The whole world is still shocked and saddened by the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, who was a universally admired “woman of valor” due to her exemplary leadership. My wife Malkie and I will never forget having the great privilege of meeting and speaking with her when I served as rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Tzedek in Vancouver and represented the clergy during her official visit to British Columbia in 1971.
It was on that occasion that Prince Phillip approached me and asked whether I knew Britain’s then-Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie. When I responded in the affirmative and said that Brodie had only recently had Shabbat dinner at our home, Phillip effusively praised the chief rabbi’s accomplishments.
The queen, noticing that her husband was no longer behind her but speaking to me, backtracked to listen in on the conversation. She then asked me a question of her own: “Tell me rabbi, does the seminary choose the rabbi or does the congregation select their spiritual leader?” To which I replied, “No, your majesty, it’s always the congregation that gets to choose its rabbi.” I could tell by her smile that she had hoped this was the case. She believed that the community should have the final say on such an important decision.
Precisely at that moment, as her majesty and Prince Phillip continued down the greeting line, there was a sudden tap on my shoulder from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, whose parents I had eulogized. He had ignored me throughout the entire evening. Malkie and I clearly wouldn’t eat a kosher meal on non-kosher dishes, so we insisted that when the lights flickered, indicating that everyone was to change their seats, we would carry our kosher plates with us from seat to seat. This likely embarrassed the chief justice to the extent that he gave us the cold shoulder. However, when he saw that her majesty and Prince Phillip were engaging me and my wife in conversation, he figured what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
But this wasn’t my first such encounter with the royal family.
The International Conference of Christians and Jews was holding their convention in Vancouver and Prince Philip was the guest of honor. I was privileged to deliver the invocation. Malkie and I were seated with an English officer of the royal yacht Britannia, who was wearing a kilt. During the dinner, he foolishly blurted out: “Canada is just too ethnic for me. It has too many competing interests that weaken the country’s national identity.”
Looking my way, he grinned and added, “Take, for example, the good rabbi here, who just gave us a wonderful invocation. We are all eating her majesty’s food, but he insists on eating his own.”
Malkie and I were shocked. I couldn’t hold myself back.
“Sir,” I said to him, “with the greatest of respect, if you are not embarrassed to wear a skirt and expose your knees, I don’t think I should be ashamed to eat kosher food.”
If world leaders learn from Queen Elizabeth’s humanity and decency, our planet will be safe and our children and great-grandchildren will live in a much better world.
Rabbi Marvin Hier is founder and CEO of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance as well as a two-time Academy Award winner.