JLife speaks to Etz Chaim stalwart Rabbi Anthony Gilbert in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the synagogue.
Etz Chaim Synagogue is one of Leeds’ most prestigious and dynamic orthodox congregations, which came about from the death of a young tailor over a century ago. His body was laid in a stable for three days before a local shul took responsibility to bury him because his family didn’t possess the necessary 10 guineas. In response, a sect of Leeds Jews organised themselves into a chevra kadisha in 1899. Calling themselves Leeds Jewish Burial Society, members paid a penny a week so they could be entitled to an honourable funeral when the time came. A minyan operated the group and a rabbi was appointed in 1911. By 1923 a building in Wintoun Street was opened under the name New Central Vilna Synagogue, now known as Etz Chaim, tree of life.
“Every year we take it upon ourselves to honour the founding of the society on the 15th of Kislev. When Etz Chaim was founded in 1981, it was opened on the 10th of Kislev, which was the nearest Sunday to the 15th – and that was the consecration of our shul 40 years ago.”
Rabbi Gilbert has officially been with the shul since the first day of Sukkot 1977, when he was asked to carry out chazanic duties in the shul’s previous location further down Harrogate Road opposite the Stainburn parade in a converted cinema, four years before the new building known as Etz Chaim opened in Alwoodley: “It seems like only yesterday,” muses Rabbi Gilbert. “40 years for some people is a lifetime already. For me it’s the turning of a page. I’m pleased the shul still remains a living and thriving entity and may it go from strength to strength.”
Rabbi Gilbert has overseen a number of great occasions, from his esteemed colleague Rabbi Shalom Kupperman’s induction in 2006 to a visit from Chief Rabbi Sacks z’l and the Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire marking the 350th anniversary of the reestablishment of the Jewish community in England.
Still boasting a lively shul life dominated by various characters over the years, Etz Chaim continues to perform its core function of looking after its membership. Holding a raft of activities and services three times a day is no mean feat for a provincial community: “It’s challenging, but something that we must continue to do. The shul plays its full part in communal activities and supporting the necessary infrastructure of the community.”
Housing Leeds Kollel, the Mikveh, Leeds Beth Din, a bookshop, and a financial arm in the form of the only community butcher Gourmet Foods, the shul has its finger in more than a few pies. The Harrogate Road deli was borne out of the old chevra kadisha: “When the shop opened in 1911, they had a legend over the door that read: ‘Leeds Jewish Workers Burial and Trading Society – fresh meat daily’. People riding the tram cars up North Street would see this sign and the coffins going in through the side door of the butcher shop and must have thought it was something reminiscent of Sweeney Todd!”
There are always humorous moments in a shul – especially in annual general meetings – yet as Rabbi Gilbert admits: “’One man’s meat is another man’s poison.’ For some people maybe, and for others not, that’s the beauty of serious shul business. People have been very passionate about the synagogue over the years in many aspects to preserve its orthodox ethos and continuity.
e, it still remembers its core ethos of the founding fathers in 1899: to look after the most vulnerable members of society. The congregation has stayed true to that principle throughout the pandemic, telephoning each of its members, and keeping an eye on the approximately 80 elderly people among them who live on their own: “There are many people out there who are exceptionally lonely and need help from time to time. Pastoral care is very important to us, and our new buddy programme in collaboration with Leeds Jewish Welfare Board has been a positive step forward in the last six months coming of the pandemic.
“Our raison d’être was to ensure that when a person passed away, even if they had very little means, in the words of the late David Schiffer, who was for many years the chairman of the society: ‘every member of our community is buried like a king and queen’ – and that’s something we’ve adhered to very strongly.”
So what’s in store for the next 40 years? Well, according to Rabbi Gilbert, it all depends on the direction the community seeks to take: “The future of the congregation is in the hands of the membership. Whatever they decide to do, will be. As long as we keep to the guiding principles of our founding fathers, we won’t stray too far from the path.”