RABBI SIMON J FRANSES
RABBI MIDDLESEX NEW SYNAGOGUE
BORN MAY 24TH 1943, LARISSA
DIED JULY 2ND 2009, LONDON
Jews of Larissa
Larissa in Thessaly, north eastern Greece, was home to a Jewish community for over 2000 years. Family research indicated that the Franses family lived in Larissa from about 1500. The family came to Greece from Northern Spain, near the French border after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. The name Franses, means “Frenchman” in Spanish. The language spoken at home was Ladino, but in the 19th and 20th century also Greek and Turkish were used. At the end of the 19th century Larissa had a population of 12-15,000, of whom 1,000 were Jews. They lived mostly in a few neighbourhoods around “The Six Roads”, Palestine Street, near the synagogue Etz-Hayim which was established about 1850.
When the Second World War began some members of the family saw active service in the Greek army fighting the Italians, but from 1941-1943 Larissa was under Italian occupation and this was followed from 1943 by German occupation.
Simon J Franses early years
Recalled by himself:
“As regards the history of the family, without any verification of papers, it is as follows. I was born on the 24th of May 1943 in Larissa, which at the time was under Italian occupation. Later on, as the swastika was marching south from Salonika, my grandmother, my parents and two younger brothers of my father, found safety in Athens where they were unknown within the world there. They took refuge with two young medical students, originally from Cairo in Egypt, a brother and sister called Spiros and Danai Kafkalidis. The address of the property was Koupana and Riga Fereou, which was in the district of Vironos and further towards the north.
My father, obtained an identity card with a Christian name by the Church authorities under the auspices of the Patriarch Damaskinos and he obtained employment with the Red Cross. His Greek identity was under the name of Mr Voyagis. Of course the family was in fear of being captured by the Gestapo. We kept away from the Jewish community and Jewish practice until well after the liberation because of the ensuing civil war. My brother, who was born in July 1945 in Athens, was circumcised by the then cantor/rabbi in Athens who was a distant family member.
The family returned to Larissa in October 1945. The house had been bombed and mother’s dowry was destroyed. The destruction of the family household as well as the civil war that ensued, of which I, as a young child, have vague memories, brought enormous financial difficulties upon the family for many years to come.”
When he was 18 Simon won a scholarship to the Judith Lady Montefiore College in London, under the auspices of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation. He learned Hebrew and English and received intensive rabbinic and Talmudic education. Graduating in 1965 he married Ann Lyons at West London Synagogue, with the ceremony conducted by Rabbi Werner van der Zyl, who had inspired him to the rabbinate.
He was a “visiting student” at Leo Beck College, and became an official student in 1968. He gained semichah in 1971 having served as student rabbi at Bromley Reform Synagogue. After serving as assistant minister at Edgware and District Reform Synagogue, he was appointed in 1974 as minister at Glasgow New Synagogue.
He served in Glasgow until 1987, where his son Josef and daughter Abigail celebrated their b’nei mitzvah. In Glasgow the family not only entered wholeheartedly into the life of the congregation but Rabbi Simon took a major role in other religious and civic affairs. He represented the synagogue on the Board of Deputies, and was a member of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council. From 1977 to 1987 he also sat on the Strathclyde Region Children’s Panel.
After 13 years in Glasgow, and with a Scottish twang to his heavy Greek accent, he returned to London as Rabbi of Middlesex New Synagogue in Harrow, North West London. He remained in this position for 21 years and undertook many civic and religious duties, working tirelessly for interfaith relations. He became the chaplain in 1988 to the first Jewish mayor of Hertsmere, and in 1997 was chaplain to a Welsh Congregationalist mayor in Harrow. He was a committed Zionist and within the Reform movement he was much respected for his learning. From 1989 to 1991 he was chairman of the Assembly of Rabbis of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain and had senior roles in its Beth Din.
European communities heritage
Rabbi Simon always maintained his affection for Greek Jewry. Between 1998 and 2006 he was instrumental in introducing numerous groups from Britain to his heritage. On one visit he led a service at an emotional 3-day reunion of the Larissa Jewish community which then numbered about 250 members – a quarter of its pre-war total. On another, he marked Lag B’Omer in Larissa. He was received with great warmth in his birthplace where family members, including his mother, still lived. Apart from visits in which he took part, he also inspired many other groups to explore the long history of the Jews of Greece.
His interest in historic Jewish European communities also manifested itself in a collection of memorabilia from lost communities. The Ark at Middlesex New Synagogue was flanked by framed scroll covers from different parts of Europe. Among them were two covers, which his Rabbinical Fund obtained and are now housed at the Wiener Library. The covers, dating from the early 1900s, remember historic Slovak communities, and were protected in a private home in Frankfurt during the war. The scroll covers originate from Eastern Slovakia.
As he approached retirement Rabbi Simon was already thinking not only about his own succession but the future of the synagogue itself. For many years he had felt that Middlesex New Synagogue would need to move away from its home in Harrow, if it was to survive the shifting demographics of the area. It was partly his vision that matured into the Mosaic Jewish Community, encompassing Reform, Liberal and Masorti synagogues, who have come together and created a new joint home in Stanmore due to open in 2022.
At the age of 65 and suffering ill-health he retired as Rabbi of Middlesex New Synagogue. At a special event to mark the occasion he was told: “Your commitment to MNS has never wavered and your care for the community has continued at all times, even from your hospital bed.”
Subsequently, he assisted his successor, Rabbi Kathleen De Magtige-Middleton, and until his death in 2009 Rabbi Franses remained with the synagogue as Emeritus Rabbi.
Submitted by Steve Levinson and Michael Reik, February 2022
One comment so far
My late husband and I went on a memorable trip to Greece with Simon and visited his shul in Larissa where we had dinner with the congregation. We also made havdalah at the roman ruins in the city, a wonderful occasion. The whole trip was educational, interesting and above all great fun.