Tribute to Rabbi Eliezer Spector by Leon Leboff
Birth of Dayan Eliezer [Laizer] Spector – Zhivitoff, Ukraine
JAN 23 1981
Death of Dayan Eliezer [Laizer] Spector – Essex, Rainham, Great Britain
Around the beginning of 1962, I was working in my office, in a timber yard in Shoreditch, when I received a call requesting that I meet with a gentleman, whom I had assumed wished to discuss a business proposition. How wrong I was.
I agreed to meet this stranger assuming it would be a new work opportunity. However, I had no idea of the enormous influence that initial meeting was to have in my and my family’s future lives. He introduced himself as Rabbi Eliezer Spector. He told me that he had recently returned from a trip to Israel. During his visit to the village in Kfar Chabad, five young boys, who were studying for their exams, were attacked by a gang of Arab terrorists who had come over the border from Jordan. As a result of this, the five boys were all killed and the entire village and indeed most of the country were in complete shock. Whilst the army and the police would try and deal with the terrorists, Rabbi Spector together with another Rabbi Ephriam Woolf set out to rebuild the future for the children that had had to bear witness to the tragedy and whose school had been forced to shut down.
As was typical of Rabbi Spector, his vision was not limited to solely helping the school children of Kfar Chabad. In the boys’ memory, the project that he embarked upon would mark the children’s passing by setting up a brand new vocational school, not just for the boys from the village but also for boys from afar. The school would welcome boys from throughout the State of Israel, whose fathers or mothers had been killed in the War of Independence and in the 1956 war. The school was intended to teach each and every one of them a trade and show oppressors the futility of their intentions.
The school was to be split into three sections. The first was a printing section, the second a carpentry section and the third was going to be for farming. Whilst farming had become a part of Israel’s establishment, the other two were not. It was decided that Rabbi Woolf would run the school whilst Rabbi Spector would return to the UK to try and raise the money to buy all of the tools and equipment that would be required. He would also try and involve business people in the UK in those trades to take some kind of interest in the school. In pursuit of this task, he told me that he had approached two people in the print industry, who I happened to know, Jeffrey Leigh and Jack Spring. They ran a company called Capitol Paper and they had agreed to form a committee to be called the Master Printers Association, whose task was to buy tools and machinery for the printing school. To try and obtain the tools and equipment for the carpentry section, Rabbi Spector started to approach as many people as he could from the furniture and timber industry. He told me the inspiring story of one particular man, who was so taken up with the cause that he had decided to take early retirement just so he could devote himself entirely to the cause. He told me that most of the people that he had approached were getting on a bit and that he was now looking for some younger people to join the committee, which is why he approached me. He asked me if I would be interested in joining. I told him that I was very limited for time, as not only was I trying to build up a business, but that I was also married with three young children and was working very long hours. He told me that he was having a meeting in his house in Lower Clapton, the following Tuesday and without any obligation, he would really appreciate it, if I could come and then make up my own mind as to whether I could help. What harm could it cause to spend an hour or so listening to a kind man’s wise words? As he said, I was under no obligation to do anything but listen. I need to point out that I soon discovered that Rabbi Spector was the type of person who you found difficult to refuse. I attended that meeting.
At the head of the table sat the very man that Rabbi Spector had told me about who had decided to retire early. Subsequently, he had been elected to become the first chairman. The meeting was about fifteen minutes gone when the ‘chairman’ and another member of the committee had a serious disagreement as to how things should be done. They both got up and left the meeting. They were never to be seen again. That was in 1962 and here I am today still involved albeit on a lesser scale since I now reside in Israel.
Gerry Abrahams, who was a leading supplier to the furniture industry, joined us about a year later. We appointed a new chairman called Morry Wise, who remained in this position for around 12 years, 10 of which, I was his Vice-Chairman. Morry did fantastic work for the charity, but he was a great delegator and in the later years, I found myself doing most of the work. Rabbi Spector asked me if I would be prepared to take over as chairman, which I agreed to do as long as it was for a maximum of 2 years only as I believed we now had some very talented younger members, who had joined us due to their admiration of Rabbi Spector. I was keen that they should be given the opportunity to serve. The new young lads, included Colin Gershinson, Ian Crooke, Maurice Shear, Ray Levy, Alan Field and later Frank Herman and David Fellerman.
During the period from 1962 onwards, I got to know the Rabbi and his family very well and with the exception of Shabbat, I spoke to him nearly every day. The discussions were always very varied and I did not realise that I was receiving a daily sermon from this most wonderful man. I am blessed that he taught me such a great deal as to how I should conduct my life.
I promised him that I would try and visit the school at the first possible opportunity and, in October 1967, towards the end of the war, my wife and I, together with our three daughters, visited the new vocational school. It was a visit that was to make a lasting impression on all of us, including our three girls. We were amazed as to what had been achieved, in such a short time. We were really impressed, not only by the quality of the products that were being produced but more importantly by the quality of the young men that were producing them. Many of these young men went on to become great soldiers and future leaders of the country.
I often recount one particular story that I recall from that visit when we were being shown around the living quarters. My eldest daughter asked where the boys kept their clothes. She was told that there was no need for this, as they only had two sets of clothes, the ones they were wearing and the ones that were being washed. On return to the UK, my children immediately decided to have a garage sale to raise money for the school. As a result of this, they have continued to conduct their own lives, and those of their children, in the same charitable way.
I also recall that during the trip, Rabbi Spector and his wife joined us for a relaxing day at the pool, and he spent almost the entire day in the water with our kids. He was so full of conversation the hours passed very quickly. He was a strong swimmer, which was somewhat unusual for a Rabbi. He went on to explain at length how he learnt to swim in Victoria Park and that he practised nearly every day after prayers, even in the bad weather. We spoke so much that day that we did not realise that the gates had been locked, and Rabbi Spector and my entire family ended up having to climb over the fence to get out.
It was only in the early 1980’s that I came to appreciate how generous he was with his time, his words and his compassion for others. I used to think that it was only me that he spoke to every day, but after he died, I found out he tried to speak to every one of his family, friends and confidants as often as he could.
The Habad Orphan Aid Society, as it was called, continued to raise money for the school, but we decide that instead of buying equipment and tools, we would concentrate on the fundraising and send the money to Kfar Chabad to buy any urgent items that they required.
Amongst other events that we held, were wrestling evenings at Seymour Hall, film shows at leading West End cinemas, boxing tournaments at a hall along the Seven Sisters Road, gaming evenings in Edgware and later BBQ’s evenings and supper quizzes. What stood out as the most successful events, were the annual boxing dinners at the Park Lane Hilton. At certain stages, these boxing dinners could attract nearly 800 guests. Over this period we raised a considerable amount of money. The events were mainly amateur internationals, with English amateur boxers fighting against various different countries, including the USA, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and Israel. In those days, we worked very closely with the London Police, who ran the ABA, the English Amateur Boxing Association. They were involved in order to help get the kids off the streets, instead of the children getting themselves into trouble. We tried professional boxing with the help of Jarvis Astaire and a man called Micky Duff, who Rabbi Spector knew well, as he used to regularly translate letters for him in Yiddish to send to his uncle in Poland.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Spector, who was always the inspiration of the committee, was forced to retire as a practising Rabbi at quite a young age, due to his failing eyesight. Subsequently, he was forced to live on a very poor pension. It was a sad time for all of us as everyone on the committee had grown to love the man. We tried very hard to help him, by offering him a situation whereby he would work full time for the committee but he completely refused to take any money away from the school that had become his life’s work.
Despite his failing eyesight, he maintained himself well and was a strong and proud man. That was never more stoically proved as when he was to suffer an unprovoked attack by some youths on his way home. He managed to fend for himself but, despite putting two of them in hospital, he never really recovered from the attack.
On 23 January 1981, Rabbi Eliezer Spector passed away from a heart attack and the number of people at his funeral bore testimony to the amazing man that he truly was. He affected the lives of everyone he came in contact with. Each mourner who attended his funeral had their own personal stories to tell about him and I together with my family will never forget him.
Rabbi Spector’s legacy lives on in the hearts of everyone that knew him. It lives on in the bricks and mortar of the buildings that he helped to create. It lives on in the charitable establishments, such as Habad (now HabAid), that he fought tirelessly to establish and promote. Perhaps most poignant of all, it lives on in the DNA of every child whose life he touched and whose spirit was awakened.
For me he was the key to my current life here in Israel. He was the catalyst that changed my world for the better and gave me the opportunity to try and emulate his charitable nature. It is no coincidence that most of my family now reside in this amazing country of Israel and we will always be forever grateful to this inspirational man.
Thank you Rabbi Eliezer Spector….thank you.