Rabbi settled in town with no Jewish community

By Doreen Wachmann

ARIEL Abel is not your regular rabbi. He lives most of the time in the small Lancashire town of Darwen, which has no Jewish community, supports both transsexuals and those who protest against the raising of the gay pride rainbow flag and is an active trade unionist.

Yet with all his refreshingly unconventional views, Rabbi Abel insists that he is mainstream Orthodox.

He says he is not interested in "rocking any boats" and is currently qualifying as a solicitor with the ultimate aim of becoming a British dayan (Beth Din judge).

Rabbi Abel admits that he gained much of his independent religious and intellectual approach from his parents Rabbi Dr Yehuda Abel and his wife Danielle.

His scholarly father headed Manchester University's Centre for Jewish Studies' Agunah Research Unit and his Algerian-born ever-campaigning mother researched Christian monasticism as a mature Manchester University student.

His father, who had Lithuanian roots, adopted the Sephardi way of life of his wife.

Rabbi Ariel said: "My parents certainly set the stage and gave me the oxygen to breathe.

"My father has a Sephardi heart and a Lithuanian mind. I hope I have inherited that.

"I have tried to take the best from both worlds, the Sephardi halachic tolerance, which very much relies on the principle of always looking for the lenient rather than the forbidding way, and the intellectual rigour of my father's Lithuanian heritage."

True to his Sephardi heritage, after graduating in Middle Eastern and modern European studies at Manchester University, Ariel studied to be a rabbi at Midrash Sephardi in Jerusalem's Old City.

His first ministerial appointment was at Berlin's Adass Yisroel Congregation, after which he went to Liverpool's Princes Road Synagogue, to which he later returned in a part-time capacity.

Liverpool's Old Hebrew Congregation is controversial because it is Britain's only Orthodox synagogue to still have a mixed - mainly-female - choir.

I asked the rabbi how he got over that halachic minefield.

"When I first went there in 1999, I told Manchester Beth Din that as long as the synagogue is under the auspices of Chief Rabbi there is no reason to prevent them from having spiritual leadership," he replied. "They should not be discriminated against."

He added that halachic views on listening to women singing were not "monolithic" and that he intended to do further research on the matter.

After his first stretch in Liverpool, Rabbi Abel served two London United Synagogues in Waltham Forest and Radlett, before taking a break from the British ministry and spending some time in Argentina and Uruguay, working for the Sephardi Chief Rabbinate.

The rabbi is now the first non-Christian member on Unite Union's clergy executive.

It was partly due to his own experiences in his full-time rabbinic career that Rabbi Abel decided to fight for the rights of the clergy of all denominations and their families.

He told me: "Ministers and their wives across all religious denominations are subjected to stress and oppressive behaviour at the hands of laity and the religious hierarchy.

"You hear horror stories about the way the ministry is treated in all denominations, which unfortunately does not exclude Orthodox Jewish ones."

A passionate believer in social justice, Rabbi Abel believes his mission is to mend "broken systems, to ensure people are not oppressed in the workplace".

He said: "I help all sorts of colleagues. I have meetings to facilitate the continuation of clergy in their jobs. I aim not to fight an organisation, but to try to keep people in employment."

I asked him for an incident which had happened to him in the course of his ministry.

He said: "I experienced a lack of understanding of what a rabbi's job is.

"It is very common, even among people who have been going to shul all their lives, for them not to understand the 24/7 calling and what affect that has, not just on the rabbi, but on his spouse and his children, the pressure that creates.

"A minority of people in lay leadership positions demonstrated a proper understanding of the work of a minister."

Rabbi Abel recounted that on one occasion he was asked to leave his position by a lay leader who couldn't understand why he might be interested in pursuing studies leading him to qualify as a family mediator while at the same time occupying his position as synagogue rabbi.

He said: "It completely escaped his attention that the reason was precisely because one out of three families having a barmitzvah was actually a divorcing couple."

That particular incident ended happily after the rabbi created a "collaborative situation", inviting the laity involved to sit round a table with him to learn more about what he was doing and how much he had to cope with.

He said: "I created a work-in-progress report. As they began to educate themselves about how difficult things were and how many plates needed to be juggled at once, they began to lay off.

"They said that they had never even begun to appreciate just how multi-tasking you have to be in order to survive, let alone, thrive.

"One of them in particular, a bit of a trouble-maker, got so much flak as a lay leader that he said he took back everything that he had said."

After his return from Argentina and his marriage to second wife Shulamit, the daughter of Colombian Marranos, Rabbi Abel decided to study law.

He said: "I pursued what I had always wanted to do, to take on cases for social justice, which is central to my understanding of the ministry."

The couple moved to Darwen, where they live, except for when they spend weekends in Liverpool or at Southport Hebrew Congregation, where the rabbi occasionally officiates.

Rabbi Abel became heavily involved in interfaith work, particularly with Muslims, as well as reaching out to hidden Jews across Lancashire, founding the Blackburn For Life Project and South and East Lancashire regional community.

He said: "Living in Darwen we have managed to attract the attention of many Jews scattered all over Lancashire.

"Jews have been a numerically diminishing community in this country. There has been an overall decrease of half since the Second World War.

"Those people have not all emigrated or made aliya. We are finding them everywhere. We now have a rate of one a week."

Rabbi Abel, who was recently appointed army chaplain to the Merseyside Army Cadet Force, does not believe in taboos.

He acted as an expert witness in the recent Manchester charedi case pleading for the transsexual parent to be awarded access to her children, which was subsequently denied.

Rabbi Abel has welcomed transsexuals to his synagogue and even tackled the awkward question of which toilet they use in the shul.

He said: "I get requests about transsexuals from other rabbis.

"Very clear halachic decisions and observations were made 250 years ago in Salonika, based on cases going back to 4th century BCE of people born male and changing to female. There is a blessing, suggested by one authority, for being changed into a woman."

But, seemingly paradoxically, Rabbi Abel is also giving legal support to a religious person protesting against the flying of the gay pride rainbow flag over an NHS hospital.

The rabbi said: "I believe that it is important for people not to feel intimidated in any way.

"Therefore the Equality Act should be seen to be observed according to all the protected characteristics, not just some.

"Our society is becoming highly-selective about which protected characteristics count and which count for less. That's not right.

"From a legal perspective, I believe that it's a mistake to put up a rainbow flag and not other flags that promote heterosexual living."

Rabbi Abel is certainly no conformist. He said: "Conformity for me is distinct from sound halachic study and decision-making which is based on precedence.

"Conformism will take one line, whatever it is based on. Whatever I do in my communal work is based on my own thinking, but not before I have properly researched legitimate precedence.

"In halachic sources, there is a great deal which is not highlighted even forgotten and which needs researching much more in order to give people greater access to their heritage and to alleviate the apparently intractable problems people face nowadays."

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph