Journey led Andrew to the Tribe... and beyond

By Doreen Wachmann

TRIBE youth group founder Rabbi Andrew Shaw owes his passion for transmitting Jewish education to his years studying engineering at Leeds University.

Rabbi Shaw, who was raised in a traditional Jewish family in London's Kingsbury, told me: "We went to shul every Shabbat, but we were not a frum family."

The rabbi, who now heads Mizrachi UK and is scholar-in-residence at Whitefield Hebrew Congregation this Shabbat to mark Yom Ha'atzmaut, added: "One of the reasons I believe I can do what I do now is because I understand Anglo-Jewry as that was me.

"I never missed a children's service, but Shabbat was more a family than a religious day."

Even before going to Leeds, Andrew was influenced to increase his religious commitment, partly due to Bnei Akiva and because of Rabbi Maurice Hool and the community at Kingsbury Synagogue.

By the time he left his non-Jewish secondary school, Andrew was keeping Shabbat and kashrut and took a gap year to study at Jerusalem's HaKotel yeshiva.

But he said: "It was really at Leeds that I gained my love for Jewish education.

"If I hadn't done the engineering course at the university I would not have become a rabbi. I was blown away by the Jewish people I met there who were so proudly Jewish, but were not religious at all. We just hit it off.

"I realised it is not because people don't want to learn. They had never been shown religion in a way that could be really meaningful and relevant in their lives.

"My fellow students used to ask me why I kept Shabbat and kashrut and what was a yeshiva. I had the ability to relate to my friends. They saw me as the same as them, but with some different practices. I realised I had such an opportunity to inspire."

Rabbi Shaw is careful not to claim total credit for the religious transformation which took place in the early 1990s at Leeds University, thanks to university chaplain Rabbi Jonathan Dove and his wife Joanne.

He said: "They were a big influence on me and on others. There are several Orthodox rabbis, including myself, who became committed during our years in Leeds."

These include Rabbi Jeremy Bruce, now head of the Hebrew High School, New England; Rabbi Michael Laitner, assistant minister of Finchley Synagogue and education director of the United Synagogue Living and Learning programme; Rabbi Chaim Miller of Lubavitch, Crown Heights; and Rabbi Motti Shenker of Aish Los Angeles.

Rabbi Shaw said: "It was remarkable. We all went to university to become doctors, accountants or lawyers.

"We were all involved in the Jewish Society, running events and working with the chaplaincy. If you are a religious Jew on campus, you have such influence, such an amazing opportunity to inspire others because you are both modern and Orthodox.

"We got very inspired by it. We all went to yeshiva to train to be rabbis."

In Leeds, together with other former BA members, Andrew would invite fellow Jewish students for Friday night dinners and Oneg Shabbatot.

He said: "We had 100 people a week coming to an Oneg Shabbat, singing till midnight and listening to divrei Torah. This had an effect on people.

"We made it for ourselves. It was student-led and run. It was fun. It changed people. It made me become a rabbi. There are people today who are living religious lives in London and Israel because they were at Leeds University when I was there."

As soon as he left university, Andrew lost no time in becoming a Jewish educator.

As Union of Jewish Students' national education co-ordinator, he spent a year travelling the country, giving shiurim at different campuses and organising Jewish education.

He said: "It was great. I decided I wanted to do this rabbi stuff. I loved it."

It was while he was working for UJS that Andrew came up with the book, 50 Days for 50 Years, to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust in 1995.

The book was sent to thousands of Jewish students to ask them to remember a young Holocaust victim by reading an essay a day, written by the top Jewish thinkers of the time on a topical Jewish subject, for 50 days.

Rabbi Shaw said: "It had a daf yomi (learning a page a day) effect."

He explained: "Every student read the same page on the same day across the country. It was a fantastic unifying factor.

"It brought a lot of people closer not only to Judaism, but to the Jewish past and the Shoah in a positive and meaningful way. It really was a unique project."

The project was so successful that when Rabbi Shaw was working for the United Synagogue, it went global, reaching hundreds of thousands of people worldwide in the form of 60 Years for 60 Days and 70 Years for 70 Days.

Secure in the knowledge that he no longer wanted to be an accountant, but a rabbi, Andrew was fortunate to have the financial backing of Jewish Continuity, inspired by former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks' Decade of Jewish Renewal.

Andrew began his studies in Jerusalem at the David Shapell College of Jewish Studies.

He told me: "Shapell was renowned as a diverse yeshiva, teaching modern-Orthodox, religious Zionist and charedi outlooks."

He said: "One is not better than the other, but different. As long as you are part of the Torah family, you are equal. A lot of the Jewish world is blighted by the fact that people look down on other people's views. It is all part of the tradition."

After two and a half years Andrew settled in Monsey, New York, to marry American Gila, who was completing a master's degree there.

He was intending to return to Israel to study for his semicha when he heard a talk by the now Gateshead Rav, Rabbi Shraga Zimmerman, who was then heading a semicha programme at Monsey's Ohr Somayach yeshiva.

Andrew was so impressed that he stayed in Monsey to complete the programme.

But much as he benefited from his American-Jewish experience, Andrew missed Anglo-Jewry.

"I was glad to leave. American-Jewry is very different from Anglo-Jewry. The Orthodox in America have lost the vast majority of Jewry to Reform and Conservative. In Britain, we still have a very strong Orthodox centre."

One night before leaving America, Andrew couldn't sleep so he wrote a paper on the advantages of British Orthodoxy, claiming that the United Synagogue was not doing enough to take advantage of this situation.

During his two years in America, Andrew spent his summers in Israel running Aish HaTorah's Jerusalem Fellowship summer programmes.

On his last summer there in 1999, he was walking in Jerusalem when he saw a man who looked lost. Asking if he could help him, the 'lost' man turned out to be then United Synagogue president Peter Sheldon.

Rabbi Shaw told him about the paper he had written about how the US should use its vast organisational resources to form a youth movement.

Two years when Rabbi Shaw was working as assistant rabbi at Stanmore Synagogue, he was asked to join the United Synagogue to implement the programme which resulted in the creation of the popular Tribe youth movement, of which Rabbi Shaw was executive director.

At the beginning of this year, Rabbi Shaw finally left working for the United Synagogue to become chief executive of the newly-revamped Mizrachi UK, which aims to strengthen religious Zionism and modern Orthodoxy in Britain.

He told me: "That ideology has not really been thriving in Anglo-Jewry. Most United Synagogue rabbis come from a more charedi background.

"Although there is no conflict between us and the charedi world, we feel there is a need to expand religious Zionist and modern-Orthodox ideas.

"I want to help train a generation of modern-Orthodox rabbis and leaders through Mizrachi as Jewish Continuity did for me and my generation."

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph