Brian Doyle is a familiar and welcoming face to all IJC members. He has been a key member of our Religious Affairs Committee since 2011 and on the Board from 2015-18. Brian has led services both at IJC and at Ohel Yachdav in Leuven where he lives with his partner Peter and children Julie 10, and Thibault, 13. Brian is now studying to become a Rabbi and is officially IJC’s Rabbinical Intern as of September 1. Brian talked to newsletter editor Diana Kanter about his journey to Judaism and to the IJC.
DK: Where did your interest in Judaism start?
BD: Growing up in Clydebank near Glasgow, my interest in Judaism started in a very direct way. My father insisted that we watch a documentary about the Nuremburg trials when I was about six. It made a big impression on me. I wanted to understand what had happened and why the Jews. So I started taking books out of the library – some of which I would hide in my bedroom as it was my secret passion. It was pure curiosity. Only later when I went to university did I become attracted to Jewish people, the University Jewish Club and to the Glasgow Reform Shul. I started attending services there. All the while I was teaching myself Hebrew.
DK: So where did you get the Irish lilt to your Scottish accent?!
BD: While I started out – aged only 16 – at the University of Glasgow studying religious studies and drama, I in fact got my first BA from University College Dublin in Classical Hebrew and Philosophy; I only spent about six years in Ireland but must have taken a bit of the accent with me.
DK: And then what brought you to Belgium?
BD: I was exploring monastic life, although I admit celibacy never really appealed! Through a UK connection to a monastery in Belgium, I moved to Park Abbey near Leuven in 1988. I still have very good contacts with the monastery and its small community. Not long after moving out of the abbey I met Peter. I quickly taught myself Dutch and started supporting myself translating from Dutch into English while specialising in Hebrew Bible studies at the University of Leuven where I got my Masters and Doctorate. I now teach Hebrew, Hebrew Bible and Judaism there and have translated more than 30 books, from academic works to poetry, literary novels and crime thrillers.
DK: And then you found the IJC….
BD: Well, for most of our lives together, Peter and I were religiously indifferent. Theology and Judaism were academic pursuits, not spiritual. Then my father died, so you could say the Catholic cord was finally cut. Almost immediately after his funeral and by sheer coincidence, I bumped into a Professor of Judaism at the Leuven Faculty and we started talking about Judaism. I couldn’t get that conversation out of my head - and after an introduction to Beth Hillel, I realised there was also an English speaking progressive community in Brussels. I met Rabbi Nathan at IJC in 2010 and started conversion classes six months later. When I was accepted by the Beth Din in 2012, I remember messaging Nathan the news and he called to say – ‘well in five years you can start studying to become a Rabbi.’ Little did I know how right he would be!
DK: So how come you chose Berlin for Rabbinical Studies?
BD: Nathan had suggested his own alma mater, Leo Baeck College for Rabbinical Studies in London, but that proved too costly and required full time residency; so in 2017 when I found that the Abraham Geiger program in Berlin was subsidised by the German State and was open to candidates from all over Europe including Belgium, I interviewed and was accepted. The University of Leuven is showing great flexibility with my teaching schedule as they want to accommodate my Rabbinical Studies - so now I commute between Berlin and Leuven.
The 20 minute walk from my studio in Berlin to the Charlottenburg station where I get the train to classes at the University of Potsdam must have 150 stolpersteine on each side of the street, each one commemorating the life of a Jew who was taken, deported and /or murdered from that very spot during the Shoah.’
Until our interview, Brian had never thought of his journey to Judaism as having started in Nuremberg and ending in Berlin. And of course we hope Brian’s journey with the IJC will continue for many years to come.
Brian’s Reflections on the IJC
‘It was a dream come true for me when we conducted the recent Vision Meetings as I wanted members to think more deeply about what type of Jewish world we want to create and how we can achieve our goals. And more specifically, what do we mean by progressive and inclusive? As a small European synagogue I believe we have an obligation to welcome Jews and their non-Jewish partners, I want to engage and integrate new members, and those who want to convert - as I did. We also have an obligation to our current members, from the very young to the elderly, from those doing fine to those in need. The one thing I would ask of the IJC is: ‘Be patient with me!’