Tribute by Ian Crooke

The Late Rabbi Eliezer Spector - A Personal Tribute by Ian Crooke

If ever a man was taken too early, then Rabbi Eliezer Spector was he.

The Lubavitch doctrine on death is that as soon as Hashem needs to recall someone to fulfil other things, he does so. Well in this instance the work that he needed Rabbi Spector to fulfil must have been extremely valuable and important to pluck him from the tremendous activity he generated with us mortals and the value he had here on earth.

Here was a man of tremendous stature. Not only physically, but spiritually and morally. A man that could extract so much from a fellow human being with the minimum of persuasion, by just a gentle nudge, a word, a smile, a cajole or one of his infamous lovable facial expressions that could not be ignored.

I was privileged to know Rabbi Spector from a very early age when my parents joined Walford Road synagogue in Stoke Newington, North London, where he was the minister in the early fifties.

I cannot in all truthfulness say that I saw a lot of him in those days, but what is firmly imprinted on my mind was his annual rendition of “Kol Nidre” and through this, at least once every year to this present day, a mental picture of his majestic presence as he brought in Yom Kippur, dressed in simple regalia, from the Bimah in Stoke Newington to then a packed, attentive and awestruck community.

He did not teach me my Barmitzvah as this was carried out by (yet another coincidence) a member of the Walford Road congregation who was also a Hebrew teacher at the Tulmud Torah classes I attended in Upper Clapton. What I do remember however was him standing by my side on the Shabbat of my Barmitzvah, generating so much confidence to me that he soon left me alone on the Bimah to continue by myself, a situation I could not have previously believed possible.

A year or so later, owing to the death of my Booba, we moved to Stamford Hill, but still continued our membership and annual pilgrimage to Walford Road Synagogue. Some years later and I cannot quite remember if this remains in my mind having heard it directly, or subsequently reported by my late father, the following conversation took place between my father and Rabbi Spector.

“It is wonderful to see you in Synagogue again Mr Crooke. Why don’t we see you more often….?” My father’s embarrassed response was “Well, you know how far away we live now and it is such a long walk to do on a regular basis.” to which rabbi Spector replied, “Did I ask you how you get to Synagogue Mr Crooke?” A simple example of the warmth and understanding of this wonderful man.

Our next ‘encounter’ was in 1964 when Sandra and I were married and naturally we decided to have our Chuppa at Walford Road, presided on by yes, Rabbi Spector. He was also present at our reception afterwards and performed the Grace After Meals and Sheva Brochas in his inimitable style.

We then moved out of the area and our visits to Walford Road diminished to zero and thus contact with Rabbi Spector too.

Some years later. I was invited to a charity boxing dinner and lo and behold who was there and it seemed one of the organisers, no less than Rabbi Spector. Well from there on in contact was weekly and within a very short time, I found myself being invited onto the organising committee of the Habad Orphan Aid Society, where I remained for over 30 years.

To say that Rabbi Spector was the driving force behind the committee was one of the biggest understatements of all time. He was dynamic. Not always saying that much at meetings but ensuring, or trying to ensure that everyone got on together and as a committee we did not stray beyond our objectives or undertook anything that we should not. No meeting went by without this man phoning every member to make sure that we were all going to attend. How difficult it was to refuse, even if you wanted to. One even felt guilty at going on holiday and thus missing a meeting. To miss two in succession was tantamount to heresy. But everyone on the committee idolised him and his passion for the children for whom we were working was so infectious that our tentacles expanded to a younger element. Soon Maurice Shear, Ray Levy, Alan Field and myself amongst others were working alongside the older founder members as one united group cemented together by this charismatic man

He soon became my mentor. the person to whom I turned to discuss each and every problem in my life. We spoke at least two or three times a week for years and I found his guidance and advice invaluable. In fact, I soon became dependent on hearing his cheery voice or seeing his large smiling, bearded face.

How he found the amount of time he did to devote to Habad was beyond belief. That coupled with the dozens of Rabbinical duties he had, the counselling and his own studies was truly the size and measure of this man.

This reminds me of the story he told me, although I am not sure how public this was at the time. He was walking in Portland Avenue, Stamford Hill one dark evening when he was confronted by some gentile youths. He immediately showed the presence of mind to remove one of his shoes (or maybe both) and put it on his fist as a boxing glove. Wielding his arms in every direction, he fended off the attack of these bullies and after their retreat, calmly replaced his shoe(s) and continued on his way, with the only damage being done to his pride. Maybe the hand of the Lord was on his shoulder, maybe not, but the great physical stature of this man and his quickness of mind and body saw him through a most difficult moment.

As treasurer of the committee many times, I was party to numerous confidential matters at the time. One which amazed me then and has continued to do so whenever I am reminded of those days was his own generosity. Particularly in those days life financially was not easy for the Rabbi and his family, yet whenever he carried out his rabbinical duties on behalf of his immediate and far-flung congregants, who did he have them make their cheques of thanks to? The Children of Habad! A humble man, so generous, even to his own cost.

After a brief spell living abroad and then in Finchley, in 1971 Sandra and I moved to Stanmore and after visiting every Syanagogue in the area and searching our souls, we became members of Edgware Reform Synagogue.  No problem, but how do I tell my mentor? Eventually, I plucked up enough courage and thinking I should ‘soft-soap’ him, I asked him out to lunch. As we progressed through our meal, I tried on numerous occasions to divert the conversation to the subject on hand, but could I mouth the words?…no way! Time and again I tried, but could not express what I had come to say. We reached our main course and finished that. We ordered and finished dessert and still, I had not been able to explain my dilemma. By now I was panicking, had become hot and bothered, although I remember it was not summer and beads of anxious sweat formed on my forehead. Coffee was brought and drunk and if my memory serves me correctly, so was a refill. How utterly stupid and immature was I? The bill appeared and just as I was about to pay I blurted the words out I had been dreading for the past hour. Do you know what his reply was? “Well, what’s wrong with that? It’s better than not belonging to a synagogue at all and Rabbi Lee (the minister at Edgware Reform) is a good friend of mine and I have the highest regard for him. Thanks for lunch, see you at the meeting tomorrow.” Whew! I must have looked so stupid sitting there with my mouth open and a look of utter relief on my face. Not that he made any comment. What a man of understanding. There was a Rabbi within the orthodox United Synagogue movement and a recent follower of the Lubavitch ideals, basically telling me ‘Well done for joining the reform Synagogue’. No lecture, no recrimination, no conversation, judgement, just pure understanding of my position. If I did not know it before, here was confirmation of why I had turned to him so many times in the past and why I considered him such a special person.

As the years went on, we became closer as friends and our work within Habad blossomed together. For the first time, I took the Chair under his guidance. Mind you, I had a tough time convincing him that it was a good thing for the constitution of the committee to be changed to restrict the chairman to sit for more than two years. The thought in his mind was that Morry Wise (O”H), the Chairman for the last twelve years was to stand down was difficult to appreciate. Maurice and I persuaded him with great difficulty that it was right for other people to have the opportunity to Chair the committee. We went from strength to strength in both our committee numbers and the success of our annual boxing dinners and charity film shows.

Then came that fateful day on 23rd January 1981. Not a particularly well man, he was struck with a heart attack from which he did not recover. It was a Friday. My family and I were due to go away for a long weekend and with their infinite wisdom, the committee chose not to tell me. I went ignorant of the funeral that day and a weekend of despair.

Naturally, on my return, I was informed of what had happened. I cannot begin to explain my feelings. the grief and emptiness I felt. The personal loss as if it had been a member of my own family. How could a man with such presence be taken away from me, from us, when there was still so much for him and us to do together? I was numb and also angry at not being told on Friday, yet I understood their motives, but it should have been my decision as to whether I went away or not.

In recognition of the man that he was and in particular, as far as his dedication to Habad was concerned, a gala memorial dinner was organised in his name in the City of London and attended by everyone and anyone in the Jewish community. A huge amount of money was raised and after much subsequent discussion, it was decided to construct a further building at Kfar Chabad in Israel in the name of our dear Rabbi Eliezer. On completion of the project, many of the committee attended a consecration ceremony at the orphanage outside Tel Aviv and it proved to be a memorable and meaningful occasion.

We are now some twenty-five years on and it says so much for the legacy that he left, that the committee is still alive and active. Although there is still a mere handful of people involved who had the great pleasure of knowing and working with our beloved ‘leader’, everyone else is being and has been carried along on the wave of enthusiasm he generated all those years ago.

Who knows what the future will bring, but what is absolutely certain is that our dear departed Rabbi Eliezer Spector with his white hair and white bushy beard made a deep and lasting impression on thousands of people from such differing walks of life.

A man that was a legend in his lifetime and remained a pillar of strength on his death will never be forgotten.

Ian Crooke