Dovid is a go-ahead rabbi who thrives on unique challenges

RABBI Dovid Lewis has led diverse communities in the Crimea, Chigwell and Newcastle crossing every strata of Judaism since gaining semicha in Israel 11 years ago .

Inspiring the most unaffiliated, religious, poor and affluent, he has taken on tough challenges, from setting up a primary school to running youth programmes and heading an ageing community.

Growing up in a religious family, Rabbi Dovid enjoyed all aspects of Judaism but one festival in particular.

"Erev Pesach was my favourite time of the year," he said.

"All the new crockery was brought out and the house was in that in-between stage.

"We could no longer eat chametz and there was a frantic pace going on. But underneath there was a sense of calm.

"Mum knew exactly what had to be done in time for Pesach so us men drifted in this vacuum but could absorb everything that was going on.

"To me, it looked frenetic and hectic but I knew that in a couple of hours time mum would pull it off once again. It would be all right on the night."

From an early age, Rabbi Dovid wanted to be a teacher.

"My father taught at Manchester's Bury and Whitefield Jewish Primary School and taught at cheder in St Annes," he said.

"From time to time I helped dad at the cheder when a teacher was missing. I knew then that I wanted to be a teacher.

"Throughout my years in yeshiva - specifically at Kfar Chavav in Israel but also in Manchester - I always managed to pick up somebody that needed extra help with learning.

"By teaching them we both gained. They learned more and I got to know parts better myself."

Rabbi Dovid added: "At yeshiva I preferred chassidic parts over the Talmud.

"The day began and ended with 90 minutes' chassidus. The rest of the day was gemorra and halacha.

"From a spiritual aspect, chassidic parts inspired me. Looking at fundamentals, the reasons behind it all and finding its relevance spoke to me that day."

Rabbi Dovid's first post was in the Crimea - and it brought unique challenges.

"Communism had fallen, but the Crimea was not like large centres such as Moscow or Kiev," he said.

"The Crimea had not moved on from Communism and the vast majority of people we were working with had little idea of what it meant to be Jewish.

"It was not uncommon to find women wearing a crucifix. You were dealing with total ignorance on behalf of Judaism."

Rabbi Dovid added: "We had to provide fully for ourselves regarding kashrut. We lived on basics such as fruit, vegetables and whatever we could cook ourselves.

"Chickens you could get every two weeks but meat - if you were lucky - was every couple of months or so.

"Pesach and Rosh Hashana time, we'd fly stuff in from the Unites States."

Establishing who was Jewish was a priority.

"Many people had no idea they were Jewish but had a tradition that bubba was Jewish," Rabbi Dovid said.

"Proof was on passports and birth certificates as it was written there that they were Jewish.

"People would bring birth certificates stretching back a couple of generations. If the maternal line said they were Jewish, then it was safe to say that they were."

Aside from identifying who was Jewish, the main task was education.

"We set up a school," he said. "On the first day we had seven pupils and on the second we had 12.

"When I left 18 months later, we had 56 children spanning seven classes through primary to high school, which is still going today."

Back in England, Rabbi Dovid took up a part-time post as a cheder teacher (children aged 5-13) and youth minister at Chigwell Synagogue (teens aged 13-18) in Essex while at the same time completing a Jewish Studies degree at Jews College and School of Oriental and African Studies.

"Comparing the financial situation from Simferopol to Chigwell was chalk and cheese," he said.

"You could not get bigger contrasts. In Simferopol the bread line was an aspiration. The challenge was to get bread on the table whereas Chigwell was a modern, affluent community.

"As for Judaism, in Simferopol identification was the key but in Chigwell everyone knew they were Jewish, had a strong Jewish identity and lived in the 21st century.

"Chigwell, though, had other challenges because for children where Judaism was not meaningful - as they had Playstations, the Internet and the bits and pieces that said religion was not important - the job was to make religion inspiring.

"Programmes were varied. Apart from standard shul services, there was a youth minyan run by teenagers for the teenagers and we also took youngsters outside shul to attractions like bowling, barbecues or paintballing.

"For a group of Jewish teenagers it was important to show you could have fun at events seemingly divorced from Judaism. Even if you were, say, paintballing there would be a Jewish message.

"A number of teens wanted to learn more so we arranged talks and one-to-ones for those interested in further education while others ran children's services before university."

Aspiring for a full-time post as a communal minister, Rabbi Dovid was soon travelling up the A1 to Newcastle.

"The Chief Rabbi's office rang to ask if I'd consider moving to the North East," he said.

"I knew nothing about Newcastle other than it was a good five-hour drive from Chigwell and that I would not be that cold, having spent two winters in the Ukraine."

As for the Jewish community, which he has served since 2005, he commented: "It is ageing and the age profile is weighted to the over 60s and 70s.

"Today we have 300 members and at best half a dozen younger families involved, of which three are really involved and two our age group.

"It would be easier to have a dozen or so couples our age and children similar ages to our children, but that's part of a role being a rabbi.

"The age gap does not have much of an impact as members of the community are our friends.

"We see core members three times a day, have members over to the house for Shabbat and yomtov, and see members at social events.

"Sadly, since arriving around a quarter of our members have died. But there has not been a noticeable drop in activities.

"In fact, there are more activities now that we have introduced and the community has adopted them.

"There is a vibrant minyan three times a day and the building gets used practically every day.

"From social to educational activities, we hold a luncheon club, talks, a bridge club, ladies' simcha dancing and aerobics.

"The Jewish literacy society attracts up to 100 people and at Purim we put on a dinner for 125 people."

Rabbi Dovid quipped: "One of the hardest events is the annual whisky tasting.

"That is one of the more onerous tasks for a rabbi!"

He added: "A community only ceases to be viable when it gives up - and that is not the case.

"Each year more people pass away, move on, make aliya or move down to London to be near children and grandchildren. But there is still very much a sense that this is a vibrant community.

"Okay, people are older so we don't organise paintballing, but next week we have a strawberry and cream tea party.

"There is something for everyone. Events are specific for certain types of people but at others it's for everyone. At Purim we had a 90-year-old and a three-month-old."

Newcastle has a 200-strong Reform community and there are around 150 people with no connection to Jewish community.

Rabbi's Dovid's children attend a school in Gateshead just 10 minutes away.

"There are connections between the two communities but they are very different - each has its own path and ideals," he said.

As to the future, Rabbi Dovid commented: "Whether with myself or successor, I hope that there is a continuing sense of purpose.

"After five years, I don't see Newcastle laying down, quietly turning off the lights and disappearing. Newcastle has a rich history and so many dedicated members that there will always be something going on with community life.

"My wife Nachi and I are enjoying it here, benefiting from the community as we hope they are benefiting from us. But at some stage we will move on to a community that has got younger members who we can help as well."

Aside from his communal work, Rabbi Dovid is to feature in a book chronicling his work later this month.

"A Year in the Life of a Rabbi is a photographic record by a local photographer who approached me at Purim in 2009.

"From simchas to funerals, travelling to London and Auschwitz, from student parties to lectures, it's been a phenomenal journey and I look forward to seeing the finished book."

Rabbi Dovid's main role though is leading the Newcastle Jewish community and it is a post that has enriched his life.

He said: "The best thing about being a rabbi is that as much as I feel we can give to a community, there is far more a community gives back to me as a rabbi.

"My alarm goes off at 6am and I go to shul and learn with someone from Gateshead. But then I know that today I do not know what will happen, other that the fact that I will get enjoyment, pleasure and a sense of progress in return.

"I don't think that can be said about any job other than teaching. You put in, but always know what you get back much more from people who appreciate and want to give something back."

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph