Obituary for Dayan Gershon Lopian זצ"ל
A prominent halachic expert, rabbinic mentor and empathetic spiritual leader with international influence, Dayan Gershon Lopian was rabbi, then emeritus rabbi, of the Edgware Yeshurun Synagogue.
Gershon Lopian, scion of a distinguished rabbinical family, was born in Portsmouth in 1938, the first child of Rabbi Leib and Tzippa (née Levy). Rabbi Leib, a founding member of Gateshead Kolel (Institute for Higher Rabbinical Studies), was subsequently co-head of Gateshead Yeshiva. His paternal grandfather Rabbi Eliyahu was a major figure in the ‘Musar’ (ethical discipline) movement, known for his incisive teachings and exceptional piety.
Rabbi Lopian studied first at Gateshead Yeshiva, then in Israel under his grandfather in Kfar Chassidim and at Chevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, receiving semichah (ordination) from Rabbis Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Ovadiah Yosef and others. He pursued advanced studies at Sunderland Kolel, where he was learning when he married Judy Saberski in 1964. He also trained in practical rabbinics with the renowned halachic decisor Rabbi Henoch Padwa, whom he visited in London for extended periods. While in Sunderland, Rabbi Lopian officiated at a local Shul on festivals, supervised the mikveh and butcher’s shop, and delivered shiurim.
In 1974, on a trip to the USA, Rabbi Lopian was introduced to the world’s foremost halachist, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. He subsequently studied intensely for several months under the tutelage of Rabbi Feinstein, who conferred upon him an advanced semichah, allowing him to deliver complex rulings in a broad range of halachic fields.
In 1976, Rabbi Lopian was elected rabbi of the Federation’s Edgware Yeshurun Synagogue, a position he occupied with distinction until his appointment as emeritus rabbi at his retirement in 2006. For a period in the ‘80s, he also served as a judge on the Beth Din of the Federation of Synagogues; this appointment dubbed him ‘the Dayan’, a title by which he was affectionately known for the rest of his life.
The Dayan was known as an attentive and capable rabbi: compassionate pastor, expert educator and effective champion of greater halachic observance. His tenure at Yeshurun coincided with a tremendous development of the Edgware Orthodox community: an increase of Shuls and opportunities for Torah study; the construction of a mikveh in which he was a driving force; the influx of observant families and newly religious to the area and the consequent proliferation of Jewish shops and other facilities. This transformation is in large part attributable to the efforts of the Lopians, who gradually emerged as the senior Orthodox leaders in Edgware.
The Dayan's growing role as an halachic decisor of national and, ultimately, international significance reflected a unique confluence of outstanding scholarship, absolute conviction in the benevolent universality of the halachic system, a loathing for superficiality - what he called 'sartorial Judaism', a genuine love of people and a legendary sense of humour. He was renowned for an ability to identify intensely with an individual's circumstances and challenges, sometimes even crying with strangers who had unburdened themselves.
The Dayan's decision-making technique was bravely anthropocentric, although his reputation for blanket leniency is an oversimplification. He would actually start from the needs and context of the inquirer and move outwards to find a bespoke, yet irrefutably authentic, halachic response. He fielded questions from all over the world, especially in the areas of Jewish family law and the challenges of the newly religious. With a reputation for accessibility, he learned all day in a tiny study, constantly interrupted by calls, which he answered himself. He taught hundreds of bridegrooms and was the advisor to many organisations, especially the transformational ‘Family Week’ programme, through which he and Rebbetzin Judy became long-term friends and mentors to numerous families.
The Dayan was also friend, guru and counsellor to scores of rabbis, many of whom he trained in practical rabbinics and halachic methodology. A true 'rabbi's rabbi', he rejected rabbinic dependence, encouraging his students to make their own halachic and counselling decisions. Enormously influential in the current rabbinate, his students lead communities across the globe.
In recent years, Dayan Lopian suffered from a number of debilitating complaints which he bore with fortitude, supported tirelessly by the rebbetzin. Yet his increasing immobility scarcely impacted on his communal engagements and despite his obvious pain, he continued to attend events and teach shiurim, the last of which was delivered less than 24 hours before his unexpected passing.
