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Rabbi Dow Marmur

It is with a heavy heart and great sadness we share that Rabbi Dow Marmur has passed at his home in Israel. A rabbi’s rabbi who inspired the teachings of Reform Judaism to generations. Zecher Tzadik Livracha, may the Memory of the Righteous be a Blessing.

Rabbi Dow Marmur 1935 – 2022 (Image by David Cooper)

Rabbi Dow Marmur died in Jerusalem at the age of 87. Dow was one of the early graduates of Leo Baeck College who, over a period of 20 years, established much of what is distinctive and compelling about British Reform.

His first pulpit was South West Essex Reform Synagogue where he succeeded Rabbi Dr Alan Miller, a graduate of Jews’ College who left to take up the former pulpit in New York of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the American Reconstructionist Movement. Dow’s background – as a Shoah survivor and Leo Baeck College graduate – was very different.

Dow partnered the synagogue Chair, Bernard Davis (later to become Chair of RSGB and today our oldest living former Chair) to develop a community with clear Jewish intellectual and ethical values. He inspired many women and men in search of a Judaism with spiritual and societal values consonant with the modern world. He also inspired a remarkable number of future rabbis, amongst whom are: Hillel Avidan (Wimbledon), Tony Bayfield (North West Surrey; Director, Sternberg Centre; Head of Reform Movement), Henry Goldstein (Finchley Reform; SWESRS), Maurice Michaels (Bournemouth and former Chair of RSGB and Leo Baeck College), Michael Stanfield (Middlesex New), and Jackie Tabick (West London; North West Surrey; Convenor, Reform Movement Beit Din).

Dow was assiduous in his pastoral work but coupled this with uncompromisingly intellectual sermons and much writing. At early stage in his career, he edited RSGB’s journal Living Judaism and two books of essays on the subject of Reform Judaism. A Genuine Search was the title not just of the second volume but of Dow’s intellectual and spiritual mission.

In 1965, Dow applied for the new post of General Secretary of RSGB – for which the late Raymond Goldman of Alyth Gardens was preferred. Ironically, in 1969, Dow joined Jews’ College-trained Philip Cohen at the North Western Reform Synagogue, Alyth Gardens – succeeding him three years later. Rabbi Marmur transformed the community into a powerhouse of Jewish Reform. Once again, he was an assiduous pastor and an inspirer and recruiter of voluntary leadership. His sermons developed into gems of intellectual and spiritual challenge: inspiring many and also cajoling others to raise their horizons and confront the great issues of the day. What he demanded was a distinctively Jewish response.

Yet beneath the insistently intellectual face, lay a deeply loving, caring man. It’s been said that Dow didn’t suffer fools gladly and he certainly didn’t like his sermons being interrupted by crying babies – a characteristic for which his friends and admirers frequently teased him.

Dow was to express his Judaism in the book Beyond Survival: Reflections on the Future of Judaism. A survivor himself – he was born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now South East Poland in 1935. His parents fled with him to Lwow (now Lviv in Ukraine) in 1940 but they were transported to Siberia. In 1942, the three of them ‘escaped’ Siberia for Uzbekistan and Dow, aged, seven and eight, helped feed the family by selling soap on the streets of a town called Fergana near Tashkent.

In 1948, the family finally got to Gothenburg in Sweden where Dow met his wife of 66 years Fredzia, herself a survivor of Ravensbruck. After school in Sweden and work at the Israeli Legation in Stockholm, he was persuaded to move to England where he studied at the newly established Leo Baeck College, graduating in 1962, just after Michael Leigh z”l (Edgware) and Lionel Blue z”l. Despite the cruellest and harshest of backgrounds, Dow insisted in Beyond Survival that survival as a people, as an ethnic group, was not enough. Survival demanded taking the Jewish people, Judaism and the Jewish God forward to grapple with the challenges of our time.

Dow Marmur’s influence went far beyond Alyth and not just through his writing. In 1980, he became the first British Reform rabbi to advocate Jewish day schools and do something about it. He recruited two prominent leaders of Alyth, Peter Levy z”l and Neil Benson to find a site for what would become Akiva School. Characteristically, Peter and Neil went further than even Dow could have dreamt, found and financed the purchase of the Manor House site in East End Road, Finchley which soon became the Manor House Centre for Judaism and then (thanks to another Alyth member, Sir Sigmund Sternberg z”l), the Sternberg Centre for Judaism. It housed not only Akiva School but RSGB (first at West London Synagogue, then over a Chinese restaurant and massage parlour in Finchley Road at Swiss Cottage), Leo Baeck College and a synagogue which is now New North London.

