in Shul and - providing The you were not wearing one at all) he spoke well. First he promised not to bore. "I notice your clock - a timeless warning to preachers that time moves on." Instead he spoke compellingly: about Jews in the West Country whose roots stretch back to pre-Expulsion times, about the restoration work which has returned our Grade II listed shul to its former early Georgian glory, and of the role of small communities in Anglo Jewry.

True, he skirted issues of divergences within liberal and orthodox thinking, but made indirect reference to what he thought of Exeter by the analogy of the Ark which, during the restoration process, was found to be clinging tenuously to the wall by one nail. "If you're attached to something immovable then all the winds cannot drag you away from it." It was a double-edged comment. What was to be anticipated, should Exeter, on the fringes of it all, choose to relinquish a shaky grasp of the salutary cliff edge of orthodoxy, was not to be thought of, although a shunt down the slippery slope of Shabbos driving and the like into the Slough of Liberal Despond might well be the consequence.

The Exeter congregation - and many visitors from Totnes and other communities - also heard that "we should all work together despite our religious differences". Jews are proportionally few everywhere, yet their distinction and contribution in all spheres of society has traditionally been disproportionately high.

The Chief Rabbi was alive to the contrariness of us Jews, a predominant trait of this most unhierarchical of religions. If there are five Jews in any one city, you can be sure there will be six synagogues. On putting up a mezzuzah (kindly donated by Mr Sedighi but then sadly stolen) the Chief Rabbi mused on the theories on the reason for the angle at which it is always nailed in: Rashi said it went vertically, his son said it went horizonatally, and because no-one could ever agree it traditionally goes on a slant. And he was prepared to be irreverent about the ultra Orthodox: "the Chasidim, you know - they're the ones who drive around in Volvos".

Then there were questions from the floor. With which Jewish person "dead or alive", would the Dr Sacks choose to have dinner? - was the question from a young member of the audience. Moses, replied the Chief Rabbi - "just to know how bad it can get" but also one of the many ordinary but heroic people you never hear about: Janos Kotschka, for example. A Jewish philanthropist in Poland before the War, he founded an orphanage for Jewish children before being asked to establish a Catholic one. When all the children orphanage were sent to Auschwitz, he was told he was exempt, but he refused to be parted from them and thus they all perished in the gas chambers.

Dr Sacks went on to answer questions on the current situation in Israel. He said that the American-British programme was the best possible news for Israel, who could not fight terror on her own. He spoke of the threat from Syria, Iran, and elsewhere, and of the world bias which piles criticism on Israel while refusing to put any moral pressure on the Palestinians, and colludes in perpetuating their hatred of Israel. The message to them is clear: "Don't use your children as cover for snipers or suicide bombers. Don't teach geography with none of Israel's borders on any map."

It was, all in all, a successful visit. As the Chief Rabbi commented at the end of his address: "May all of you continue the strong filaments that constitute a community and may it not be another 200 years until another Chief Rabbi comes here again."

But will any of those Chief Rabbis be Dr Jonathan Sacks? Maybe the Reverend Malcolm Weisman, `that indefatiguable sustainer of Anglo-Jewry' ...?