Dayan Lopian zt”l

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In Loving Memory of Dayan Gershon Lopian Z”tl

By Alan Finlay, past-president of Federation of Synagogues and a member of the Yeshurun Synagogue, Edgware. Originally published in Hamaor, April 2014.

Dayan Gershon Lopian zt”l, 1938-2014

A new visitor to Dayan Lopian’s Shabbos afternoon Talmud shiur made us tense. “Please”, we entreated silently, “please don’t ask a question!”

The Dayan took no prisoners. He shot down irrelevant questions – “What’s that got to do with the price of cheese?”, questions about the historical context – “I don’t know, I wasn’t there!”, simplistic questions – “It was like that when I went to cheder”, what was the halocho? – “8952 3720”. Other aphorisms included “the [relevant text] does not suffer verbal diarrhoea” and “you’ve had your chips”. Many attendees had nicknames such as the Irish Litvach or Mr United. I was Monsieur La President and it took years to correct the gender contradiction. To a visitor attending a mid-week l’chaim – “It’s amazing what a bit of schmaltz herring brings out!” To a bare-headed congregant on the street –“Even dustbins have lids.” Visiting Israelis were from Palestine. His usual response to a joke was to tell the speaker: “You may think you are a wit but you’re only half right.” Do we say a particular prayer? “The least said without kavonoh the better.” The Dayan’s method of counting a minyan was politically incorrect. After the first time I davenned Rosh Chodesh from the bima, I said the next time I would be able to do it better. He responded “Who said there will be a next time?

And yet I write these words with tears in my eyes since, notwithstanding the ripostes, we knew that the Dayan loved us all. How did we know? By the wonderful kiss that he gave us men. He took immense pleasure when his members, under his unique guidance advanced in Yiddishkeit, especially our children. He joined us for simchas and, out of respect for the celebrants, he always arrived on time and stayed until after the bensching (rearranging the place names so he could sit next to his rebbetsin during the meal). And he cried with us when we had tzoros, sharing our pain and comforting us.

During his weekly sedra synopsis, Noach’s ark was always the size of an ocean liner, Og was the first asylum seeker and tsara’as was not Hansen’s disease. The Dayan’s Kol Nidre address involved name-checking the treif establishments on Edgware High Street. “X is not kosher, Y is not kosher” and so on. On year, he was pleased to announce that one had recently closed down. He telephoned women members when they had a yahrzeit – “The men can come to shul.” The Dayan established an immediate rapport with non-Jewish people whether they were catering staff, hospital employees or airport workers, especially if he could greet them in their native language.

He encouraged me to open a shul in Elstree, saying “the more pubs, the more drinkers.” I used that for a headline in an article I wrote for the London Jewish News – they censored it. His drosho to bar mitzvah boys (including our son) was often on the placenta of the mule. I nervously asked my non-Jewish secretary who had come to shul, what she thought. “What a lovely man!” she replied. His interfaith work was legendary. He referred to himself as the parish priest, would welcome guests to “our humble parish” and if you opened the door for him, he would say that that it was “very Christian of you.

And, of course, paskenning shi’las was what made the Dayan exceptional. From making a dishwasher pesachdik to advising to switch off a life-support machine, the Dayan paskenned appropriately for the questioner; with sensitivity and in his own inimitable way. We got to know the words “nisht gefelech” and he would finish by saying “next case”. He would often include a requirement for you to say three Hail Marys. He once told me that he had to pasken strictly every so often or else people would not think he was a proper rabbi. He told another congregant, Joe Holder, that when he “went upstairs,” he did not want to be judged for causing hardship (tsar) for people by having been unnecessarily too strict.

At the end of parashas Ki Siso, we learn that Moses came down from Mount Sinai and the skin of his face sent forth beams which frightened the Bnei Yisroel. We then read that Moses would teach the commandments that he learned on Mount Sinai to the children of Israel “and when Moses had done speaking with them, he put a mask (masveh) on his face” (chapter 29 verse 33). The question asked by the Bino L’Itim is that this seems illogical. If the children of Israel were afraid, Moses should have put the mask on while speaking to them directly. His answer was that Moses wanted to make an impact so that his teachings would have a spectacular effect and be remembered; a wow factor so to speak. In order to ensure that this wow factor remained, Moses wore the mask on his face for the rest of the time because familiarity with the beams would meant that the wow factor, that dramatic effect, would be lost.

