The Last Minister in Oxford

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The Oxford Jewish Congregation has no Ministerit is a ‘do it yourself’ congregation.  However it was not always so, and this article by Harold Pollins with some minor changes and additions by the Webmaster tells the story of what is believed to be our last Minister.

In the Library of Southampton University are the papers of Harold Levy. He was the Inspector of Hebrew Classes for the Central Council of Jewish Religious Education and he examined classes in London and the provinces. He reported on his visits which cover the period 1951-1976 and  I obtained  copies of his reports for Oxford. There was quite a bundle but I was taken by the first one, a report of his visit on 15 July 1951. He said there were 54 families, about 150 people (not including those who took no interest in the community). There were about 18 children of whom, he wrote, ’only 8 attend the  Hebrew class conducted by the Minister, the Rev. I. Chazen’.

That brought me up short. I had never heard of Rev Chazen. In 2005 I wrote in Menorah about Rabbi Weinberg, who had been the Oxford minister 1940-1948 and I said that he was the second of the only two ministers in Oxford during the 20th century.  I went back to David Lewis’s history of the community to make sure I hadn’t missed Chazen; but he was not in that book – so he hadn’t come across him. One reason may be that apparently he made little impression. None of the people who were in Oxford at the time, and wrote their reminiscences in Freda Silver Jackson’s book, Then and Now: A Collection of Recollections, said anything about him.

But the Jewish Chronicle was helpful. In the issue of 13 January 1950 there was this item:

Followed a few weeks later by another piece  in the Jewish Chronicle on 17th February:

Apparently  he lived at 22 Bartlemas Road, and this was the place where the Hebrew Classes were held.

Harold Levy’s report stated that they could not be held at the Synagogue, but the explanation in the report is not very convincing. This was that the synagogue was ‘situated in a district from which the community had long ago moved’. The classes were instead held at the minister’s residence, but the room in Chazen’s house was barely big enough for the 8 children, 5 boys and 3 girls. ‘If there were a blackboard it would not be convenient to use it.  The children use Singer’s Prayer Books that are in poor condition’.  This dismal report was in stark contrast with the next one, on 15 November 1953. ‘There has been a striking improvement in the spirit of the classes since my visit in 1951’. There were now 17 pupils –  meeting in the synagogue, although ‘inconveniently situated’, and  ‘In 1951 the classes were lifeless; now they are keen and alert’. There was still criticism but he allowed that they had recently been reorganised.

He did not say who did the teaching in 1953 but it was not Chazen. He had left Oxford some time in 1951,  at some point between 23 February, when a letter from him in the JC gave an Oxford address, and 26 October, when another letter gives a London address. His move to the Palmers Green & Southgate community is confirmed by a JC report of 18 January 1952 which referred to him as headmaster of the classes there.

Rev. Irving Chazen had a varied career after leaving Oxford, ending up at the Visitation chaplain for the United Synagogue, presumably visiting hospitals and perhaps prisons. He died in 1975 aged 60.

In an earlier version of this article I concluded: ‘I think it is now safe to claim Rev Chazen as the last minister to have been employed by the Oxford congregation. Unless another one is lurking in the shadows.’  Since then I came across the 1976 obituary of Rev Isaac Joshua Kibel which stated that ‘during the war years he served the Oxford congregation’. When I looked him up in the Jewish Chronicle I found only one reference to him in a community context. This was at a meeting of the Oxford congregation in 1941 which mentioned him. Otherwise he appeared regularly, weekly,  from the end of 1941 advertising his services as a mohel, his address being 39 Wellington Square. Soon though the adverts had a London address in addition to the Oxford one until the summer of 1945 when his only address is a London one. There is no reference to any activities within the Oxford congregation.

He came from an Orthodox family, has father having been a chazan and shochet in Poland. I do not know if he had any connection with a musician, advertised in the JC in August 1945 as ‘Billy (Schnoz) Kibel (Britain’s Fiddler) and his swingiest’.

With acknowledgement to the Author, Harold Pollins this article was originally published in Oxford Menorah issue no. 198, March 2011

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