London-born Rabbi Chaim Ingram has been working as a dedicated rabbi in Sydney, Australia for 30 years, working tirelessly for the Australian Jewish community, particularly with the elderly, for which he was recently awarded a medal, the Order of Australia (OAM) from the Governor-General of Australia.
Rabbi Ingram has retranslated the burial service and drawn up protocols and guidelines regarding Jewish patients for staff in New South Wales hospitals in Australia, is an accomplished, trained chazan and has successfully used music therapy with a dementia patient and Down Syndrome adult.
He and his wife are senior tutors for the Sydney Beth Din, overseeing candidates’ conversion process. They visited refuseniks in the USSR during the height of the repression in 1984, and was apprehended in an incident which made the world news at the time and caused a temporary easing of conditions for the Jews there.
The Jewish Press recently spoke to Rabbi Ingram about his life and work as a rabbi.
The Jewish Press: Rabbi Ingram, I believe you are approaching a milestone?
Rabbi Chaim Ingram: Actually three! I am, thank G-d, in my seventieth year of life and the fortieth year of my very happy marriage. And this month marks three decades since I first set foot in Australia, my adopted home where I have been blessed to serve as rabbi and mentor for the past thirty years, bring up (together with my wife, Judith) my two children, both now happily married, and receive, by the grace of G-d and the governor-general, a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).
Can you tell me about your background? Did you always want to be a rabbi?
As far as I am aware, there are no rabbis in my family within recent generations. I never knew my father’s mother but from photographs of her it is evident she was a frum woman. I was brought up in London, traditional United Synagogue Orthodox. My parents of blessed memory made sure my sister and I had a good cheder education. We did not attend Jewish schools, but I believe I had a better Jewish education in my cheder in Forest Gate in east London than I would have had at a mainstream Jewish school. I took and passed junior and senior examinations set by the London Board of Jewish Religious Education. But I never dreamed I would one day be a rabbi. My grandmother, a.h., thought that I would be an accountant as I loved playing around with numbers and still do!
What set you on the path?
I belonged to the UK-wide Jewish Youth Study Groups movement, probably not dissimilar to NCSY in the USA. I went to a summer school and that fired me up to intensify my commitment to Orthodox Judaism. But it was still a long path to being a rabbi. I spent three years in York doing a music degree.
York had a tiny Jewish community and, as you may know, a tainted history from medieval times. A massacre of the city’s Jews occurred in 1190. I used to travel to nearby Leeds for Shabbat. I was very active in the university’s Jewish society.
What did you plan to do with your music?
A good question! I hadn’t really thought about it. By the time I was into my second year, all I could think about was that I couldn’t wait to attend yeshiva. I spent quality time in Dvar Yerushalyim, a yeshiva geared to university graduates, which was blessed with top rabbeim including Rabbi Baruch Horovitz and Rabbis Aryeh Carmell and Eli Munk, z”l. Rabbi Munk was a supreme influence in fashioning my Jewish hashkafa (outlook). I have often quoted him in my books and other writings.
And after yeshiva, what then?
I actually became a music teacher in London for a few years and also worked in the BBC music research library. But I wanted to serve the Jewish community. My first thought was to become a chazan. I studied at Jews’ College, London, including under Rev. Leo Bryll, z”l. Hashem had blessed me with inherent musicality and a naturally resonant voice, and I developed my vocal skills under Bryll as well as a love for nusach ha-tefillah. I had sung in my local shul choir since the age of eleven, and Providence decreed that I step in the breach when the shul’s chazan left. However, while I deem it a great privilege to lead a kehila in prayer and be their ambassador to G-d, as it were, I never saw myself as purely a chazan. I had a desire to reach out to others and communicate to them the beauty of Yiddishkeit. It was but a small step to decide to learn for semicha, which I eventually received from Rav Chaim Wolkin of Petach Tikva, with the invaluable help of my landsman and mentor Rabbi Nochum Matlin, z”l. After I got married, I took a post in Newcastle upon Tyne as chazan and assistant minister before I was appointed as rabbi of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation. At last, I had my own congregation!
And while in Newcastle, you and your wife rose to international prominence!
Not quite. As a young and enthusiastic rabbinical couple, we were sent as emissaries by the local branch of the 35s (Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry) to visit refuseniks in Leningrad and Moscow. It was February 1984, during the interregnum between Andropov and Chernenko, and the KGB were out to prove themselves. Consequently we, as well as other Jews visiting at the time, were harassed by the KGB. Although we had done nothing illegal, we were apprehended, interrogated in the presence of a TASS reporter, placed under hotel arrest and eventually had our visa cancelled. On our return we gave an interview which elicited much sympathy for us as well as the people we visited and much distaste for the KGB tactics against innocent foreigners in the British press and beyond. The result was that Soviet harassment of Jewish visitors lessened considerably, at least for a while.
