The Jewish Chronicle

27 August 2010


Lawrence Rigal


DIED LONDON, JULY 19, 2010, AGED 81.

MINISTER OF the Stepney Settlement, Rabbi Lawrence Rigal was a late recruit to the ministry having trained in industry and worked in retail and as a voluntary youth club leader.

The second of three sons of South-African born Goldwin (Goldie) and Ethel Rigal, he won a scholarship to Highgate. The public school was evacuated to the West Country during the Second World War, so he missed out on a barmitzvah - but received presents.

His parents were founder members of North Western Reform Synagogue before it had a building in Alyth Gardens. He attended cheder and Shabbat services until the outbreak of war.

But once his parents moved out to Rickmansworth, Herts, to escape the blitz. he became a weekly boarder and only attended High Holy Day services.

During national service from 1946- 49 he served in the RAF as a ground wireless mechanic, reaching the rank of leading aircraftsman. Though he regarded working on radios and radar as a waste of time, the experience introduced him to the "real world".

He then took a two year shoemaking course at Cordwainers Technical College. Just before the war his mother had sponsored a German-Jewish shoemaker called Goldschmidt, who built up a small business in handmade ladies’ shoes. His mother had a financial interest in the business and thought it a good opportunity for her son.

But by the time he qualified, recession had forced Goldschmidt's closure. After a short-lived job in an East End shoe factory Lawrence became a salesman at the shoe chain Dolcis, and then at a West End children's outfitter, rising to departmental manager and giving evening lectures at Cordwainers on shoe-fitting.

In his free time he fundraised in the North West London Aid Society for the Home for Aged Jews, Wandsworth. With his older brother, George, he formed the Norwesters, taking school pupils round museums and historic sites in the holidays. The group included future historian Martin Gilbert.

In 1954 he started a youth club for the over-16s at the newly formed Wembley Progressive Jewish Congregation, which his parents had joined and where he studied Claude Montefiore's Outlines of Liberal Judaism.

This led him to evening classes at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John's Wood, under Dr Abram Spiro and Rabbi John Rayner.

A couple of years later he was asked to form a junior club for 13-15-year-olds. In the post-war years, these clubs introduced teenagers to each other as future Jewish marriage partners. As chairman of these clubs and their wider federation, Lawrence became youth representative on the council of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues.

He now spent so much time on youth work, which he saw as a religious commitment, that he thought he should make it a ministerial career. He was also deeply influenced by the correspondence course he was studying under Dr Spiro, which for him reconciled religion and science, and deepened his Jewish commitment.

But he was unable to study at Leo Baeck College because the college, founded in 1956 by the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, did not accept Liberal students until 1965. Instead he was sent to University College London to gain a degree in Hebrew literature with added rabbinic tuition.

He studied Talmud and Shulchan Aruch, the 16th-century codification, for a year while serving Liberal congregations without ministers. He took services in Leicester, Crawley, Southend, Liverpool, Woodford and the Stepney Settlement.

For High Holy Days he travelled to Bristol with a Torah scroll strapped to his scooter pannier. He studied Hebrew at ulpan on holiday in Israel.

He ran religion classes at West Central Synagogue and was invited by Lily Montagu, the matriarch of Liberal Judaism, to her family Friday night supper, which featured selected prayers and readings in place of kiddush.

Ordained in 1964, his first post was at Birmingham Liberal Synagogue. Moving to South London Liberal Synagogue, Streatham, in 1967, he was told that two applicants for conversion had been waiting some time.

One of these made such a deep impression upon him that, after her conversion, he started dating her. Kay and Lawrence's marriage was conducted by Rabbi John Rayner.

In 1974 he took on the double load of Woodford and West Central Synagogues. In 1980 he switched Woodford for Beds-Herts, later Chiltern Congregation, now Bedfordshire Progressive Synagogue, in Luton. His younger brother, Cedric, was its first chairman. Both brothers survive him.

In 1985 he moved as full-time rabbi to the Bnai Brith Stepney Settlement, founded in 1919 as St George’s Settlement Synagogue. To him the congregation "had the feel of a grown-up youth club". Membership was ageing and the Jewish East End population declining. At 54,he estimated the post might take him to retirement.

In fact he took that step 24 years later and was active till the end. He saw through Stepney's 1997 merger with South West Essex Reform Synagogue. He officiated at the Settlement's 90th anniversary celebrations and in June this year was awarded a fellowship by Leo Baeck College. When he started at the Settlement, a Reform congregation, his Liberal ordination was recognised with the title of rabbi - previously he had been Rev.

A dedicated and serious enthusiast of many interests, Lawrence Rigal was a fossil collector - one of his 300 species is in the National Collection - as well as a photographer, wine-maker - halted eventually by the explosion of a bottle of elderberry champagne in his cellar - and a computer designer.

The Stepney Branch Website, one of his three web designs, gave information on Stepney the congregation and the Jewish East End. He hand-made the mosaic panels framing the Ark at the Beds-Hearts Synagogue and the Star of David at the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium.

His seminal work, Liberal Judaism: the First 100 Years (2004), was co-written with ULPS director Rosita Rosenberg. He loved his Judaism but believed it was essentially an ethical platform for living with all his fellow brothers and sisters. Civilised to the core, he was a universalist, a generous soul who believed in and found good in all humanity.

He is survived by his wife, Kay and two sons, Daniel and Gideon.