Rabbi Brian Fox AM:  A Leader of Great Influence

January 17, 2020 by  
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Federal Liberal MP Julian Leeser shares his memories of Rabbi Brian Fox,  former spiritual leader of the Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney who passed away last week.

Julian Lee writes: “Last year I was asked to give a speech to a Catholic girls’ school on leadership influences on me.

Rabbi Brian affixes a mezzuzah at the Emanuel Synagogue in 2018ser writes: 

I instantly thought of Rabbi Fox. He was a transformative, charismatic and inspirational leader. He was a role model for me. He set himself goals and pursued them, persuading others to join him on the journey. Despite the setbacks, he never forgot what he wanted to achieve.  He told the AJN in 1999 “I was blessed with fire in my belly”.

Rabbi Fox came to Temple Emanuel in 1979. I remember my father and grandfather speaking about how much more relaxed Rabbi Fox had made our shule. He replaced Rabbi Rudi Brasch a German-born author and intellectual whose austere, formal style was punctuated by his love for Jewish humour.  Unlike Rabbi Brasch, who had no children, Rabbi Fox had a family of four. He welcomed children into services no matter how much noise they made.

Rabbi Fox had immense charisma. He was one of the most gifted public speakers I have heard, equally at home as a guest lecturer or an MC at a function.  It was his sermons that were truly inspirational, combining Yiddishkeit, Torah-learning, humour and exquisite timing with an appeal to values and for funds.

To a young boy, he seemed a very great man.

I still remember Kol Nidre nights looking up at him at the bimah, from the corner seat in the third back row. He was a short man with tanned skin, an Anglo-Kiwi voice, Yemenite kippah and black canonical robes. He could underscore a point with a purposely timed flick of his tallis over his shoulders – not a word or gesture wasted; not a pause too long.  He was a great persuader and could carry the congregation in his hand.

It was those skills of persuasion that saw him build community services from cradle to grave:  Netzer, the Emanuel School even Emanuel Gardens – a Jewish retirement village. He used the same skills to transform communities in Melbourne and Manchester.

Somehow you could not say “No” to Rabbi Fox. When he invited my father to join the board of the Synagogue, dad said yes. Although we did not have a Sephardi background he also encouraged my father to fund the donation of an antique Sephardi Torah that he had rescued – again dad could not refuse him.

As a teacher Rabbi Fox wanted to challenge his students. I remember attending the Hebrew and Religion School on a Sunday morning where Rabbi Fox would take the B’nai Mitzvah students after morning tea. Students were challenged to address the big spiritual and religious questions whether it was the centrality of the State of Israel to the Jewish people (In 1985 he told the SMH“there are Zionists, Super- Zionists and then me”) or explaining proofs for the existence of G-d – one of the proofs is that the need for G-d is ontological  a difficult concept for most people to grasp. Yet, he did not talk down to his 12-year-old charges he expected them to rise to the intellectual challenge.

Julian Leeser

I remember visits to his house at Vivian St Bellevue Hill, a model Jewish home, walking us through his Kosher kitchen and explain the laws of kashrut and his amazing collection of Judaica, in particular, a beautiful Ner Tamid he had in his study.

He could also be gentle and pastoral – when my father died he was a great support to our family. Similarly, I remember being an inconsolable eight-year-old at my grandfather’s grave. Rabbi Fox put his arm around me and told me it was ok to cry.

There were tensions in his relationships with orthodox communities. While this did not go away he helped to heal this with significant perseverance and by taking Judaism, Hebrew and services seriously. I remember him saying at various services:  “You have all had a chance to look at each other. How about looking at your prayer books instead.”

When failing health brought him back to Sydney he became a regular at Emanuel and in our community again. Sitting near him one Yom Kippur in recent years he still had his Machzor annotated from when he used to lead services. He honoured me by coming to communal speeches that I gave from time to time.

I know he had been suffering from poor health for several years but that did not stop him being active nor did it dim the light and charisma in his eyes.

To Dina, Ben, Mim Shira and Mishi and the broader Fox family may his memory be a blessing.

I shall miss a great man who was one of the first leadership role models for me.”

Julian Leeser is the Federal Liberal MP for the Sydney electorate of Berowra.

 

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