Did you get to meet any refuseniks?
Yes, in Leningrad we met with several refuseniks including Yitzchak Kogan and Gregory Wasserman, both of whom are now rabbis in Moscow and Rekhasim (near Haifa) respectively. Yitzchak, known as the “Tzaddik of Leningrad,” was a baal teshuva who became a clandestine shochet. We recall him telling us how he always had to find a different site for his shechita operations lest he be caught in the act. He aided many refuseniks under the radar including “celebrities” like Ida Nudel and Iosef Mendelovitch.
What else do you remember about that visit?
We were told inspirational stories about how Jews who only had a smidgen of Torah knowledge taught those who had none; and how valiant parents bound the right hand of their children in a bandage on Shabbat (Saturday school was compulsory) so that they would not have to write.
All the very special Jews we were privileged to meet expressed their deep appreciation for our visit. It means so much to know that Jews throughout the world care for our plight, they all said. What they did not realize is that they did far more for us than we for them! What we later experienced on that trip gave us a very small taste of the fear under which they lived on a daily basis. They were a tremendous beacon of continuing inspiration. How Soviet Jews not only survived but flourished as Jews is one of the miracles of the twentieth century and its impact is still being felt today!
What did you innovate in Leicester?
Shimon HaTzaddik said that the world stands on three planks: Torah, service of G-d, and acts of kindness. That third plank happily did not need much input from me. Leicester was a well-run boutique community with many social, charitable and welfare organizations. We established regular weekday minyanim, no easy task. I also wanted to imbue a love of Torah learning into the community. I did that initially by forming a body (JOLLE – don’t ask me now what it stood for!) around the existing organizations which would work together initially towards holding a Book Fayre with inspirational speakers. This led to regular shiurim and SEED program (my wife and I had also co-ordinated a strong SEED in Newcastle) and the staging of a SEED seminar in Leicester. We also spearheaded a local branch of Jewish Youth Study Groups and for many years after I left Leicester, my wife and I gained rich nachas by seeing how so many the youth we had nurtured took up leading roles in their university J-Socs and other Jewish organisations. One even became a rabbi!
Leicester boasts the largest multi-faith community in the UK. I was very active in multi-faith work including hosting diverse communities in the shul and was the Jewish representative on a small Working Party convened to draw up a formal syllabus for religious education in Leicestershire schools.
My wife and set up a Jewish nursery school but sadly the community was not large enough for it to develop into a fully-fledged Jewish day school. Our kids were getting older, and we sensed it was time to move on.
And then you came to Sydney?
Down Under had never really been on our radar. Many years earlier, we had been approached by the Brisbane and Wellington Hebrew Congregations but had never seriously considered accepting. But I received out of the blue a phone call from the president of the Central Synagogue in Sydney who was in the UK and was keen to interview me. When there was no follow-up after the interview, I assumed that nothing would come of it. Then about a year later, I was invited for a two-week trial in Sydney. I recall ringing my wife from a phone booth near Bondi Beach waxing lyrical about its beauty and about Sydney’s Jewish facilities which, compared to Leicester, made Sydney in my eyes akin to New York! She was so infected by my enthusiasm she said, without seeing the place for herself, “If they offer you the job, take it!” They did! And I did!
We comforted our parents with the thought that at least Australia wasn’t as far away from England as New Zealand!
But you came principally as chazan?
That’s right. At least initially. I trained the choir and re-harnessed my music skills. It was many months before I was allowed to speak from the pulpit. Later I was promoted to associate rabbi and was acting chief rabbi for a short while. Central was (and remains) a massive congregation of about 2,000 members. I spent eleven very happy years there before moving on to become the rabbi of a small Sephardi community, develop a new community on Queensland’s Gold Coast, help set up and teach at a boutique Jewish school for a kollel community, become the regular baal keria for the Adass Yisrael community and, latterly, the fly-in-fly-out rabbi for the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation in South Australia – among other pursuits!
Can you tell me something about these other pursuits?
First of all, let me say that I could have achieved nothing without my better half. Judith is a talented teacher of both children and adults in her own right but has also been a bedrock of support to me. Despite or perhaps because of, her present health challenges, she continues to be an inspiration.
At Central, she and I and our two children, Ashira and Gavriel, worked as a team. Ashira built up the children’s services and all the children loved her. Gavriel was in the Central Choir including as an acclaimed soloist from a young age.
Together, Judith and I developed Project SEED (a combination of one-on-one adult learning and shiurim) in Sydney at a time when there was no structured ongoing adult-education here outside the Chabad community. I believe both JLC (Jewish Learning Centre) and BINA, which flourish now here as outreach organizations. took their inspiration from us.
