RABBI DOW MARMUR 10th February 1935 – 17th July 2022
Rabbi Dow Marmur was one of the G’dolim, the Greats of his generation. Since his generation was that of the Shoah, his defiant determination, scholarship and humanity is an astonishing testimony to the rabbinic and human spirit.
Marmur was born in Sosnowiec in February 1935 and spent the first four years of his life with his parents Max and Zipporah – members of the socialist-Zionist party, Poalei Zion – in the small town of Jaslo in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now South-East Poland. When the Germans invaded in 1939, the family fled to Lwow (today, Lviv in Ukraine) but were promptly transported by the Soviets to Siberia. After more than a year struggling to survive, they ‘escaped’ to Uzbekistan where, aged seven and eight, Dow was helping feed the family by selling soap on the streets of Fergana, 300km from Tashkent. When the War ended, the Marmurs were repatriated to Katowice. Only in 1948 did they finally manage to join his father’s sisters in Gothenburg, Sweden and nine years of living in constant fear finally came to an end.
In Sweden Dow completed his schooling and went to work for the Israeli Legation. In 1954 he met Fredzia Zonabend, a survivor of Ravensbruck. They married when Dow was 21 and Fredzia 20 and were inseparable, mutually supportive and interdependent for the next 66 years. Dow continued to work as a diplomat for the Legation but was encouraged to study. Feeling that something was lacking at the University of Stockholm, he enrolled at Leo Baeck College, arriving only twelve months after its foundation in 1956.
His early years in England proved difficult. At a time when he needed stability, the College was little more than a hope; its two initial students, Michael Leigh and Lionel Blue were very different from Dow, the Polish survivor, not least because English was their native language. But two of his teachers made a lasting impression: Bible teacher Dr Ellen Littmann, herself a refugee from Germany and theologian Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum, likewise a survivor who, with his wife, became Dow and Fredzia’s role models.
Rabbi Marmur ‘s first pulpit was South-West Essex Reform Synagogue in Ilford where he succeeded its first rabbi Dr Alan Miller, a graduate of Jews’ College who had left for New York to take up the pulpit of Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism.
Dow partnered the young synagogue Chair, Bernard Davis (later to become Chair of RSGB and today the Reform Movement’s oldest living former Chair) to develop a community with clear contemporary Jewish values. He inspired many women and men in search of an intellectually and ethically sustaining expression of Judaism with spiritual and societal values consonant with the needs of the modern world. Whilst there, he also inspired a remarkable number of future rabbis, amongst whom are: Hillel Avidan, Tony Bayfield, Henry Goldstein, Maurice Michaels, Michael Standfield, and Jackie Tabick.
Dow was assiduous in his pastoral work but coupled this with uncompromisingly intellectual sermons, intensive study groups and considerable writing. At an early stage in his career, he took on the editorship of RSGB’s journal Living Judaism and edited 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 1969, Marmur 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 British Reform, his influence extending far beyond the walls of Alyth. He was the first British Reform rabbi to embrace Jewish day schooling and dispatched two prominent leaders of Alyth, Peter Levy z”l and Neil Benson to find a site for what would become Akiva School. The two succeeded even beyond Marmur’s expectations and the Manor House site in East End Road, Finchley soon became the Manor House (later Sternberg) Centre for Judaism – housing not only Akiva School but RSGB, Leo Baeck College and the synagogue that is now New North London.
In 1982, Marmur published Beyond Survival: Reflections on the Future of Judaism. This pioneering work argued that Jewish survival as a distinctive people is not enough; it must be survival that gives intellectual and theological underpinning to post-Shoah Jews, Judaism and the Jewish God.
In 1983, sadly for British Reform, the Marmurs - Dow, Fredzia and their three children Viveca, Michael and Elizabeth – left Britain for the more expansive, less embattled Jewish world of North America. Rabbi Marmur had been headhunted for the position of Senior Rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto where the respect and willingness to be rabbinically-led articulated by the leadership was music to his ears. But his initial hopes were soon blunted by jealousies and resistance to change. The community had been led by Rabbi Gunther Plaut, still present as Emeritus Rabbi and held in awe – which had made life difficult for Plaut’s successor and Marmur’s predecessor, Rabbi Harvey Field. Eventually, Marmur prevailed and went on to inspire the same love, admiration and respect amongst his Canadians congregants that had marked his time in Ilford and Temple Fortune.
What characterised his rabbinate in Canada was, once again, an insistence on an intellectually and spiritually satisfying adult Judaism. Influenced by Franz Rosenzweig’s model of the Lehrhaus, Marmur’s focus was always on adult learning. Attendance at his pre-Shabbat morning service Torah study sessions was remarkable. His telling aphorism was, “our grandparents’ practised Judaism for the sake of their parents; our parents for the sake of their children; now let’s practise Judaism for ourselves”. This was particularly challenging because of the philosophy which underpinned it. The community was wedded to North American Reform emphasis on the freedom of the individual to choose their expression of Judaism for themselves. Marmur responded by insisting that the needs of community took precedence.
Just as he had established at South-West Essex and at Alyth so Marmur’s Reform Judaism emphasised g’milut hasadim (deeds of loving kindness) and avodah (service, prayer) as well as Torah study. Long before they became widespread, Marmur pioneered what were often seen as counter-cultural projects – every Thursday evening inviting into Holy Blossom the poor and needy for, as a congregant put it, “a warm meal, warm hospitality and a good night’s sleep”.
Even more challenging was the response he led to AIDS. Rabbi Marmur and a “mission-driven team” at Holy Blossom established support networks for people living and dying of AIDS, funded medical bills and funeral costs and created a third seder with their own Haggadah. “They turned the whispers of fear and shame into a full-throated call for dignity, humanity and – eventually – justice and pride.” Rabbi Murmur also continued the interfaith reconciliation work he had begun, also controversially, at SWERS.
Marmur became a highly respected figure throughout Toronto, teaching at university and contributing to public debate through the Press. It was whilst he was in Toronto that he published The Star of Return, the most important Reform contribution to a theology of Israel yet written. His parents had been Zionist activists; he had worked as a diplomat with the Israeli Legation in Stockholm; and when the Marmurs retired from Holy Blossom they finally ‘returned home’ to Jerusalem – though for some years, spending half the year in Toronto and half in Jerusalem.
After a brief spell following Rabbi Richard Hirsch’s retirement as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Dow Marmur finally ‘retired’ himself but continued to enrich the lives of his many friends and admirers in a variety of countries with regular bulletins tracing the hopes and frustrations of life in Israel, attempting to reconcile Israel’s desire to be a people and nation like any other with the prophetic ideals of justice and compassion for all people to which he had held faithful through the vicissitudes of the most challenging of lives.
Dow Marmur’s autobiography Six Lives traces his journey through Poland, Uzbekistan, Sweden, Britain, Canada and Israel, encapsulating the narrative of 20th Century Jewry. It’s also the memoir of a survivor who expresses the hope of offending no-one but tells the truth as he experienced it, assessing people whom he encountered from childhood onwards with an un-British frankness.
He leaves Fredzia, his wife of 66 years, who recently hung between life and death after a severe stroke, and three children: Viveca, a retired palliative care nurse who lives in England; Michael, a rabbi and scholar, former Dean of Hebrew Union College’s Rabbinic school in Jerusalem and former Provost of HUC in Cincinnati and three Israeli grandchildren, Miriam, Nadav and Gaby; and Elizabeth Kessel, a former actress who lives in London and whose two children, Leone and Ethan, are both graduates of Akiva School.
Marmur established British Reform as uncompromising in its intellectuality and seriousness of theology. A man of deep kindness, unflagging in his pastoral work, he nevertheless had no truck with those who would trivialise Judaism or set the bar of Jewish life too low. Rabbi Dow Marmur was a truly great man. He was my rabbinic father and his death leaves me utterly bereft.
Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield CBE, formerly Head, Movement for Reform Judaism