An educated Jewish society is dream of long-awaited Dr Rafi

IN DEMAND: I get lots of phone calls begging me to go north, says Dr Rafi Zarum

ONCE upon a time, Jews' College was a prestigious institution which trained most of British rabbis and Jewish educators.

But six years ago, the Hendon-based college, now renamed the London School of Jewish Studies, was in crisis.

A combination of the religious polarisation of British Jewry with would-be rabbis opting for more traditional yeshiva education, and financial cuts due a termination of the links between the college and London University, led to a major question mark being posed over its future.

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks was called in from a sabbatical to attempt to solve the crisis.

He asked financial expert Howard Stanton to chair the LSJS council in order to try to resolve the matter.

The United Synagogue, which the college serves, came up with a proposal to turn the college into an outreach adult education centre.

But a group of young Jewish educators headed by present LSJS chief executive Dr Rafi Zarum, who were then studying in Israel, came up with a more radical proposal which won the day.

And the college has never looked back. Under Dr Zarum's exciting leadership the college increased its weekly attendance from 10 to 650 men and women of all ages.

Not only that but Dr Zarum has succeeded in reclaiming London pride in modern Orthodoxy, which had been previously threatened by the vast growth of charedi-style Judaism in Britain.

Dr Zarum, who gained his PhD in theoretical physics, believes that not only should Orthodoxy be relevant to all the topical issues of the day but that it should embrace science and other aspects of modern life, including his passion for movies.

When I spoke to him he was writing his LSJS summer course on Darwin and the Tree of Life.

He told me: "I think Darwin is amazing. Previous Jewish writers like the late Chief Rabbi J H Hertz in the Soncino chumash wrote apologetically about Darwin's theories.

"I am proud to be modern Orthodox because it takes the best of the modern world and combines it with uncompromising sensitivity to halacha."

LSJS courses are certainly very different from those offered by yeshivot. There are Bible tours around the British Museum and National Gallery to see bricks made of straw by the Israelites in Egypt as well as Rembrandt's Hebrew references to his friend Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel.

In conjunction with Dr Nathan Abrams of Bangor University, Dr Zarum also runs a course on his favourite hobby - Midrash and The Movies.

He says: "I am providing exciting, in-depth comprehensive courses for the forgotten middle-of-the-road Jews.

"My vision is to create an educated Jewish society."

So why has his breadth of vision not yet spread north of Watford?

Dr Zarum admitted: "I get loads of phone calls begging me to come to Manchester. I have trained teachers there. But I am not there yet."

Dr Zarum, who attended a non-Jewish secondary school, gained his dynamic love of Judaism partly through his Israeli-born car mechanic father Arieh Zarum, who came from Yemenite stock.

Edgware-born Dr Zarum said: "My father fixed the cars of all the rabbis.

"From the age of nine till 20 I learned with Dayan Gershon Lopian and also with Dayan Michael Fisher." Dr Zarum was also very involved in Bnei Akiva, whose education department he later headed.

After attending Rosh Pinah Jewish Primary School and Haberdashers' Boys School, he spent a year at Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem's Old City.

He recalls: "When I came back from yeshiva I gave a dvar Torah in front of Dayan Fisher.

"He commented that although what I was saying was new, it was authentic, saying that the Torah always moves forward."

And Dr Zarum is certainly forward-looking.

On return from yeshiva, he initially pursued his academic interests of mathematics and physics, graduating at University College London before studying for a doctorate in theoretical physics at Kings College.

But even during his university years, it was Dr Zarum's love of teaching which shone through.

He said: "I wrote papers on physics. My tutors said I was pedagogically strong and that I would make a great physics teacher."

It was finance which initially led Dr Zarum to work for the Jewish community.

After marriage to Jacqueline half way through his doctoral studies, he took a job with the-then Jewish Continuity, which later became UJIA, writing educational material for Jewish and non-Jewish schools.

He also ran the Hendon Bet Midrash for students.

On the completion of his doctorate he was headhunted by the Centre for Jewish Education to raise the level of Jewish education in British Jewish youth groups through material relating classical Jewish texts to Jewish leadership. His material was so successful that it was used all over the Jewish world. It was during this period that Dr Zarum's relationship with LSJS began.

He said: "I realised that Ellul was a great time for adult education as people wanted to prepare themselves for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

"But rabbis were too busy during that period preparing their sermons. I approached the then LSJS head and suggested an Ellul programme.

"We tapped into a real need and had 100 people a night." Inspired by his success, Dr Zarum also founded the movement Lishma, aimed at promoting and strengthening modern Orthodoxy.

In 2002, after gaining an MEd at the Institute of Education, he gained a Jerusalem Fellowship to go to the Old City in Jerusalem to study Jewish leadership and how existing organisations could be changed.

He said: "It was a great opportunity to reflect on how Anglo-Jewish organisations could be changed."

It was during this period that the LSJS crisis came to a head.

He said: "A bunch of us, six young Turks including Dr Tamra Wright of LSJS, who were all in Israel at the time, wrote an alternative proposal for the college.

"Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, LSJS deputy president rejected the United Synagogue proposal. So we were the only game in town."

The rest of Britain can't wait until the show goes on the road and moves up north!

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph