Sunday, 29 June 2014

A Tribute to Uncle Max

These words are a tribute to 'Uncle' Max Fishel, who sadly passed away on Friday, 29 Sivan 5774. Our thoughts are with 'Auntie' Rene and all the family.

I have many aunties and uncles. As well as my biological ones, I count the various parents of my generation growing up in Wanstead & Woodford Synagogue as aunties and uncles - and I know my friends do the same. The people I went to shul with were family and I still feel part of a very special community exuding warmth, care and a passion for Judaism and Israel. And there was one man who everyone in the community looked up to, who embodied all of these values. 

Uncle Max was the ultimate shul man, putting his heart and soul into the good of the Wanstead & Woodford community. He was the shul's 'sweet man' - when you came into shul, your first stop was to go to Uncle Max, where you would receive a 'Good Shabbes', a smile and a sweet (and a chocolate on Rosh Hashanah!). He was the shul's librarian, opening up the collection of books, tapes and videos to all on Sunday mornings. And, after every service, he would go through the bookcases ensuring that all the siddurim and chumashim had been placed the right way up. He understood what a shul is all about - respect, learning and warmth.

Uncle Max was truly someone who embraced all, and as a result, brought many people closer to Judaism - in fact, I fail to ever recall a bad word said about him. There are people who owe their Jewish identities to him as a result of him taking them in, offering them a seat and guiding them through the service. His dedication to going to shul was beyond all expectations. In health, he would be ever-present, but despite many spells in hospital in recent years, he would summon immense courage and retake his regular seat in shul, still smiling, getting called up as the shul's most honoured Levi, and chatting to people at kiddush.

One of my most vivid memories of recent years was seeing Uncle Max standing guard by the Aron Kodesh at Neilah of Yom Kippur, with the community enjoined in passionate prayer. Nothing pleased Uncle Max more than a full shul, and I am sure that the sight he saw at that moment, albeit a rare occurrence, filled him with happiness.

In recent years, when his health declined, Rafi Saltman and I, amongst others, were privileged to lead Seder nights for Uncle Max and Auntie Rene. Even in poor health, he attempted to say the brachot, eat matza, sing along to Dayenu and make his customary jokes on the way. We were both inspired as we returned to our families - Uncle Max represented the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people, committed to the Torah despite his hardships. 

Another Pesach, Uncle Max was taken into hospital on first day Yom Tov. On the afternoon of the second day, a group of eight young people all walked to Whipps Cross Hospital to visit him. The hospital couldn't quite work it out - if we weren't all grandchildren, what were we all doing visiting a 90-year old man? But to us it was obvious. The fact that all the young people in shul would spend their Yom Tov afternoon visiting Uncle Max was a given, and to see his happiness in seeing each and every one of us, meant more to all of us than words could imagine.

My community, and the Jewish people as a whole, have lost a truly great man, one of the most righteous people I have known and one of my life role models. I have written this article partly to share my memories and stories, but also to encourage us to learn lessons from his life. All it takes is a welcoming smile to a newcomer or visitor in shul - the difference we make may last for generations. If we can all take this upon ourselves, we will truly have perpetuated Uncle Max's legacy.

Yehi Zichro Baruch.

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