Lives Lost: London rabbi worked to end community's isolation
LONDON (AP) - Rabbi Avrohom Pinter gave his life to save his neighbors.
When the UK government ordered a lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Pinter went door-to-door in northeast London delivering the public health warning to ultra-Orthodox Jews in his community. Within a few days, the 71-year-old rabbi caught COVID-19 and died.
His sacrifice was only the final chapter of a life in which links were forged between the often isolated community at Stamford Hill and broader British society, whether by working with an Anglican priest to build a community center or by visiting the local mosque, to mourn when a rifleman killed 51 Muslims in New Zealand.
"It served as a bridge in a broader sense," said Chaya Spitz, a protégé of Pinter and CEO of an umbrella organization for Orthodox Jewish charities. "What he did around COVID was typical of his approach in general."
Editor's Note: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembered about people who died from the coronavirus worldwide.
The path to becoming a rabbi, respected by non-Jews, was not easy for a man who grew up in Stamford Hill in the 1950s and 1960s.
Europe's largest ultra-Orthodox community was founded by Jews who fled pogroms in Russia, and it grew around those who escaped the German Nazis during World War II. The experience of anti-Semitism made many Stamford Hill residents suspicious of authority: they paid taxes but did not seek anything in return.
Pinter believed that 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 council in 1982 as a member of the Labor Party.
But his calling was to improve the educational opportunities for Orthodox Jewish girls. Pinter and his wife Rachel were instrumental in building the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School. He was the headmaster, and she set the academic trends by introducing the concept of students sitting for a wide range of advanced exams and striving for excellence.
He saw an opportunity when Labor's Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997. Pinter decided to apply for government funding for his school, even if that meant Yesodey Hatorah had to follow the national curriculum.
Pinter was harassed in the streets and posters called him a traitor, despite having won £ 14 million to build a state-of-the-art high school.
"For many in the Orthodox community, this was the beginning of the end - we have now involved the state in raising our children," recalls Shimon Cohen, a longtime friend of the rabbi. "That would be a disaster."
The disagreement persists even now.
The latest report from the UK Standards Office rated Yesodey Hatorah's students as above average in the subjects they study, but judged the school itself to be "inadequate" as the curriculum is too tight.
For example, students are not taught about human reproduction because the Orthodox community believes that the subject is best dealt with at home.
The criticism showed Pinter's dilemma. While some in his Jewish community saw him as a dangerous modernist, many in broader society saw him as a crazy extremist, Cohen said.
"But he went off with a big smile and said that while he pissed everyone off, he had to do something right," said Cohen. "We have a sentence:" I dance at every wedding. "He managed to navigate through all communities. That was his size."
Pinter found common ground with local Muslim leaders and worked with them to ensure that the food served in local hospitals and prisons adhered to the strict kosher and halal rules of their beliefs.
And when the fighting in Syria poured refugees into Europe in 2016, Pinter joined a group of religious leaders on an information trip to a makeshift refugee camp in Calais, northern France.
After seeing the situation for himself, Pinter returned to London and raised £ 5,000 (US $ 6,500) for the migrants. Your beliefs didn't matter. Your humanity did.
"His ability to show how much he cared was remarkable," said Mustafa Field, director of the Faiths Forum for London, which organized the trip to France. "His ability to sit in a tent with refugees - it wasn't a clean place. But he was able to connect and listen on that level."
And he did it while holding on to his own identity as an Orthodox Jew.
He wore the wide-brimmed hat, black coat and beard dictated by the ultra-Orthodox. He met people for tea but brought his own tea bag to make sure it stayed strictly kosher. And when Prime Minister Theresa May held out her hand in greeting, he took 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.
During these outreach missions in later years, Pinter often spoke about how he mourned his wife, who died in 2014. He decided to read the entire Talmud from her memory and believed he might see her again after his own death, according to a friend Maurice Glasman, a member of the British House of Lords.
"When he died, I thought, 'This is Rabbi Pinter, at least he could look at his wife and say he did his homework," Glasman said.
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