Lives Lost: London rabbi worked to end community's isolation

Rabbi Avrohom Pinter gave his life to save his neighbors

LONDON -- Rabbi Avrohom Pinter gave his life to save his neighbors.

His sacrifice was just the last chapter of a life spent forging links between the often-isolated community in Stamford Hill and wider British society, whether by working with an Anglican priest to build a community center or visiting the local mosque to grieve when a gunman killed 51 Muslims in New Zealand.

“He served as a bridge in a broader sense,″ said Chaya Spitz, a protege of Pinter's and CEO of an umbrella organization for Orthodox Jewish charities. “What he did around COVID was typical of his approach more generally.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from the coronavirus around the world.

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The path to becoming a rabbi respected by non-Jews wasn’t easy for a man who grew up in Stamford Hill in the 1950s and ’60s.

Europe’s largest ultra-Orthodox community was founded by Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, and it grew with the addition of ones who escaped Germany's Nazis during World War II. The experience of anti-Semitism left many Stamford Hill residents suspicious of authority: they paid taxes but sought nothing in return.

Pinter believed total self-segregation was a mistake, especially when it came to education.

He became active in the community, waded into politics and won a seat on the local government council as a member of the Labour Party in 1982.

But his vocation was improving educational opportunities for Orthodox Jewish girls. Pinter and his wife, Rachel, were instrumental in building up the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School. He was the principal and she set the academic trends, introducing the concept of students sitting for a broad range of advanced exams and striving for excellence.

He saw an opportunity when Labour’s Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997. Pinter decided to apply for government funding for his school, even if it meant Yesodey Hatorah would have to follow the national curriculum.

Pinter was harangued on the streets and posters went up calling him a traitor, despite winning 14 million pounds to build a state of the art high school.

“For many in the Orthodox community, this was the beginning of the end — we’ve now involved the state in education of our children,” Shimon Cohen, a longtime friend of the rabbi, recalled. "This was going to be a disaster.’’

The disagreement continues even now.

The most recent report from the U.K.'s Office for Standards in Education rated Yesodey Hatorah's students as above average in the subjects they study, but judged the school itself “inadequate” because the curriculum is too narrow.

For instance, students aren’t taught about human reproduction because the Orthodox community believes the topic is one best handled at home.

The critique showed Pinter’s dilemma. While some in his Jewish community considered him a dangerous modernist, many in the broader society saw him as a crazy extremist, Cohen said.

“But he went off with a bright smile, saying that as he was upsetting everybody, he must be doing something right,’’ Cohen said. “We have a phrase — ‘I dance at everybody’s wedding.’ He managed to navigate all communities. That was his greatness.”

Pinter found common ground with local Muslim leaders, working with them to ensure that food served at local hospitals and jails met the strict kosher and halal rules of their faiths.

And when the fighting in Syria sent refugees streaming across Europe in 2016, Pinter joined a group of faith leaders on a fact-finding mission to a makeshift refugee camp in Calais, in northern France.

After seeing the situation for himself, Pinter went back to London and raised 5,000 pounds ($6,500) for the migrants. Their faith didn’t matter. Their humanity did.

“His ability to show how much he cared was remarkable,’’ said Mustafa Field, director of Faiths Forum for London, which organized the trip to France. “His ability to sit down in a tent with refugees — it wasn’t a clean place. But he was able to connect at that level and listen.’’

And he did it while holding fast to his own identity as an Orthodox Jew.

He wore the broad-brimmed hat, black coat and beard dictated by the ultra-Orthodox. He met people for tea, but brought his own teabag to ensure he kept strictly kosher. And when Prime Minister Theresa May extended her hand in greeting, he whipped off his hat, held it in both hands and joked about his “strange monastic order” so as not to embarrass her by refusing to shake hands.

While on these outreach missions in later years, Pinter often talked about how he grieved for his wife, who died in 2014. He decided to read the entire Talmud in her memory and believed he might see her again after his own death, according to friend Maurice Glasman, a member of Britain's House of Lords.

“When he died I thought, ‘That’s Rabbi Pinter, at least he could look at his wife and say that he did his homework,’″ Glasman said.