In 1983, sadly for British Reform, the Marmurs left Alyth and Britain for the far more expansive and less embattled world of North America. Dow was headhunted for the position of Senior Rabbi at the curiously-named Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. Here he played a significant role not just at Holy Blossom but in the wider Toronto community and its university life. It was here that he wrote Star of Return, the finest exposition of a Reform theology of Israel ever written. Tony Bayfield recalls the honour of being Scholar in Residence there for a week but was most struck by the huge car park with a space, in prime position, marked: “Reserved for Rabbi Marmur – Day and Night”. It says a great deal both about the respect Rabbi Marmur commanded in a not always respectful Jewish world and his devotion to a Judaism determined to press forward and grapple with a challenging post-Shoah world – without trivialising Judaism or setting the bar too low.

After many years in Toronto, Dow and Fredzia were faithful to their vow in Gothenburg to ‘return’ and settled in Jerusalem. Many of us will be familiar with Dow’s regular ‘Letter from Israel’ responding to the hopes and frustrations of Jewish life there. In 2004 Dow published an autobiography entitled Six Lives: Beginnings in Poland, Exile in the Soviet Union, Refuge in Sweden, Vocation in England, Challenge in Canada and Homecoming to Israel. It documents a life which encapsulates the story of Jews, Judaism and the Jewish God in the 20th Century.

Dow leaves Fredzia, his wife of 66 years who recently endured a severe life- threatening stroke and three children: Viveca, a retired palliative care nurse who lives here in England; Michael, a distinguished rabbi and author, former Dean of Hebrew Union College’s rabbinic school in Jerusalem and former Dean of HUC in Cincinnati who, with his wife Sarah, has three grown up Israeli children; and Elizabeth Kessel, who with husband Anthony is a member of Alyth and whose two children are both graduates of Akiva School.

Tony Bayfield writes: “Dow established British Reform as uncompromising in its intellectual integrity and seriousness of theology. A man of great kindness, unflagging in his pastoral work, he nevertheless had no truck with those who would trivialise Judaism or insist on seeing it as primarily for the children. Rabbi Dow Marmur was a truly great man who has bequeathed us a legacy of incalculable worth. He was my rabbinic father and I feel totally bereft.”

A tribute from Bernard Davis:

How and what does one write in a few words about a distinguished rabbi who has been a much loved personal friend for over 60 years?

I was lucky enough to meet Dow when I was President of the South-West Essex Reform Synagogue in the early 1960’s.  Our first Rabbi, Alan Miller, z.l. , had ‘received a call’ to become rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the Reconstructionist synagogue in New York and my synagogue had advertised for a successor.  Dow, about to receive semicha from the Leo Baeck College, answered the advertisement and I still clearly remember the Shabbat afternoon at Jack Sheratte’s, the Chairman’s home, when we spent more than two hours talking with Dow about his religious ideas and ideals.  Our community of some 200 families was idealistic and we were concerned with such matters as Jewish education for all involving bar mitzvah at 16 rather than 13 and equal rights for women.  Dow’s ideals and ours dovetailed perfectly and we knew he was the right man to lead the community.  By the time he received his ‘call’ to go to Alyth in 1969 membership was some 1,300 families and he was leading a dynamic congregation.

Dow and Fredzia became my close personal friends and I spent many happy evenings in their home after the Friday evening services and on many other occasions.  Both at South-West Essex and at Alyth Dow was involved with the growth of the Reform Movement in the UK as well as the re-establishment of destroyed congregations on the continent of Europe and the development of the State of Israel.   

All this time Dow had his beloved Fredzia as partner, adviser, confidante, mother to Viveca, Michael and Elisabeth and home maker,  enabling him to get on with his life’s work and giving him tremendous stability in their marriage which enabled him to do and achieve so much.

When his ‘call’ came to go to Holy Blossom in Toronto Dow did not forget his friends and I was one of those privileged to attend his family’s simchas there as well as in the UK.

It was no surprise when Dow and Fredzia retired to live in Jerusalem.  Dow had always been a strong Zionist in the best sense of the word and it was a natural progression to want to be in Israel and to be involved with and a commentator on Israeli life. His family mourn the loss of a husband and father, the world mourns the loss of a great rabbi and I mourn the loss of a great personal friend.  

Bernard Davis 

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