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Weekly audiences were 'oasis of calm amidst the hurly-burly'

‘Always a spark about her’: Ex-PM May shares Queen stories at Jewish memorial event

May offers a series of warm insights, and then stresses, above all, that Elizabeth II ‘believed in the importance of faith, and recognized the value of other faiths’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May addresses members of the United Synagogue at a memorial ceremony for Queen Elizabeth ll ,held at  St. John's Wood Synagogue, northwest London, on September 15, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May addresses members of the United Synagogue at a memorial ceremony for Queen Elizabeth ll ,held at St. John's Wood Synagogue, northwest London, on September 15, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

LONDON — Britain’s Jewish community summoned a raft of its own and other dignitaries Wednesday for a ceremony in memory of Queen Elizabeth II, attended by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, former Prime Minister Theresa May, the Bishop of London, members of parliament, rabbis and dayanim, and Jewish members of the British Armed Forces and police.

Members of the United Synagogue, a union of British Orthodox Jewish congregations, filled the St John’s Wood Synagogue in northwest London on Wednesday night for 90 minutes of prayer, song, and addresses, ending with a rendition of the new national anthem, ‘G-d Save the King.’

Theresa May referred to the late Queen as “quite simply, the most remarkable person I have ever met,” and revealed snippets about her interactions with the late monarch during her period as Prime Minister.

Commending the late Queen’s “service duty, dignity, grace, humor, and faith,” May shared stories about sojourns at Balmoral, the monarch’s favorite residence, in Scotland.

The Queen would choose books for her guests’ rooms, May revealed.

On one occasion, the late Duke of Edinburgh recommended a “long, long” walk. After May and her husband set off, a discussion reportedly took place between the Queen and the Duke about the recommendation. The Queen was “concerned for her guests, and she ensured that someone followed us, at a discrete distance, to make sure we were OK.”

A children’s choir sings at a memorial ceremony for Queen Elizabeth ll, held at St. John’s Wood Synagogue, northwest London, on September 15, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The Queen did not need to be the center of attention, May went on. At Balmoral, she was happy to sit patiently, while others talked among themselves.

Weekly audiences with the Queen were not “a stiff debriefing, they were a conversation,” she went on, “and an oasis of calm amidst the hurly-burly of political life.”

File: The new leader of the Conservative Party Theresa May, left, is greeted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace on July 13, 2016 where the queen invited the former home secretary to become prime minister and form a new government. (AFP/ POOL / Dominic Lipinski)

May described an incident during which the Lord Lieutenant was supposed to go ahead of the Queen to introduce a line of people when his ceremonial sword got stuck as he tried to get out of the car. “The Queen walked up to the receiving line without him, and said, ‘I’d better introduce myself. I’m the Queen.'”

“There was always a spark about her,” she continued, recalling the monarch’s unconventional entrance to the 2012 London Olympics with James Bond, and her tea with Paddington Bear as part of this year’s Jubilee celebrations. “I will never look at a marmalade sandwich the same way again,” May quipped.

Staff Sergeant Dan Fox, national chairman of AJEX, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, lowers the Union Jack to half-mast, as Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (seated to the right) looks on, at a memorial ceremony for Queen Elizabeth ll, held at St. John’s Wood Synagogue, northwest London, on September 15, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

But beneath everything, the Queen was a woman of faith, “who believed in the importance of faith, and recognized the value of other faiths,” the former prime minister said.

Mirvis remembered King Charles, then the Prince of Wales, breaking off his summer vacation in Scotland to attend his installation as Chief Rabbi. “He came to extend to us his blessings and very best wishes. Today, ” Mirvis went on, “we, the Jewish community of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, extend to our King our blessings and best wishes for a long, fulfilling, productive, successful, and glorious reign.”

From left: Sam Hilsenrath of the Royal Air Force, Senior Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Reuven Livingstone, and Laurence Bauer of the British army’s medical corps, at a memorial ceremony for the late Queen Elizabeth ll at St John’s Wood Synagogue, London, on September 15, 2022. (Sue Surses/Times of Israel)

The audience included several Jewish members of the British Armed Forces, among them Senior Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Reuven Livingstone.

Livingstone, who has attended many ceremonies at which the Queen and Royal Family were present, told the Times of Israel that the Queen had noticed the Star of David on his cap and remarked on how much the Jews had contributed to the UK.

“She was very warm to us and all faiths,” he recalled. “We were on an equal footing with everyone else.”

Sam Hilsenrath, who serves in the Royal Air Force, said that his family had been in Britain for 400 years and that he felt it was important for Jews to serve in all of the country’s institutions.

Staff Sergeant Dan Fox, who lowered the Union Jack to half-mast, was present as national chairman of AJEX, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women.

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