In my role as honorary secretary of the NSW Rabbinical Council, a position I held for over two decades, (serving under a minyan of different presidents) I drew up protocols and guidelines for NSW hospital staff in regard to the needs and requirements for observant Jewish patients including end of life issues. Of course, I too was directly involved, as is every communal rabbi, in hospital visitation, pastoral work and counselling. Also, together with a colleague, I retranslated and reformulated the Burial Service for the Sydney Chevra Kaddisha to make it more accessible to mourners.
For what did you receive your OAM award?
I believe it was partly for my staying power as honorary secretary of the RCNSW (I am now happily retired from that) but principally for my volunteer work with Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing (COA) spanning 25 years where I held a regular shiur, gave seasonal talks, led demo-Seders and given concerts, and under whose auspices I have visited nursing homes regularly on erev Shabbos to give the Jewish residents a taste of Shabbat.
What would you say were your greatest achievements as a rabbi in Australia?
One never really knows. But I would say one of them has been working as a tutor for the Sydney Beth Din in which capacity I – together with my wife – have prepared and continue to prepare many sincere geirim and giorot for conversion. I keep in touch with many of them and am in awe at their continued growth. One became a sofer, one a rebbetzin and several are active lay members of their communities. Some regularly ask me sha’alot. Also, when we teach couples there is often a Jewish partner, which is sometimes a kiruv challenge. Thank G-d we have overseen secular Jews becoming frum and staying frum! Many pre- and post-bar mitzvah boys I have taught, some from secular backgrounds, have achieved prominence in Torah and other fields.
The other achievement of which I am particularly proud is my four self-published books (with the invaluable technical help of my son) on parasha and the festivals and particularly the fifth, Lattices of Love, on prayer, which is due out in a few months. I hope it will prove inspiring to many Jews. I also have been writing and emailing a weekly Torah essay to over 1,000 subscribers for many years and am also a regular blogger for the Times of Israel. In these, as well as in my articles and letters to the local Jewish press, I will occasionally tackle issues other rabbis shy away from.
The moral abyss into which society has sunk where assisted suicide has become legalized, sexual norms have been perverted and secular humanism has replaced the Judeo-Christian ethic. Many Jews have sadly been swept along with this moral and spiritual tsunami. I question if we rabbis in Australia have done enough to attempt to stem the tide even among our own constituencies, let alone been any real influence in the wider society. I cannot speak for the USA and I know there are Orthodox lobby groups there – and of course the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, was a towering influence in spreading the Noachide code among wider society – but we are a new generation now dominated by social media, and maybe we aren’t utilizing the right tools sufficiently.
Is there anything else unusual you have done?
I have been privileged to be a rabbi/chaplain on Royal Caribbean cruise ships leading Shabbat and Chanuka services. My wife and I did this for several years until Covid hit. It is a role I relish as I am able to be an ambassador for the Jewish community. When I walk around the ship, I will wear a yarmulka, not a hat, a white shirt and a badge so that everybody knows who I am. The guests are on holiday, they are relaxed and they will often stop me and engage me in conversation. In that way we discovered once a whole group of assimilated Russian Jews who would never have attended our Chanuka service had my wife and I not disarmed them by engaging in friendly small talk with them first. A few of the non-Jewish partners persuaded their Jewish spouses that they should go! We have several non-Jews attending. It always brings home to me Judaism’s mission statement – to be both a kingdom of chaplains and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). To impart to the world while being somewhat apart from the world and to strive to strike a balance between the two.
On a much more micro level, I have gained great satisfaction in my one-to-one mentoring including working with a Down Syndrome young adult and also with an early-onset dementia patient (formerly a close chavrusa). With both I have used music extensively, to great effect, as well as in the nursing homes. I discovered, largely through the use of song, that even where the brain may be weakened or damaged, the neshama remains whole and unimpaired!
Perhaps the highlight of my week is the Tanach shiur (by Zoom since Covid hit) which I give to retirees. I have a very high-powered, knowledgeable, intellectual group of men attending and have to keep on my toes! Presently we are learning the T’rei Asar in depth.
Would you term yourself an outreach rabbi?
In the broadest sense, yes.
What are your plans for the future?
I do not plan. Covid-19 ought to have taught us that we cannot plan! I daven for continued good health for my wife and myself and the physical, mental and spiritual strength to continue my work in spreading Torah both through teaching and via the written word (my favourite medium of communication) and hopefully making a small, positive difference in the lives of those with whom I come into contact. I also look forward to us hopefully spending more time with our six grandchildren in Ramat Bet Shemesh and being able to celebrate their milestones with them, G-d willing!