Michael Grabiner

Michael Grabiner

21 August 1950
St Albans, United Kingdom
04 November 2021
London, United Kingdom
Words by
David Grabiner Son

When Abraham Lincoln said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years”, I don’t think he was talking about Dad. But he certainly could have been.

I’ve been struck by the number of truly amazing and heartfelt tributes to Dad that I’ve read and heard over the last few days, from so many of those whose lives he touched, whether through his interaction with politics; the world of business; his Judaism; his philanthropy; his family…or a combination of them.

the real Dad has returned to us

Even more striking though, has been the consistency in the words which people have chosen to characterise him. Kindness; Wisdom; Integrity; Determination; Diplomacy; Leadership. A consensus-builder. And to have left that indelible impression on the world just by going about his life in his own quietly cajoling but authoritative way, without a hint of arrogance or self-interest, really is testament to the truly remarkable man that Dad was.

As a kid though, I didn’t really understand this properly. I think most young children (apart from my own!) default to believing that their parents have the answers to everything, until proven otherwise. To me though, Dad appeared omniscient in virtually all matters all the way into my thirties (other than how to make a cup of tea or drive a car safely), and I had huge admiration and respect for his wisdom, and pride for the regard in which he was so obviously held by others, even if I deeply resented the fact that he never let me beat him at table-tennis.

But he was not, in my youth at least, a man prone to emotional expression (although I saw even his natural restraint tested as we endured watching Spurs together during the 90s). And that meant that while Dad would tell you, if you asked, what he thought about something, it was often less clear how he felt about it.

So, although I’ve always had a very close relationship with Mum, it wasn’t until I grew older, and ultimately had children of my own, that I began to fully understand and appreciate how lucky I was to have Dad as my dad.

He was probably the most staunchly principled man that I’ve ever known

Although he had strong views of his own, he never sought to impose those views, or any expectations, on his children, preferring instead to make sure that we had the tools to make up our own minds and make our own way.. and our own mistakes! He was probably the most staunchly principled man that I’ve ever known and approached anything to which he turned his mind with an almost obsessive dedication, and yet he and Mum were endlessly forgiving and accommodating of my many faults and failures, however self-inflicted and predictable they may have been! There was always a sense that, while your actions certainly had consequences, there was nothing that couldn’t be fixed.

And so those qualities of kindness, wisdom, patience and leadership manifested themselves in our family life in a foundation of unconditional love and an unshakeable sense of security, a gift of immeasurable value to which I can now only aspire to do justice with my own children. I’m enormously grateful that Dylan and Georgia had the opportunity to spend some quality time with their poppa and we will cherish the memories of him teaching Dylan to play chess, trying to conduct some doubtless very important Skype meeting with Dylan trying to unplug his headset, and the mutual fascination when Georgia crawled under the dinner table only to re-emerge, not for a cuddle but to announce that she had tied his shoelaces together!

his ability to offer a different perspective and cause you to look at something in a completely different way

It’s often said that dementia is a cruel disease, and of course it is impossibly hard to watch someone you love slowly stripped of everything that made them that person. And with Dad having worked so hard his whole life, for the benefit of his family and his community, only for both he and Mum to have been robbed of the future they must have envisaged enjoying the fruits of their labour, the injustice is especially keenly felt. But one of Dad’s many talents was his ability to offer a different perspective and cause you to look at something in a completely different way. In Miriam’s beautiful eulogy yesterday, she spoke both of the sense that Dad might have regarded his mission as having been accomplished and of his propensity for careful planning, and it is against that backdrop that it seems entirely fitting that, as a parting gift, he should have provided those who loved him with the opportunity to say goodbye and to try to get used to the idea of him not being around any more before he actually left us for good.

As Mum said yesterday evening, through the wonderful words of his family and friends, the real Dad has returned to us over the last few days. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned during this period, it’s that, far from losing him again, this time he’s back for good… because his incredible legacy will surely outlive us all.

Words by
Rabbi Miriam Berger

I don’t think I’m alone when I say I didn’t realise how hard it would feel today.

We have been losing Mike for a while; he was no longer the man we knew, loved, and admired. We knew this moment would come and we knew him being freed from this awful disease is what he would have wanted. Yet all of a sudden, from the moment we heard he had died, it wasn’t about the dementia anymore: it’s like that man was never here and now we are grappling with the fact it’s the other Mike we have lost. The man we loved, admired, looked up to. The husband, dad, grandpa, brother, father-in-law, the businessman, philanthropist, wise sage, community builder. It’s hard and unfair and I wish we didn’t have to be here because there is suddenly no way of making it ok. We could make it ok when he was ill, and now it’s just so hard. We hold each other through this and acknowledge that pain.

