by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild, Cheshunt 25th January 2017.
Not long after I came to Bromley Synagogue Jackie came to see me. She asked me what I wanted to do in the synagogue and we had a coffee and chatted about ourselves and what we saw in the community. About half way through the conversation she said “Ok I’ve sussed you out, I see you have a lot of ideas, I’ll help you”.
I wasn’t aware I was undergoing another interview, but I am so glad I passed it. In the years that followed, Jackie was a wonderful support and partner in building up so many community activities; I owe her so much for the work she put in to help bring so many ideas to fruition.
In the beginning she came, with a small Zibby and Nathan in tow, and established herself as a volunteer in different areas of the synagogue. She spoke to people who came to the services and found out what they might need. She helped create a lot of our festival celebration, particularly for the younger children. Many was the sandwich tea she made for a fun afterschool celebration before the main service. The hot dogs and soup in the succah, the” great onion grow” which started at Tu Bi’shvat and ended with a competition at Succot, after which the onions went to a soup kitchen, the Shavuot ice cream parlour – Jackie wanted to make sure that being Jewish was both observant and fun. With her “apprentices” Nathan and Zibby, she spent hours in the synagogue preparing, setting up, clearing up – all the tasks that often go unnoticed and unsung. I still remember the marathon cleaning of the shul kitchen for Pesach, the steam in the air and the meticulous cleaning done by the three of them, so that our Seder would be open to all levels of observance. I think it wasn’t always fun for the children, but they learned some great lessons for life about service, about community, about rolling up your sleeves and making things you value happen for people you care about.
In the early days of the personal computer, Jackie began to use her children’s computer to create a database for the synagogue – her diligent hard work meant we could begin to reach the membership in different ways. She put together the basis for the b’nei mitzvah register that meant we could write to everyone to offer them a mitzvah on the anniversary of their special day. She developed the geographical analysis so we could start to create groups in local areas. Idea after idea came to fruition because she put in the graft to help it grow. She became the first administrator of the shul, a friendly voice on the phone, an assiduous builder of relationships, a dispenser of good advice.
She also helped with the pastoral side of the community. She spoke to the lonely, to the bereaved, to the people who felt themselves to be marginal. She was the voice over my shoulder reminding me of who might like a call from the rabbi or a visit. She nudged me if she felt I was being dilatory in meeting someone she felt needed me now. She brought to my attention the people who needed the community and who might benefit from it. The caring in the community was devolved and delivered in all sorts of ways, many people were involved through friendships and shared interests or geography, and Jackie’s contribution to building this was immense. She didn’t like ‘doing good’, she wanted people to feel good and feel connected. She knew what it was like to be seen as the underdog or as someone to be pitied and she wasn’t going to do that to anyone else.
When she came into the building on weekdays, she always made sure that the sanctuary was unlocked and the doors open, because, she said, God liked to go for a walk. She checked the bookcases to make sure the siddurim were the right way up, because “the upside down books gave God a headache”. She had a warm and nurturing connection with God, and a deep and comfortable relationship with Judaism. She passed that on to the conversion class, which she taught for a number of years, greatly enjoying the challenge and stimulation of helping others shape their Jewish identity as she had done years earlier.
Jackie did not grow up Jewish – far from it. Born in Hillingdon, the middle one of three sisters (Sarah and Corrine) she came from a family that was close and warm and well aware of its Welsh roots. As a young woman her intellect was fierce and would have taken her a long way in life. She certainly started like that: having passed her 11+ she attended Ealing County Grammar School for girls and became head girl there. She was accepted to read Medicine at Kings College London and enjoyed her studies, but illness prevented her continuing her studies to graduation and when she was better she became a careers advisor, with her first job taking her to Wigan and then to Coventry.
