Farewell, Elephant: A Jewish man whose friendship was a gift to this Baptist pastor

You may not have known him, but last week Sanctuary lost one of its ‘people of peace’: Jon Yaakov Gorr, known to many as Elephant. He was killed while riding his beloved bicycle in Allansford, and perhaps you have driven past him on his regular ride down Hopkins Point Road into Warrnambool.

Elephant and I met at a climate meeting and became friends. He was a gentle, generous and beautiful man blessed with fierce intelligence and childlike curiosity. He brought these gifts to his reading of the Jewish scriptures, meeting regularly with diverse study partners to wrestle with the word. He was also hospitable, thoughtful, and deeply moral; his death is a terrible loss.

For Elephant took seriously the work of tikkun olam (the mending of the world). He did this through bringing diverse people into relationship, political activity, and sustainable living, to the point of being the only person I know who had one, and only one, pen: a fountain pen given to him by his father when he graduated from university, and which he continued to use every time he wrote for the next forty years. “Why would anyone need more than one pen?” he asked me, bemused: for it only takes one pen to write, and a good one lasts for decades.

I loved our meandering conversations about our shared scriptures, faith in action, climate, and culture, as well as the finer points of hommous. He was generous with his eggplants and his reading, and books and food flowed between our households (admittedly, mostly into ours). He turned me into a fan of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, which has in turn shaped some of my own thinking and preaching.

Elephant found it strange but delightful to meet a Christian who thinks (his words), and he was curious to meet more of the Sanctuary folk once eased restrictions made that possible. Early last year, we had planned dinner and a rabbinical style conversation with him and our small group, Shalom, but the first shutdown put paid to that and we never subsequently managed it.

He was always up for a bit of bureaucratic rule-bending, but when it came to people and planet, he had a purity of heart which made him a living embodiment of Psalm 15:

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbours;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honour those who fear God;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.

A faithful and committed Jew, Elephant once told me that he had informed his rabbi back in Melbourne that we were now ‘code-sharing.’ That is, I was his pastor here, but if anyone I knew was struggling with a finer point of Jewish thought, his rabbi would step up. But it seems his rabbi and I are now code-sharing with angels for, as the rabbi noted at his funeral, “Yaakov went on his way, and angels accompanied him” (Gen. 32:1). God has taken him; and I can only be grateful that we had time together in this life now. But I have lost a dear friend, and Sanctuary, a person of peace. Shalom, Yaakov Elephant. May the angels lead you home.

Elephant leaves his wife, Marion, as well as hundreds, if not thousands, who cherished him: family, friends, study partners, business associates, and many others dotted around the world.

Emailed to Sanctuary 6 October 2021 © Sanctuary, 2021. Photo by Tarek Kunze on Unsplash.

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