Column for Jewish News June 22 2023
It’s not that long ago that the more secular among us were having either a good laugh or a burst of righteous “who-do-they-think-they-are” indignation at Cohenim who covered themselves in plastic bin-liners on flights which overflew European cemeteries.
I haven’t seen any visual evidence of the plastic baggers for quite a long time, which either means that the airlines have changed their flight routes — unlikely — or someone high up the religious food chain has had a quiet word.
It is certainly a prohibition for a Cohen to set foot in a cemetery because of the ruling that proximity to the dead — except for the immediate family — can be judged a defilement of the priestly caste to which a Cohen belongs. There are many instances of a Cohen standing at the perimeter of a burial ground while funerals take place.
That practice, it seems to me, is completely acceptable within the Jewish community. It bothers no-one and complies with strict religious belief. But there are probably, I’m guessing, quite a number of Cohenim who do not act as high priests within their own synagogues, and who thus do not observe this stricture.
What, then, might we make of the approach by the Union of Orthodox Synagogues to the planning committee of the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, to ask for a makeover to the Exhibition Road entrance to South Kensington tube station?
The UOHC, claiming that there are 1500 Cohenim in London who are affected, say that such individuals cannot use this entrance to South Ken tube because it is part of the Science Museum, which has human remains on display. Actually there is a pedestrian tunnel, leading from Exhibition Road to the Science Museum itself.
Presumably this has been the case since the 19th century: the Science Museum opened in 1857, while the tube station opened to passengers in 1868. I cannot envisage circumstances in which throngs of Charedi men might need to use the Exhibition Road entrance to the South Ken underground, much less 1500 Cohenim, but such is the claim.
The UOHC has come up with a cunning plan, however. (And if you think that has shades of Baldrick, you might well be right.) It has suggested that an outside archway, or roof, be built on to the entrance, thus nominally separating the entrance from the Science Museum, and “ allow those deprived from using the Underground to be able to use it.”
“Deprived”? Hold on a minute. There are two entrances to South Ken tube — the other one is on Old Brompton Road — so I don’t understand that argument.
Furthermore, this exercise in religious diversity is estimated to cost in the area of £2 million — and I have not seen anything to suggest that the UOHC is putting its metaphorical hand into its metaphorical trouser pocket in order to pay for what we might call a RoofHole.
No, the Union wants the council to pay for this roof. And the council was all set to approve this proposal, until there were objections from Imperial College and the Exhibition Road Cultural Group — whose members include nearby museums such as the V&A, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.
I’m all for Jews living in this country to exercise their rights as British citizens in order to improve their ability to live full Jewish lives. But this? This is special pleading on the order of the bin-liner plane passengers, and will win us no friends in the wider community.
Besides, alert readers may think that the UOHC has other, more pressing issues to deal with — such as settling claims about alleged sexual predators.