She met John in Coventry at a literary and cultural Arts group – the Umbrella Club. It was love at first sight and she confided to a friend that she chased him, determined to marry him. She began to attend synagogue in Coventry and eventually converted to Judaism. Her Hebrew retained the soft Ashkenazi pronunciation – Succos not Succot, Shabbes not Shabbat. They moved to Beckenham to be near her widowed mother and married at Bromley Synagogue. Her marriage to John was blessed with Zibby and Nathan, but John’s illness meant that she felt unable to continue to live with him as a family unit, and they separated. They separated but they never divorced. Jackie and John had a complicated love story. They loved each other dearly, and wanted the best for each other, and were frustrated by each other and needed distance from each other. They were both so proud and so careful of Zibby and Nathan, they both were thoughtful about how to stock the minds of their children to give them resilience and appreciation of language and life. John continued to celebrate shabbatot and festivals with the family at home, and between them they gave their children the best of themselves.
With Jackie’s original hopes of a medical career dashed and with John’s illness occasionally causing havoc for the family, she made a clear plan for the future. First came the children’s security and second came John’s. Jackie’s came third. She stayed married to John in part so that she could continue her legal rights to speak for him and to safeguard him when he was not able to do so for himself. That was an amazing act of love, not always appreciated by John nor understood by many others. But she had made a vow, she loved him, she would stand by him as best she could.
She also worked hard to keep Zibby and Nathan happy and secure, and knowing that they were loved by both their parents. She fed them literature and good food, made sure that they each used their intellectual gifts to the full and were able to enjoy them, taught them about community and about Jewish values. They remember being taught to greet the neighbours politely by name. They remember the special effort to shop at the small local sweetshop run by an Asian family, rather than the larger more attractive shop that was nearer. It is a measure of her success that both Zibby and Nathan have grown into fully rounded people with strong and caring personalities, who have both achieved the highest levels of academic success, and who both work in areas that express their values, creating communities that espouse caring for others and bringing the marginalised into recognition. Against all the difficulties that life threw at Jackie, she never succumbed to self-pity or to inertia, but worked hard for a better future for herself and for others.
Family was so important to Jackie. She met her sisters regularly for coffee at Bluewater, keeping up with all the news. She felt close to her grandparents in Wales where she had stayed during the war and returned regularly for holidays, and she was close to cousins and to nephews and nieces. Corrine speaks of her great sense of fun, her mischief and love of adventures. Jackie was curious about life, loved to meet new people and experience new situations, and she revelled later in life in the travel opportunities afforded her by Zibby and Nathan. In Belgium and Luxembourg, Singapore and Burma, there are many who will remember Jackie with great fondness for a long time to come, and who mourn her today. Jackie loved nature, and I well remember her attempts to create a knot garden at the house in Beckenham. She knew the names of plants and she could identify the songs of birds. She enjoyed being outside, be it in a garden or a park or the seaside.
She had a natural gift too for talking to children, taking them completely seriously while entering into their worlds. Jono remembers warm cuddles and pea sandwiches, a great deal of laughter and playing in the park, walking along the pavement stamping their feet in order to wake up the worms. She loved going to see her grandchildren, Zac and Adam, and watched every small change and development with enormous pleasure, keen to engage with the children and get to know them as their personalities began to unfurl. She was looking forward to seeing them grow, to playing with them, to being part of their lives.
Jackie was my friend as she was a friend to many. She was sharp and could be difficult, asking questions that others may have only thought, expecting from others as much as she gave from herself. She was funny and mischievous and could sum up a person or a situation quickly and truthfully and occasionally the wit was a little unkind. But she was someone I trusted and I loved and enjoyed meeting up with, someone who had such clear and explicit values that she lived out every day. She did the real work of building up relationships and community, not for her own benefit but because she believed so in human connection and in community. She was an everyday hero, an extraordinary everyday hero. She did so many good deeds – mitzvot in the community – attending funerals that would otherwise go unnoticed, helping people to sort out various life messes, visiting people who were rarely otherwise visited, organising meals out.
Jackie was my friend and my teacher; her life had been filled with challenges and she had got on with it, mindfully and intelligently she applied herself to each issue and worked out the best way to progress. I know in the last years life got harder and harder, and her ability to manage lessened. But she was happy to live in her own house and nothing and no one would have persuaded her to move from there, even though many of us would have liked to. Her death was sudden and it was unfair, giving her no chance to do what she was so good at, and find a way through. It leaves us all shocked and sad and shaken. But I know that Jackie would expect our relationships and community to see us all through whatever we face in the future. She has shown how to do it, it is for us to follow through now and put the lessons to good use.