Such is human nature – and such it was with us and the Dayan. We saw him regularly at the Yeshurun; he was familiar to us and we did not realise, until it was too late, the impact, the wow factor, that he had on people from all over the world who were telephoning him with their halachic questions nor the inspiration that he was to young rabbonim who were all told that the one essential thing that they needed to know as a UK rabbi was “8952 3720”.

Our thoughts remain with his wonderful rebbetsin Judy and all the family. His son-in-law, Rabbi Pinni Birnhack, once described the Dayan as a living sefer torah. When returning the sefer torah to the Ark, we sing “D’roche’ho darchai noam, v’chol nsivoseho shalom.” “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”

And so it was with Moreinu haRav Gershon ben haRav Aryeh Leib, Zecher tsaddick l’vrocho. Long-standing Yeshurun members will always remember our beloved Dayan and be grateful for the unique impact he made and will continue to make on all our lives.

Dayan Gershon Lopian, zt”l

BY HAMODIA STAFF, 5 February 2014

Reprinted with permission from Hamodia Newspaper

As the news broke last Thursday afternoon of the petirah of Dayan Gershon Lopian, zt”l, ripples of shock and grief spread throughout the U.K., Europe, America and Eretz Yisrael. Dayan Lopian, the Rav emeritus of Yeshurun Edgware, was greatly respected for his erudition and much loved for his warmth and humanity. The combination of the two made him a highly sought after posek, by all sectors of the kehillah. The levayah took place on Friday morning, with both the hespeidim, held at Yeshurun, and the kevurah at Edmonton Federation Cemetery, attended by several hundred people. Rabbi Alan Lewis, the current Rav of Yeshurun, spoke first and said that the Dayan was everyone’s father, everyone’s zeide. He asked mechilah on behalf of the shul. He and the other maspidim in the shul: Dayan Y.Y. Lichtenstein, Rosh Beis Din of the Federation Beis Din; Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Lopian, the niftar’s older son; Rabbi Eliezer Schneebalg, Rav of Machzikei Hadass, Edgware; and Rabbi Aharon Lopian, his youngest brother, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivah Lev Aryeh in Yerushalayim, all stressed two points about the Dayan — his love of learning and teaching Torah and his ahavas habriyos.

Reb Yaakov Zvi offered an interesting perspective on his father. Quoting a Mishnah in Pirkei Avos, he said, “Kol sheruach habriyos nochah hemenu, ruach haMakom nocha hemenuh,” translating it as “a person who pleases others, Hashem is pleased with him.” Reb Yaakov Zvi asked why a person’s social skills should affect his relationship with Hashem, and answered that it is unusual for someone to be able to relate to and get on well with all different types of people. A person who can do this is blessed with a gift from Hashem — to be able to touch the lives of many. He linked this with the idea of “shalom— peace” as the state of a relationship. Using the root shalem, completeness or perfection, Reb Yaakov Zvi said that a person with an agenda or “hang-ups” would find it difficult to get on well with other people. Only a person like his father, who had no inner conflict and was content with himself and what he had, has the power to create shalom in the wider community, inspiring everyone who he met with shalom.

At the kevurah, the maspidim were the Dayan’s other brother, Rabbi Dovid Lopian, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivah Mikdash Melech in Brooklyn and Dayan Dovid Grynhaus, with whom Dayan Lopian learned in yeshivah and kollel.

Early Years

Dayan Lopian was born in Portsmouth, in 1938. Having spent time in nearby Petersfield, in order to escape the bombing, in 1942, his parents, Rabbi Leib and Rebbetzin Tzippa Lopian, moved to Gateshead, where his father was one of the founding members of Gateshead Kollel. In 1944, Rabbi Leib Lopian became Rosh Yeshivah of Gateshead Yeshivah. The young Gershon learned in Gateshead Yeshivah until he was 21. At this point his father encouraged him to “spend a year with the Zeide.” “The Zeide” was, of course, Rabbi Elya Lopian, zt”l, who was then the mashgiach of Yeshivas Knesses Chizkiyahu in Kfar Chassidim. The year stretched out and Reb Gershon’s relationship with his grandfather strengthened. Reb Elya encouraged his grandson to specialize in Halachah and he moved to Yerushalayim to learn in Chevron Yeshivah. During this time, he received semichah from Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l (one of only six people to do so); Harav Ovadiah Yosef, zt”l, and others. Rabbi Lopian then returned to England to learn in the Sunderland Kollel, where he spent two years as a bachur.