There is a saying attributed to the Chasidic tradition, that I never use in funerals because I’ve always found it disappointingly trite and grating and yet over the last couple of days reflecting on Mike, I have felt strangely drawn to it, like maybe it began to make sense. We are taught “There are those who gain eternity in a lifetime, others who gain it in one brief hour.” Maybe I’ve never believed it of others, never seen a completeness in a life cut a quarter of a century too short. But it made me question what it is in Mike that makes a life cut short feel incongruously complete.

he gently corralled, guided, asked difficult questions, helped you think it was your idea

Perhaps it is because Mike died in just the same way as he lived. He always had a firm vision, always knew the destination, knew where he needed to get the project, the business, the kids, the charity to, and rather than shouting or bullying his way to get there he gently corralled, guided, asked difficult questions, helped you think it was your idea, always taking those that needed to be brought along on the journey each step of the way. The tragedy today is that he reached his ultimate destination, like so many other less significant ones, far too early. He would have hated to be the person he had become and yet perhaps he knew his life’s work was complete.

He and Jane have built the most extraordinary legacy and seeing all four children so settled, with gorgeous loving partners, and grandchildren bringing even more joy and love and raucousness to family gatherings, there is hope that he died completely content having succeeded in life, sensing a completeness to his project and not burdened by the pain that everyone here holds of that which he has missed out on – the ultimate reward of spending time simply enjoying the destination. Yet as anyone who was mentored by him will tell you, Mike always encouraged you to have your succession planning in place early. You only have to see the way that David, James, Ben and Sophie together with their partners are with each other and their desire to make life bearable for Jane, to know that life’s succession planning is firmly in place. When you catch the glint in Dylan’s eye, especially in his Spurs-clad moments, you know in fact that the succession plans have definitely got longevity.

a sense of duty, inspiring and pushing him along to work extraordinarily hard and always for the greater good

But it wasn’t just a knowledge that the future was in good hands that enabled his sense of fulfilment. Mike’s life journey was travelled with a sense of duty, inspiring and pushing him along to work extraordinarily hard and always for the greater good. Perhaps that dutiful work ethic was instilled in Betty’s or one of the other family clothes shops. Mike, Susan, Stephen and Robert all knew that when their dad told them they had to work, they had to work. That’s the joy of a family business, you know the importance of making it succeed and you can’t argue with the boss. So, when Mike was told he needed to be in the store the afternoon of 30 July 1966 he didn’t even bother to tell his parents that he had a ticket to a somewhat important football match that day but was the dutiful son who worked that afternoon, in an unsurprisingly deserted shop, as all their customers were watching England win their only World Cup final. Yet the disappointment of missing that moment in history play out at Wembley never dulled Mike’s sense of duty.

For his own children’s childhood, he may have seemed to be incessantly working, but never in a way that could have made them doubt for a minute he was doing it all for them. Building the very securest, happiest of homes for them to thrive in, he was driven by being the dutiful father and like every role he took on, he did it impeccably. I guess it’s when duty calls at just the same moment that the problems arise. It’s fair to say just occasionally Mike was challenged to know where his dutiful self was needed most. Like the time, moments after David was born, with Jane still on a trolley, waiting to be taken to a room with their new-born, but Mike needing to also be at the opening session of the Sloane Fellowship programme which was such an honour to have been accepted onto, followed by a full Brent Council meeting which clearly all his fellow councillors not to mention the residents of the entire Borough of Brent were expecting him to attend. History doesn’t record which dutiful seat Mike sat on that night: by Jane’s bedside tending to her and David’s every need or in the lecture hall and council chamber but let’s just say, it’s never easy juggling competing needs!

he was always the calming influence, always wise, always fair, always so deeply astute

Perhaps when you feel the sense of obligation so strongly, sometimes you have to avoid it otherwise it has a tendency to take over. It’s why when Jane and Mike were discussing the need to join a shul so that the boys could begin cheder, they very sensibly decided not to join the local, little reform community which was just getting off the ground in Mill Hill because they knew that it was so new they would be expected to really get involved and they really didn’t want to get involved in Jewish communal politics; Mike had surely had his fill of that as a labour councillor. Sometimes you can run but you can’t hide! From Finchley Reform Synagogue  to chair of the Movement for Reform Judaism, to Chair of Governors of JCoSS, to President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. That sense of obligation did take over and thank goodness for Progressive Judaism around the globe that it did. I don’t think people were used to such humility accompanying such wisdom in the leadership of those organisations, but I am sure it made Mike the sage we all hold him to be.

