In the summer of 2018, sponsored by a grant awarded to my synagogue, Providence’s Congregation Beth Sholom, I traveled to Ireland and Northern Ireland to learn about Jewish life and contemporary literature relating to Jews there.
I was accompanied by my brother, Amir Afsai, a journalist who teaches Hebrew at Sts. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School, in Jerusalem, and is familiar with conflict zones.
Like Jerusalem, Belfast is a city marred by political and sectarian strife, and Belfast’s Jewish residents cannot avoid its engrained societal divisions. Over the past several decades, many Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland have taken to using the Arab-Israeli conflict as a proxy for their own political and sectarian tensions. More Palestinian than Irish flags decorate various Catholic Belfast neighborhoods, while in Protestant areas there are murals praising the state of Israel.
My brother and I attended services at the Belfast Jewish Community, Northern Ireland’s last remaining synagogue. When we met the Rev. David Kale, it was only his second Shabbat as the community’s religious leader.
The congregation was tremendously warm and welcoming to us, and Kale gave me the honor of delivering the Shabbat morning discourse at the conclusion of the services. I spoke on the topic of Benjamin Franklin’s influence on Judaism.
The following day, I visited Kale at his home, which is a short walk from the Belfast synagogue and was also the home of previous religious leaders.
The edited exchange below is drawn from that initial conversation with Kale at his Belfast home, from a roundtable discussion held at the synagogue with Kale and other members of the congregation, and from ongoing email correspondence.
I had hoped for another chance for us to see each other in person, but COVID-19 intervened.
You are a reverend, or minister. Neither of these are titles that Jews today in America would associate with synagogue leadership.
A reverend is an experienced and qualified person who is authorized by the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth to carry out all the duties of a rabbi, or to act as hazzan [cantor] of a shul [synagogue], without having semicha [rabbinic ordination]. A reverend carries out all the duties that a pulpit rabbi in America would carry out. Being a trained hazzan also carries with it the title of “reverend.” There are very few reverends today. The position is going to become extinct.
What led you to enter the ministry?
I wanted to become a rabbi from an early age. My maternal grandfather was the rav [rabbi] of Machzikei Hadas, in London’s East End. He came from Lithuania. My paternal grandfather came from Lodz, in Poland, and was a founding member of the Ilford Federation Synagogue. I attended Etz Chayim Yeshiva in Golders Green, in Northwest London, and trained privately to become a hazzan, a ba’al koreh [Torah reader] and a ba’al tekiah ["shofar blower"]. I have been a ba’al koreh and ba’al tekiah since the age of 13.
I grew up in Bournemouth, a seaside resort, which had about six big Kosher hotels catering solely for Jewish people, similar to the hotels that were in the Catskills [in upstate New York] in America. Every hotel had its own shul and Shabbat services. Sometimes they had weekday services as well.
The mashgichim [Kosher food supervisors] were also retired hazzanim [cantors], and some gave derashot [sermons] too. When these men went out of town on holiday, they needed someone to lead prayers and lein [chant from the Torah] in their place, and my late father, alav hashalom [peace be upon him], would volunteer me to substitute for them. When I was 15, I started shofar-blowing at one of these hotels. I started leining at age 13, and leining became my forte.
Yet you did not end up becoming a rabbi.
My parents did not want me to have a career of a hazzan or a rabbi, but to have a profession. Consequently, I trained and then practiced for many years as a solicitor, which in America you would call an attorney. However, I regularly substituted for rabbonim [rabbis] in London shuls when they went on vacation. In addition, I regularly undertook rabbinical duties for the Yomim Noraim [High Holy Days].
The Troubles drastically reduced Northern Ireland’s Jewish population, and there may now be as few as 300 Jews here, most of whom are not young. What drew you to minister to Belfast’s synagogue?
I consider it to be vital to keep alive all shuls, no matter where they are situated. In my personal opinion, it is so hard to build a shul. It is very easy to close one down. Years ago, Northern Ireland had several shuls. It is now down to just one. This shul must not be allowed to disappear. If, God forbid, it was to disappear, there would be no Jewish representation whatsoever in Northern Ireland.
I also think that we should strive to keep communities going no matter where they are situated. If we do not do this, then in the United Kingdom, for example, there will only be Jewish life in London and Manchester. If we do not support the smaller communities, they will disappear.
How has it been to be part of such a relatively small congregation, with about 70 members?
The Belfast Jewish Community is known for being warm, kind, considerate and caring. It tries very hard to reach out and welcome all Jews. Its doors are always open to visitors, who are welcomed with open arms. Serving a small community is very important. It needs someone to guide them more than a large community.
When you are in a small community, a few people carry the burden. Everyone is needed and you feel connected. It is like a family. People look out for one another. They look forward to visitors more and hope people will move in. A small community has a lot to offer.
Were you already familiar with the Belfast Jewish Community before this position opened up?
I have known about the Belfast Jewish Community since I was a child. It has an illustrious history. One of its former rabbanim [rabbis] was Rabbi Isaac Herzog, who served the Belfast community from 1916 to 1919, and then became the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the state of Israel. Rabbi Herzog’s son, Chaim, was born in Cliftonpark Avenue in Belfast. [A plaque marking Chaim Herzog’s birthplace was taken down in 2014 after anti-Israel graffiti was sprayed on the building and objects were hurled at it.] He later became the sixth president of the state of Israel.
Northern Ireland is known for entrenched sectarian strife. Has this affected how you see your role?
I have done interfaith work for many years. The chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Ephraim Mirvis, feels there should be interfaith work among rabbis wherever they live. This will also help to combat anti-Semitism and reduce a feeling of being threatened by one another.
Relationships between Jewish and non-Jewish people saved lives during the Holocaust. My grandfather … gave tzedakah [charity] to the nuns who came around. He said, and believed, you must also show non-Jews respect. I have a role in interfaith work and in ensuring and promoting better understanding among the faiths. I am here to serve the Jewish population, and maybe make Belfast more religiously vibrant.
The COVID-19 outbreak has deeply altered the Jewish communal experience in Rhode Island. How has it impacted your efforts in Belfast?
We are in total lockdown [since the end of March], so there are no services or meetings in shul. I try to send an email every day to congregants. I also send a very lengthy newsletter, which not only contains news and details of members’ yahrzeits but an in-depth look at the sidrah [Torah portion] of the week and the haftarah. I phone every congregant at least once a week, and sometimes two or three times.
There is a saying, “every cloud has a silver lining.” The [COVID-19] silver lining for me is that I have built up a rapport with several members who have not attended synagogue for years. I have discovered a few Jewish people that the synagogue did not know existed – and in a small community, every single person is extremely important.
SHAI AFSAI (shaiafsai.com) lives in Providence. His article, “A Persistent Interest in the Other: Gerry Mc Donnell’s Writings on Irish Jews,” was published in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review (Autumn 2019). A longer version of his interview with Reverend Kale was published in The Jerusalem Report in July 2020.