The legal services director for the United Synagogue, talks about the work of the Beth Din, managing cemeteries and lobbying government.
David Frei, the first generation British son of a Schindler’s List survivor from Poland, is legal services director of the body that represents the largest Orthodox Jewish community in the UK and Europe. He says that the most satisfying aspect of his job is dealing with the ‘macro side of things’, by which he means legislation and innovations that affect the way that Jews observe their faith.
Some of this will doubtless emerge during the Law Society’s Family Law Section annual conference at the end of October, where Frei will talk about the work of the Jewish courts and their relationship with this country’s civil courts.
What will not be discussed, unless he is prompted, is the story of his father’s escape from the gas chambers of the Holocaust. Frei senior was one of more than 1,000 mostly Polish Jews whose lives were saved by Oskar Schindler, a multi-millionaire German industrialist who made his fortune employing Jews as slave labour in his factories during World War II.
Schindler began to pay huge bribes to SS officers to convince them that his workers, his Schindlerjuden, were essential to the Nazi war effort and should not perish in the death camps. When the war ended in May 1945, the Schindlerjuden walked free.
Frei senior lived on into old age, although his parents and sisters were among the six million Jews killed as part of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’. He was on stage with director Steven Spielberg at the premiere of the 1993 film Schindler’s List, and he also appeared in one of the film’s closing scenes, which showed survivors paying their respects at Schindler’s graveside in Israel.
Frei senior never spoke about his wartime ordeal until the film was released, but brought up his British-born family as Orthodox Jews in north London. His son David went on to qualify as a solicitor and work in private practice in London’s West End for around 20 years as a property litigator.
He left private practice in 1999 to join United Synagogue (US), a charity headed by the Chief Rabbi, currently Ephraim Mirvis, which looks after the interests of 62 synagogues and their communities throughout London. He was at first the registrar for the London Beth Din, a court within the US main building in north London that arbitrates various matters including civil disputes between Jewish parties and the administration of Jewish family law. In January 2009, he also took on the role of director of external and legal services.
‘I don’t presume to rule on matters of Jewish law,’ he says. ‘It is the rabbis who have spent their lives studying the Talmud [the written version of Jewish oral law that dates back to the second century and further commentaries that interpret it] who rule what is and isn’t permissible.’
Is there a place for a Jewish court of law in the UK’s largely secular society? Frei replies: ‘For the orthodox sector, yes.’ He explains that Orthodox Jews adhere to the rules and ethics of the Talmud and require the Beth Din to make an authoritative, modern interpretation of them, not least because the world and its technology have changed beyond recognition in the last 1,800 years.
Could he give some examples? ‘Electricity,’ he replies. ‘The original laws of Sabbath prohibiting many types of work, such as lighting a fire, were written before electricity was invented.’ An electric light bulb, some rabbis have argued, gives light because a spark – a fire – heats up the filament. The same applies to electric cookers. A common solution for the Orthodox Jew is to fit a device that automatically switches on the light or cooker.
EDUCATION Hasmonean Grammar School, north London; Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, Talmudical College, Israel; University College London, law degree
CAREER Property litigation solicitor, London’s West End, 1980-1999; London Beth Din registrar and director of legal and external services, United Synagogue, 1999-present
Are there other examples? ‘A House of Lords committee requested our views on stem cell research for medical purposes,’ Frei says. ‘We were supportive. We work with precedents [in this instance, the preservation of life] even if the technologies were unknown when the laws were made.
‘Mechanisation has also obliged us to amend and adapt, such as when hand-baked matzo bread for eating at Passover was replaced by machine-baked matzo in the nineteenth century.’ Some rabbis at the time argued that it was the intentions of the baker preparing the bread that made it kosher, and this ‘intentionality’ would be lost in the machine process.
As registrar of the Beth Din, Frei undertakes the general administration of the court, keeping records and running arbitrations. These latter are arbitrations between usually Orthodox Jewish parties who voluntarily recognise the authority of the court and agree to be governed by its rulings. ‘Typically, they will be disputes over business matters, such as partnerships or property,’ Frei says. ‘The main difference between a Beth Din arbitration and a secular one is that the judges have heard nothing about the case before both parties appear before them in court. The parties need to argue their case in full before the court, rather than before a judge who has done his homework and knows most of the facts already.’
And what else does he do? ‘I manage the external legal affairs of the US,’ he replies. ‘That is matters to do with the 62 synagogues, our cemeteries and schools, employment law (we employ around 1,000 people), data and child protection, our complicated constitution, property and all the other issues associated with an organisation our size.’
The cemeteries exist because ‘synagogues were established in this country long after the churches, which were usually originally sited in villages with sufficient land around them for a burial ground. Synagogues, on the other hand, were normally sited in towns and cities, with no ground around them. This meant that their cemeteries had to be remote from the synagogue itself. The US looks after them. We bury about 1,000 Jews every year’.
The US is funded by contributions from the synagogue communities, Frei notes, ‘but the biggest part of our income derives from licensing kosher restaurants and the manufacturers of kosher food and drink’.
Foodstuffs are kosher and allowed to be eaten by observant Jews if they conform to Jewish dietary laws governing what food and drink (especially animal products) can and cannot be eaten, how the food is prepared and by whom (grape products made by a non-Jew may not be consumed, for instance).
US inspectors, including food chemists, travel the world visiting factories and other establishments. Frei says: ‘It’s a complex business. Some factories manufacture kosher and non-kosher foods at the same time, with a risk of cross-contamination. Some products contain dozens of ingredients, some of which may have been made as far away as the far-east. All need to be tested. Dyes made from crushed insects, such as cochineal, are forbidden. So is most gelatin, which in its natural form is animal-based.’
Close to 14 years into the job, Frei’s enthusiasm is for ‘dealing with the macro’. He adds: ‘We interact with government, helping it understand the effect of proposed legislation on the Jewish community.
‘We were asked to comment on the Children and Families Bill 2013 and say how it will impact on the Jewish way of life. We were also consulted on the Coroners Act. Like Muslims, we want our dead to be buried soon after death. We are also in favour of non-invasive postmortem examinations, using scans rather than a scalpel. The government and the chief coroner listened most attentively.’
He adds: ‘We were also able to negotiate an amendment to the same-sex marriage legislation. Some sectors of the Jewish community were in favour of it, while others, in particular the Orthodox sector, were opposed. We negotiated an opt-in or opt-out agreement, leaving the ultimate decision to the theological leader, the chief rabbi, of each synagogue.
‘The work is so much more varied and interesting than private practice,’ Frei reflects. ‘You meet people, politicians and other influencers, that you would never meet otherwise. And you’re dealing with issues that affect the whole country, not just individual clients.’
And so to his appearance at the Law Society’s family conference: ‘I’m going to explain the workings of the Beth Din and how it can work with the civil courts to achieve better outcomes for families and the welfare of the child,’ he says. ‘If you want to know more, and learn about the Islamic courts, come to the conference.’
- The sacred and the secular: religion and the family courts takes place at the Law Society on 29 October. For tickets and more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.