Old Girl - New Creation

My father, Felix Samuel Benzimra, was born in 1893, the son of Jewish refugees who had settled in Manchester. I have always been led to believe that my grandparents’ marriage was volatile and, at times, unhappy. This was attributed to the mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazi cultures. My father changed his name, ostensibly for business purposes; in reality he was not unaware of the growing tide of anti-Semitism that was beginning to sweep through Europe in the 1930s – and the likely repercussions.
My father did not attend synagogue regularly but he always kept Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Although he “married out”, there was no question of him being rejected by the family. They were delighted for him, and my mother – a nominal Scottish Presbyterian – was lovingly absorbed into their midst. I have three first cousins, all female. Each married into a different Jewish denomination; so I have had the privilege of attending weddings in the Orthodox, Reformed and Liberal traditions. As I was an only child, this extended family had a special significance for me. I was conscious too of the sense of cohesion and stability that permeated their relationships. As I joined them on more than one occasion for the Shabbat meal on a Friday night, I had a sense that the problems, quarrels and dissatisfactions of the previous week were being discussed and resolved around the dining table – and that somehow God was involved in the process.

Stiff Upper Lip

My father died when I was fourteen and his death came at a particularly difficult time in my life. I had just been sent to boarding school and was deeply unhappy. Those were less enlightened times and both staff and pupils made it abundantly clear that what was expected of me was the British “stiff upper lip”, with no embarrassing displays of emotion. One comment I well remember was, "Don't talk about your father; he's dead". It is perhaps not surprising that at this juncture I wanted to get in touch with my Jewish roots. I realise now that this feeling was more a manifestation of the grieving process than a genuine desire to follow Judaism.

Because of my mixed heritage, I had not been baptised as an infant. So when a number of girls from my year were being prepared for confirmation, I was not amongst them. Nevertheless, I can still recall the interest with which I viewed those fellow pupils for I wanted to see if they would change in any discernible way. I was anxious to know. Perhaps, even at that stage, the Lord was quickening within me an interest in spiritual things. I was to be bitterly disappointed however, and not a little disgusted, as I saw the group returning that evening and discussing the event as if it had been a purely social occasion which allowed them the opportunity of an afternoon's freedom and a good meal! I was profoundly grateful, even then, that I had not been part of the seemingly meaningless ritual.

No Mistake!

Some three years later, in the summer of 1966 as I was preparing to leave school, it was announced that a group of old girls would be visiting the school to talk about the Old Girls' Association. The person who organised the event was Jackie Pullinger, who is now quite well-known in Christian circles for her tireless ministry over nearly forty years among the drug addicts of Hong Kong's Walled City. In those days she was just another Old Girl, somewhat overshadowed by her illustrious twin sisters who were also former pupils. At the time, Jackie was studying music in London and, as I later learned, since becoming a Christian she had felt a real burden for the school, which was totally devoid of any Christian witness. Accordingly she decided to bring a group of young men and women from St Helen's Bishopsgate, to share the gospel. She chose the sixth form because we were about to leave the cloistered atmosphere of a single-sex boarding school and enter the real world, with its many temptations.

Still under the illusion that this meeting was about gaining more recruits, and thus subscriptions, for an impoverished Old Girls' Association, I entered the sixth-form study, where the meeting was being held, with the intention of extricating the tennis racket that I had left there by mistake. There was of course no mistake! It is awesome now to look back and think that these events were in God's heart “before the foundation of the world”. As I was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible – something I have never found easy – to my astonishment I heard a young man, who was not a very obvious candidate for the Association, talking about the sacrifice our Lord had made in order to save us from our sins. He drove the point home, that only by offering himself – his life for ours – was Jesus able to redeem us and bestow on us the priceless gift of eternal life. I had hitherto seen Christianity as nothing more than an institution and was immediately struck by the intensely personal nature of what he was saying. Jesus did this for me because he loved me so much that he was not willing for me to perish in my sins. This was no dead creed but a vital life-giving reality! Before I knew what I was doing I found myself responding to the call. Needless to say, I never did get my tennis racket and the rest is history!

Rooted in the Faith

I was greatly blessed by the love and support I received from that group once I had returned to London. A close friend of Jackie, another Old Girl, later became my godmother when I made a public confession of my new-found faith at a service of adult baptism, and she has been an invaluable guide and mentor over the last four decades. I was also fortunate in being introduced to a gospel-based church, Emmanuel, Wimbledon, where I was absorbed into the wider Christian family. There I was nurtured in the faith by a number of dear saints, some of whom had served him faithfully over many years on the mission field. Their love and care was what brought me through the turbulent times; they were never judgmental but neither did they comprise where biblical standards were concerned.

For me, the draw of Judaism became one that was based on knowledge rather than on feelings. It was founded on the recognition that the Jews are God's chosen people – theirs are the covenant promises – from whom the Lion of Judah arose as a sacrificial lamb who purchased the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles. I have always been conscious of the reverence for God and profound sense of awe, wonder and expectation that permeates much Jewish worship. These are elements that are often lacking in many Christian services today. The veil on their hearts is still firmly in place, however, and as I see my own family clustered around – sadly more often than not at funerals or family prayers – I say with St Paul, "My heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved."

Nicky Corbett

This article first appeared in the March 2007 edition of the Herald

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