Maverick rabbi finds America to his liking

RABBI Pini Dunner has just published the book, Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs (Toby Press).

The rabbi, who served at Moscow’s Choral Synagogue on the fall of communism, became a radio presenter and founded London’s prestigious Saatchi Synagogue.

Now living in Beverly Hills, he admitted that he is a bit of a maverick himself.

But he hastened to add that he is not like the historical characters portrayed in his book, who tended to be nefarious.

Pini manages the difficult feat of being unconventional, yet remaining within the Orthodox fold. But he does admit that America is much more suited to his personality than Anglo-Jewry, which he found stifling.

Pini can trace his lineage back to the most revered of rabbis, including Rashi and the Maharal of Prague.

His grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Dunner, was the last Chief Rabbi of East Prussia before the Holocaust. He left his German hometown of Königsberg after his release from prison after Kristallnacht and came to the UK, where he headed the charedi Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.

Pini’s late father, Aba Dunner, like his son after him, was very much his own man, acting as secretary general of the Conference of European Rabbis and as a Conservative councillor for Barnet, north-west London.

Pini studied in yeshivot in Gateshead, America and Jerusalem, during which time he became influenced by the happy-clappy spirituality of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Pini’s first job was as assistant rabbi and youth director of Moscow Choral Synagogue in 1991.

He was offered the position by Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who still heads the Choral Synagogue as well as the Conference of European Rabbis, with which Pini’s father had been associated.

Pini describes the few months he spent in Moscow as a “formative experience” in his life.

He said: “When you are at the far edges of the Jewish universe you learn things you would never have learned in the heart of Jewish life. You are a pioneer, in the Wild West.”

He recalled: “On the night I arrived Rabbi Goldschmidt told me not take my coat off. We walked to the Kremlin at about 11.30pm.

“When we got to Red Square, a crowd of people was there, which was surprising so late at night. They had just lowered the hammer and sickle and raised up the Russian tricolour.”

Pini described the time under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin as one of anarchy and extreme poverty, as well as of amazing Jewish renaissance.

He said: “People were extremely poor. Capitalism had just been introduced, but nobody had the faintest idea how it operated. There was huge inflation.

“They knew nothing about economics or capitalism, just anarchy. People set up booths in the street, selling whatever they had. Soviet medals went to tourists for a dollar. Nobody was interested in roubles.

“Russia was a very cold, dangerous place for all kinds of reasons. There was a lot of crime, with little medicine and few hospitals.”

Nevertheless, the newly-liberated Jews were streaming to shul in their thousands.

Pini said: “They wanted an association with their roots. It was like a floodgate had opened. They knew they were Jews only from their passports.

“Most were at least three generations away from a religious Jew. They had never read the Bible, nor spoken about God. They came to synagogue more out of a cultural association. They had no idea what it meant.”

A Purim concert attracted around 6,000 people, spilling out into the streets.

On his return to the UK, Pini married Sabine, took a Jewish history degree at London University and ministered to London congregations in Notting Hill, St John’s Wood and Hendon.

Then he took a ministerial break to become a radio journalist at Spectrum Radio for two years. His father had taken over the ailing multi-ethnic station and ran it out of his office in his shoe company.

Pini, who turned the station’s fortunes around, said: “We would invite all these politicians and celebrities to my father’s office.

“I enjoyed it very much. It gave me exposure to a tremendous range of Jewish figures and aspects of Jewish life.

“I had studied Jewish history. Spectrum gave me a fantastic hand on studying the Jewish present. It gave me a real foundation for all the things I’ve done since.”

Then Pini was approached by Jewish Continuity head Dr Michael Sinclair to set up the Saatchi shul.

Sinclair had seen a similar project for young singles in New York and asked Pini to come up with a similar model, to be based at Maida Vale’s Naima School, in memory of the parents of the Saatchi brothers.

Pini ran it for six years, during which time it became a tremendous success.

He said: “Within 18 months we had at least an engagement a month.”

After six years, the weekend commute between their family home in Hendon and Maida Vale proved too much for the growing Dunner family.

For three years Pini did not hold a formal position in the Jewish community, teaching and working in his father-in-law’s property business.

Then he was offered the position of rabbi at Ohel Leah Synagogue, Hong Kong. But Sabine did not fancy living there.

Pini asked her if she would move anywhere. She said she did not want to go to Israel, as she did not speak Ivrit, but she would move to America.

He sent his resume to a recruiter for jobs in the American Jewish community and arranged to meet him when he went to his nephew’s barmitzvah in Lakewood, New Jersey.

Pini was offered a position at Yeshiva University High School, Los Angeles.

They moved in 2011 on a two-year contract. While there, he was regularly invited to speak at Berverly Hills Young Israel Synagogue, where he eventually became rabbi.

Pini has been wowed by America. He said: “America is a can-do country. You can’t compare it to the UK in any shape or form.

“The whole attitude of America is that whatever idea you come up with, you can do. In England they say that it is never going to work.

“There is a negative reaction. If you are an innovator and have initiative and ambition, you will be stifled in the UK.

“In America, the sky is literally the limit. If you are gung-ho and committed to a project you will find somebody to do it with enthusiasm and it will happen.”

Pini wrote Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs because he was interested in the unusual characters whose stories were largely omitted from the history books.

Besides the well-known story of false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi, the book tells of the London kabbalist Dr Samuel Falk; Lord George Gordon of the 18th century British Gordon Riots, who converted to Judaism while in prison; Ignatius Timotheus Trebitsch-Lincoln, who was born a Hungarian Jew, converted to Christianity, became a Liberal MP in the UK and ended up as the Japanese government-recognised Dalai Lama in Shanghai; as well as the bitter battle between Talmudic geniuses Rabbi Jacob Emden and Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz.

Pini is currently writing about Rabbi Joseph Shapotschnick, an anarchist chassidic rabbi who, in the early 20th century, dissolved marriages without the need for a get, inviting establishment wrath.

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