It’s been years—a decade, at least—since anyone can remember a bar mitzvah celebration in Southampton, United Kingdom, a southern port city famous for being the launching point of the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912. Yet on Thursday morning Dec. 12, Sam Rachman put on tefillin and read from the Torah for the first time at the Southampton Hebrew Congregation, an event that may not have occurred if not for a few chance meetings.
Ten years ago, Rabbi Zalman and Shterna Lewis moved to the city of Brighton to serve as Chabad on Campus representatives at the University of Brighton and the University of Sussex. In that capacity, the rabbi also began visiting nearby universities in cities such as Southampton and Canterbury—campuses with smaller Jewish student populations. Today, in addition to his positions in Brighton, Lewis serves as the Jewish faith advisor at the University of Southampton.
“Every Tuesday, I travel to Canterbury, which hasn’t had a shul in around 100 years, and I host a lunch-and-learn Torah class,” he said, joking that he is sometimes referred to as the “Arch-Rabbi of Canterbury.” And “every Thursday, I have a lunch-and-learn at the University of Southampton.”
Lewis travels more than 300 miles each week reaching out to these smaller communities.
From Campus to Community
Describing how his relationship with the Southampton community evolved, Lewis explained that initially, he was making the hour-and-a-half trip there only for Jewish holidays and other special events, when a post-graduate student at the university asked him to give a weekly Torah class. Lewis responded that if even one Jew showed up, he would make the trip.
Rabbi Zalman Lewis with the bar mitzvah boy.
“We had a few people each week, and then, one of the first weeks, nobody showed up!”
Still, the class continued, and Lewis’ ties with the community strengthened. In addition to his weekly trip, the rabbi, his wife and their six children spend a Shabbat during each university semester in Southampton, staying at the home of the Southampton Hebrew Congregation’s secretary, university math professor Tim Sluckin.
When Southampton was left without a chazzan for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Lewis connected his brother-in-law and sister—Rabbi Dov Katzel, an ordained rabbi who works as an accountant in London, and his wife, Aidel Brocha—with the community. The Katzels have joined Southampton for the High Holy Days for each of the last four years.
“I also put up a sukkah in Southampton every year, and we host a Sukkos party,” said Lewis. “Last year, a woman came up to me together with her son and asked if I might be able to give him bar mitzvah lessons.”
The woman, Sharon Rachman, and her husband, Jon Rachman, are both originally from South Africa and live with their sons, Sam, now 13, and his younger brother, Joe, in Winchester, about an hour’s drive from Southampton. Jon, having been raised with a Jewish education he found to be lacking, said at the outset that he was not overly excited by the prospect of Sam just going through the motions of a bar mitzvah. But as the year progressed—and Jon witnessed the depth and meaning of his son’s classes with Lewis—he noted that his reaction changed.
An Event to Remember
Sam prepared by taking a year of classes, most held following Lewis’ weekly lunch-and-learn at the university and some via Skype. On the big day, more than 70 family, friends and local community members filled the Southampton Hebrew Congregation, celebrating both the personal Jewish milestone of Sam’s 13th birthday and the small community’s first bar mitzvah in almost as many years.
Sam Rachman's younger brother Joe, center, helps with the mitzvah of gelilah, dressing the Torah scroll before it is returned to the ark, as their father Jon Rachman, center right, looks on.
“We set out as a family on a journey into the unknown,” said Jon Rachman. “We do not live in the midst of a Jewish community, yet the Southampton congregation treated us as if we had lived amongst them all of our lives. The congregation is too small to support a rabbi, yet we were blessed by a chance meeting with Rabbi Zalman, who took Samuel and, by extension, the rest of the family, on a journey of rediscovery and strengthening of our Jewish roots.”
At the celebration, Sam was presented with a siddur by the congregation’s president, Martyn Rose. There to witness the event were relatives who traveled all the way from Canada, Israel and South Africa
Both Lewis and the Rachmans describe the bar mitzvah as having made a significant impact on all who attended. “The celebration was marked by an amazing sense—felt and commented on by all—of community, continuity, warmth and spirituality,” said Jon, who would like Lewis to prepare his younger son for his bar mitzvah as well.
Two of the party-goers were Jon’s business partners, one a Jew and the other a non-Jew. The Jewish partner shared with Lewis that his mother had just passed away a short while earlier.
“He told me that when his mother was laying on her deathbed, he told her he would be attending a bar mitzvah,” related Lewis. “When she heard that, she opened her eyes.”
The second partner, who identifies himself as a non-Jew, told Sharon Rachman that he had some Jewish heritage in the form of one Jewish grandmother.
“I asked him which grandmother,” said the rabbi, “and he replied that it was his mother’s mother. I told him right there and then that he was a full-fledged Jew!
“All of this started with what was basically a series of coincidences,” concluded Lewis. “You never know what such small interactions can build up to.”