In 1970 the Jewish community in Britain initiated the first programme to train Jewish Studies teachers in the UK. An agreement had been reached between Jews’ College and Trent Park Teachers Training College in North West London. Any euphoria, however, was quickly dissipated. As with all new courses, the aspirational skills of the initiators far outweighed their ability to organise. Indeed the course content kept uncannily changing and it was implemented by a variety of new arrivals from Israel.
The arrival of Rabbi Isaac Newman, however, as both convenor of the course and teacher, brought both stability and gravitas. He was the best thing that could have happened to the programme. But conversely, the teachers’ training programme was the best thing that could have happened to Rabbi Newman.
He had sided with Rabbi Louis Jacobs during the ‘Jacobs Affair’ during the early 1960s, yet had remained within the mainstream United Synagogue at Barnet Synagogue. Yet the Jacobs Affair bore witness to the defeat of the more intellectual wing of the orthodox wing of the rabbinate. Many who asked questions found a niche in academic pursuits which many in the Anglo-Jewish leadership regarded as unimportant. Yet Isaac Newman’s entry into academia while serving as a balance to his communal duties as a rabbi, helped to change the face of Jewish education in the UK. Graduates from Trent Park eventually took on key roles in transforming Jewish schools. They included myself (head of Mathilda Marks Kennedy), Mervyn Levitan (head of Rosh Pina), Esther Coleman (deputy head of Wolfson Hillel) and Stephen Mintz (director of Jewish Studies, King David High School, Manchester). Without Isaac Newman, the Jewish community would have been a lesser place and Jewish education, the poor relation of so-called greater concerns.
He also enticed many of his students to teach at the cheder at Barnet Synagogue including myself. He initiated one of the first batmitzvot to actually take place in shul on Shabbat in Britain. I remember spending a wonderful Shabbat at his home to celebrate the batmitzvot of two pupils that I had taught at the cheder. One of them, Rachel de Thame, is now a well-known celebrity gardener on British television.
Isaac Newman was also a first class ambassador for the orthodox Jewish world. In particular he represented all that was best in his role at Trent Park – since all his colleagues were non-Jews.
Rabbi Newman’s family will grieve over his passing. And yet, he left behind many other ‘children’ who appreciated his passion for Jewish learning. They, in their turn, will teach more ‘children’. His legacy and bequest will continue. For his students, his students’ students and all those who ultimately benefit , the words ‘May his memory be for a blessing’ have eternal meaning.
Jewish Chronicle 2 September 2011