One day, he was driving to London when he had a terrifying accident, during which his car turned over several times. B”H, he climbed out, completely unhurt. His father said, “Now you can become a chassan!” The Rosh Yeshivah explained that maybe there had been a Heavenly judgment pending against his son. The fear which he had experienced when the car rolled over had been the atonement for this, and now he would be able to find his bashert.

In fact, Rabbi Lopian became engaged just two weeks later to Judy Saberski, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Yitzchak Saberski, of London, whom he married in 1964. Dr. Saberski was close to the previous Mara d’Asra, Harav Chanoch Henich Padwa, z”l, and soon introduced his new son-in-law to him. Rabbi Lopian developed a strong bond with Harav Padwa and, together with his chavrusa, ybl”c, Dayan Grynhaus, used to visit London for shimush with the Rav.

During his time in Sunderland, Rabbi Lopian was very involved with the kehillah: giving a shiur to the baalei batim, and to young people, many of whom remained in contact with him for many years; supervising the mikveh and the butcher’s shop; officiating in one of the shuls on the Yamim Nora’im and, above all, building relationships with people.

In 1974, Rabbi Lopian accompanied his uncle, Rabbi Leib Gurwicz, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Gateshead Yeshivah, to the Agudah Convention in the U.S. There Reb Leib introduced him to Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, and Rabbi Lopian asked if he could have shimush with the Rav. The answer was yes and, with the full support and encouragement of his wife, who remained in Sunderland with their young children, Rabbi Lopian spent five months with Rav Feinstein in 1975. He returned with a Yoreh Yoreh-Yadin Yadin semichah.

Developing Yiddishkeit in Edgware

Yeshurun Synagogue in Edgware approached Dayan Lopian at this point and asked him to become their Rav. The Lopian family moved to Edgware in 1976, to what the Dayan described as “my first and last job.” For a short while during this period, Dayan Lopian also sat on the Federation beis din.

Edgware in the 1970s was a very different community from today. In those days, there were only a handful of arbaah minim in shul on Sukkos and few, if any, women covered their hair. Slowly, with his warmth and genuine passion for Torah, the Dayan, always supported by his Rebbetzin, began to change that. He was not only able to speak to all sorts of people on their own level, but he also learned how to say “hello, how are you?” in a number of different languages, so that he could literally speak to people in their own language. Some people were surprised at the levayah to see a Sikh, who explained that he is a photographer who used to work at chareidi simchos. The Dayan captivated him by greeting him in his mother tongue and he felt he must come and pay his last respects.

Dayan Lopian’s empathy, natural sensitivity and broad knowledge of Halachah, combined with his mesorah from his teachers, enabled him to pasken on a very individual basis, always taking into account the specific circumstances of the question. When a woman called him on Erev Yom Kippur to ask if she needed to fast, due to a particular condition, he concluded that she did — but then phoned her as soon as Yom Tov was over to check how she was. He viewed himself as an ambassador of the Ribbono shel Olam and had no hakpadah that people should daven in his shul or come to his shiur, only that they should daven and learn somewhere.

Dayan Lopian (R) with Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l (C), and, ybl”c, Rabbi Elimelech Bluth (L)

When the “Seed” Jewish education program opened in Edgware, the sessions used to rotate between Yeshurun, Edgware United and Edgware Adass. Dayan Lopian saw Seed as an opportunity to deliver the one-to-one learning that he could not do personally on this scale. He wanted to support it, viewing it as a strengthening force for the kehillah, rather than as competition, so he not only encouraged people to go, but went every week himself, no matter which shul was hosting, acting as a combination of a shoel u’meishiv and a baal simchah, visiting each pair of up to 60 chavrusos to greet them and encourage them in their learning. Jonathan Rabson, who organized the Edgware Seed program for many years, described Dayan Lopian as “the life blood of the program.”

The Dayan’s care for others extended even to those he did not know. A man, whose wife had been ill for a long time and subsequently passed away, came to Edgware for a few days’ break. During Shacharis, the Dayan observed the visitor and could see something was wrong. After davening, the Dayan approached him and asked him what was the matter. The man explained that his wife had died and the last few years had been very hard. When the Dayan did not return home from shul that morning, the “search party” sent out to find him discovered him some time later, crying with the bereaved man.

The Wider Community

Outside of Yeshurun, one of the programs in which the Dayan was most successful was the United Synagogue’s Family Week, which ran for about 20 years from the early 1980s. To some extent a forerunner of Seed’s residential seminars, Family Week was exactly that — combining shiurim for adults, a children’s program, free family time and evening activities. But no matter who the other lecturers were, the highlight of Family Week was always the Dayan’s late-night shiurim, followed by long sessions shmoozing, with appropriate refreshments. One of the long-term achievements of Family Week was the “Family Week Kollel,” comprising an evening of chavrusa learning and the Dayan’s Wednesday night Gemara shiur which was, in fact, the last shiur he gave, the night before his petirah.

The Dayan mentored a large number of other Rabbanim across the UK. The extent of his influence is shown by the following story. A few weeks ago, Aish, the JLE and Seed organized the Aleinu Rabbinic Outreach Conference, attended by over 100 Rabbanim from many different organizations. Rabbi Dovid Tugendhaft, Rav of Nishmas Yisroel, Hendon, and a longterm talmid of Dayan Lopian, was asked to say a few words about outreach. He recounted a story that had happened at a similar event 15 years before, at which the speaker had said that the most important knowledge for a U.K. kiruv rabbi to have was Dayan Lopian’s phone number. Rabbi Tugendhaft said that today, the most important thing to know was… and began to say the Dayan’s number. Pausing, he was amazed to hear the whole room complete the number for him.

Dayan Lopian made everyone feel at home. Together with his Rebbetzin, he welcomed hundreds of people into his home and his family. As his children said, “Once you were a guest, you were part of the family.” And it was as a loving father that the Dayan made demands on his kehillah, sometimes bluntly, sometimes humorously. When he saw that a congregant had not shaved on Chol Hamoed, for example, he would congratulate him with a hug and kiss, and not just the first day, but on every day of Chol Hamoed. Other people also wanted the Dayan’s approval, so they too would improve their mitzvah observance and be rewarded with a trademark kiss.

Later Years

Over the last 20 years, the Dayan became increasingly immobile and eventually underwent several operations. During this time, he never complained, even to his wife, who assisted him devotedly, with the support of dear neighbors, friends and members of the kehillah, who were always on hand to help. Despite his pain and discomfort, he was often seen davening that other people’s problems should be resolved.

His love of learning still dominated his life at this time. Several years ago, the Dayan underwent a back operation and was not allowed even to lift a sefer for nearly five weeks. Instead he listened to recorded shiurim. He finally returned home with a physical therapist as a test to see if he could cope. The therapist made him walk round the house, following a normal routine, which he did successfully. Next he entered his study and sat at his desk with a Gemara, which he picked up and kissed. To the therapist’s amazement, Dayan Lopian then burst into tears. He explained, “This book is my best friend and I missed him dearly!” The Dayan knew exactly where all of his 7,000 sefarim were on the shelf. When his grandson asked him how he could remember this, he replied, “These sefarim are my best friends. Of course I know where they live!”

The risk Yeshurun took when they employed a 37-year-old bearded rabbi from Gateshead, with no previous work experience, certainly paid off, and permanently changed the face of London Jewry. Dayan Lopian is survived by, ybl”c, his wife, Rebbetzin Judy Lopian, their children: Rabbi Yaakov Zvi, Rabbi Chaim Moshe, Mrs. Esther Birnhack, Mrs. Nechama Emanuel and Leah Lopian, grandchildren and a great-grandchild, as well as his siblings: Rebbetzin Sarah Gurwicz, wife of Harav Avrohom Gurwicz, Rosh Yeshivah of Gateshead Yeshivah; Harav Dovid Lopian; Harav Aharon Lopian; Mrs. Rochel Karp, wife of Harav Avrohom Karp, Maggid Shiur in Yeshivas Bais Moshe of Scranton, PA; Mrs. Fraidy Kravitz, wife of Harav Yaakov Kravitz of France; Mrs. Tova Keller, wife of Harav Shmuel Yeshaya Keller, Rosh Mechinah of Telshe Yeshivah in Chicago; and Mrs. Esther Kagan, wife of Harav Shaul Kagan, zt”l, who established the Pittsburgh Kollel.

Yehi zichro baruch.