Mike built his reputation in the business world but managed to be the same person whether in telecoms boardrooms or Apax interviews, at Partnership for Schools’ initiatives or Jewish communal organisation meetings and the same person if you were fortunate enough to pick his brains at his kitchen table. Because whether he was seated at a table of argumentative Israelis at a Bezek meeting or restructuring the Post Office, whether at a Union For Reform Judaism Biennial of six thousand in the USA, or an MRJ conference of two hundred he was always the calming influence, always wise, always fair, always so deeply astute.

With Stephen and Mike together at Apax and their siblings, their spouses and nieces and nephews all known for their own Jewish communal involvement, the Grabiner clan has become renowned and held by the outside world with the deepest love and admiration. Even if people don’t always know who belongs to which Grabiner household, I hope you all recognise the love and gratitude that comes your way and the respect with which you are all held.

the one who realises communal dreams, restores justice to an unjust society and helps individuals and organisations to reach their full potential

Yet I feel it’s only fair to acknowledge at this point that Mike’s deeper involvement in Judaism did create one profound injustice which I need to air in the hope that Sophie will find it in her heart to forgive him. I am told that when Mike found his Judaism, he banned Christmas at 35 Uphill Road and I’m not sure Sophie is over Christmas Tree-gate yet. Sophie, as the rabbi-grinch who stole Christmas for my own child too I can’t advocate going over his head this year on 25 December but I hope instead there are plenty of reruns, in his memory, of the post GCSE father-daughter shopping and architectural tour of New York in the winter where you can add looking out for the best decorated trees in Central Park and Times Square will help you find your way of moving past the day the MRJ stole from you.

It is only possible to achieve as much as Mike has by having the right person by his side throughout. For that, credit goes to Charles Clarke for introducing Jane to Mike in her very first term at Cambridge. Jane walked life’s journey with Mike, always offering support and challenge where necessary, giving him confidence when he doubted himself and pushing him to realise the extent to which he could achieve. You cannot think of Mike without Jane. From his young eighteen year old self to the day he died, Jane, you enabled him to be himself and for that all of us who mourn him are grateful to you for giving him to us, for sharing his wisdom, his time, his energy with all of us. You managed to always be your own formidable self and yet also be the wife of the labour councillor at constituency events, the business executive’s wife as he climbed such heights and made the most incredible name for himself, you stood at the Palace with him as he became a CBE.You both took on such important causes together doing so much to create a fair and just society in the UK, Israel and around the world, and doing it all whilst steering the family ship for him, ensuring you have built the most wonderful legacy together. Mike indeed is one of the few who truly gained eternity in his all too short life.

you reached your destination

It leaves us saying, it’s just not fair. Not for Mike but for all of you, all of us, who still needed him. For Jane to enjoy a real retirement, not the three he attempted where he stopped being paid and just took full time voluntary positions with Jewish organisations and charities, but a time to enjoy reaping the benefits of their full, hard-working lives. Sophie needed Mike to walk her down the aisle to her own Michael. David and James needed Mike to recreate with their children those moments at Spurs or swimming, or on the touchline at their own sporting fixtures that brought Mike so much pride for decades. Ben needed to be able to show Mike his life in Australia and watch him play with the kids on the beach. Belinda needed to pitch as many more ideas as it would take before Mike said yes this was the one, rather than immediately explaining why it just wouldn’t work. Susan, Stephen and Robert need Mike to preserve the clan, not leaving an empty seat at the epic family seders. We, the world needed Mike to continue to show us what’s possible, to be the one who realises communal dreams, restores justice to an unjust society and helps individuals and organisations to reach their full potential. Mike, you gained eternity, you reached your destination but this time being early leaves a level of pain your last couple of years should have protected us from but instead leaves us shocked by how unprepared we really are.

The Talmud tells us to “Weep for the mourners, not for the soul that is gone.” You Mike, to a dementia-free eternity, we to grief.