He is survived by Rebbetzin Judy - his partner in every aspect of his communal work, two sons, three daughters, grandchildren, a great-grandchild and seven siblings.
Harvey Belovski is rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue and a long-standing student of Dayan Gershon Lopian
A version of this obituary first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle
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What to do if you don’t like all the Simchat Torah frolics
Simchat Torah is an emotional day, concluding the Tishri Yomtov season and ending the entire festival sequence that started with Pesach. As its name, Joy of the Torah, indicates, it’s a day focused on the Torah, when we complete the annual cycle of Torah reading and begin it all over again amid singing, dancing and communal festivities.
Yet lovely as it sounds, some are at best ambivalent towards Simchat Torah, others even regard it as an annoyance. Some of my most loyal congregants, among them daily attendees, arrive very late on Simchat Torah and others fail to turn up at all. And I’ll admit that in the years before I was a communal rabbi, on Simchat Torah I attended a “naughty boys” minyan that completed the hakafot — dance-circuits — in 15 minutes and had me home for kiddush by soon after 10am.
Of course, by the time Simchat Torah arrives, people are shuled out after a long and gruelling Yomtov season and nothing less than a day off shul will satisfy them. And it’s also obvious that no experience, however exciting, can work for everyone. Nonetheless, some aspects of the way we celebrate Simchat Torah should be re-examined in the hope of making it more attractive.
I am not a member of the “more is more” club. If dancing on Simchat Torah for an hour is enjoyable, it does not follow that two or even three hours’ dancing is more enjoyable. In fact, it can easily turn into a drag. In some shuls, Simchat Torah celebrations are even longer than Rosh Hashanah services and are chaotic experiences, major disincentives to participation, especially when, as this year, Simchat Torah falls on erev Shabbat.
The Torah reading often takes far too long (there are ways of speeding it up) and long before it’s over, people have lost interest and wandered off to the kiddush. Shuls should publish clear timetables and have enjoyable hakafot that are not too long and allow people to get home at a reasonable time.
This leads inexorably to the subject of excessive liquor consumption on Simchat Torah. There is no basis for the drunkenness that prevails in many shuls: Simchat Torah is not Purim, the only day in the year on which inebriation is sanctioned, even then in the very limited context of home feasting.
The spectacles of adults sneaking whisky bottles into services and intoxicated teenagers staggering from shul to shul are hardly among the most edifying of the Jewish year. And while there is no harm in adults having a glass of wine or the odd lechaim (it’s actually a mitzvah to drink wine in moderation at Yomtov meals), what has evolved in some places is a Simchat Torah that is too much simchah and not enough Torah, akin to barmitzvah celebrations that are too much bar and not enough mitzvah.
For many women, much of the Simchat Torah service is boring and frustrating. While some are entirely comfortable watching their menfolk sing and dance, others would love to dance with the Torah themselves, in celebration of their connection to Jewish life and learning. Many shuls have recognised this need as part of the extraordinary transformation of women’s Torah study that has taken place in recent decades and make separate provision for women’s dancing with Sifrei Torah on Simchat Torah.
And what about those — men or women — who for whatever reason, don’t dance? Some are physically unable to dance and others simply dislike dancing. And some can’t dance but don’t know it (always the fellow next to me).
The Torah itself reminds us that it is the “heritage of the community of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4), the legacy of every member of the Jewish people, irrespective of age, gender, state of health or competence at dancing.
For those seeking an alternative, some shuls provide learning programmes to coincide with the dancing and Torah reading. I think there is room to expand this to include family programming and introductory Torah classes, as well as encouraging private study. And while these shouldn’t detract from the main event in shul, they should be professionally run and of a high standard rather than a lifeless alternative for those who can’t be bothered to dance or do anything else.
We may take as the role model for brief hakafot and alternative modes of celebration no less a figure than the Vilna Gaon (died 1797). It is said that on Simchat Torah he would emerge from his private study to dance with tremendous passion for a short while and then return to his learning. If you currently feel disenfranchised by the end of Yomtov, these relatively small changes might just restore the simchah to Simchat Torah.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle