History of the Great Synagogue
THE reputation of the Great Synagogue in London was now becoming better and better known to Jewish committees abroad. This fact was responsible for one of the most remarkable episodes in Anglo-Jewish history of the eighteenth century, which at the same time marks the beginning of the British tradition of assisting the Jew against his oppressor. During the War of Austrian Succession, in revenge for certain fancied offences of the Jews in Alsace, the Empress Maria Theresa, most illogically, banished the Jews from Bohemia--especially from its capital, Prague, which at that time contained one of the oldest and greatest communities in the western world. That hapless Jewry now entreated its co-religionists throughout Europe to use what influence they could to secure at least a reprieve. When in December 1744 this appeal was received at the Great Synagogue in London, through the medium of the Rabbi, it was realised that no time was to be lost. The presiding officer was Aaron Franks, who, with his father-in-law Moses Hart, the Rosh haKahal, immediately petitioned King George II on behalf of their unhappy brothers in faith. The King consented to receive them in audience (doubtless Aaron Franks' elegant clientele now stood him in good stead): and they were accompanied by Joseph Salvador, Warden of the Spanish and Portuguese community, which thus became associated in this meritorious deed. A recently-discovered account describes how the old monarch showed the supplicants every sympathy, tears coming to his eyes as he heard their harrowing account of what was happening to the miserable Bohemian Jews in the middle of a severe Central European winter. "It is not right," he repeated, shaking his head, "It is not right that the innocent should suffer with the guilty." In consequence of his truly royal sympathy, the British Ambassador in Vienna, Sir Thomas Robinson, was instructed to make representations to the Austrian Government. The Empress was deaf to the pleadings of humanity, and the process proved slow. Meanwhile, it was reported abroad that old Moses Hart (he was now in his seventieth year) betook himself to the Continent, in the company of three Members of Parliament whose sympathies he had enlisted, to see whether it was possible to do anything for the relief of the sufferers. In the long run, the diplomatic action set on foot at St. James's and the Hague proved successful, and the edict of banishment was rescinded. It is significant, and memorable, that the first mention of public action on the part of the Great Synagogue was in connexion with this remarkable episode of humanity.1
In addition to this diplomatic action, all the London synagogues raised relief funds (that of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation amounted to £843)1 and a joint committee comprising representatives of all sections of the community was appointed to administer it. This was the earliest instance, by many years, of co-operative action of the sort in the Anglo-Jewish community.
Among the minor problems of the Synagogue at this period was that of proselytisation. One of the objections that had been raised to the resettlement of the Jews in England at the time of Oliver Cromwell was that they would convert Christians to their way of belief; and a report was current among the members of the Spanish and Portuguese community that the toleration extended by Charles II was conditional upon nothing of this sort being attempted. Yet, though Judaism is no proselytising faith, and admits freely that "the righteous of all creeds have a part in life eternal", it was not always possible to rebuff those non-Jews who thought that they found in the religion of the Torah a key to their perplexities, or to damp the zeal of Jewish enthusiasts who desired to assist them. Considering the spirit of the age, there can be no question that this was distinctly dangerous to the position of the community as a whole, and all the London congregations were at one in endeavouring to check it. Every now and again, the Great Synagogue took steps to curb some of its more hot-headed members. Nevertheless, conditions in this respect gave rise to periodical anxiety, and two days after Christmas in 1751 the presiding body received the following letter from Mahamad of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation:
A similar communication was sent to the Hambro' Synagogue in Magpie Alley. The representatives of the two bodies of "Dutch" (i.e. German) Jews met together to consider what should be done---it is the first recorded instance of such consultation. In consequence, the following reply was sent by the hand of Meir Lefman Polack, the Secretary of the Great Synagogue:
The Resolution in question--proclaimed by the Beadles of the two Synagogues in Yiddish, on the Sabbath of vaEra--ran (in the sturdy contemporary translation) as follows:
The vocal powers of the Beadles and the disapproval of the authorities proved quite inadequate to solve the problem. In the winter of 1759-1760, it was discovered that there was a proselytising movement in London, which involved many persons. Two Christian children, it was said, had recently been initiated to Judaism in the house of one Isaac ben Jochanan: while a certain Meir Cohen had performed the marriage ceremony (in the house of the Rabbi himself, the record says) between a Jew and a foreign proselyte whom he had admitted to the faith, and who was given the ritual bath in the Mikvah in the house of Abraham ben Josele. Isaac pleaded ignorance of what had occurred, as he had been away at the time, and was merely fined a symbolic sum of thirty-nine pence, corresponding to the thirty-nine statutory stripes of Biblical days. Abraham ben Josele, on the other hand, had to pay twelve times that amount, and after a special session of the governing bodies of both of the Ashkenazi communities, Meir Cohen was expelled from the congregation, in accordance with the regulation enacted eight years earlier. But there was another episode with which they could not deal unaided: for when not long since Abraham the Bass-Singer at the Synagogue had married a Gentile woman who had embraced Judaism, the ceremony had been performed by a Sephardi scholar, Rabbi Perez. The following letter was thereupon addressed to the senior congregation:
Notwithstanding all such efforts, it proved impossible to stem for long the enthusiasm of those who thought that they found in Judaism greater spiritual comfort than in the religion in which they had been born and bred. Not long after, it is recorded how an entire family, consisting of father, mother, and two daughters, came from Coventry to London and were admitted to the faith, becoming more strict in their observance than ordinary Jews. Whether this episode had any connexion with the Great Synagogue it has been impossible to determine, though it is highly probable.
There is a fleeting glimpse of the life and organisation of the congregation at this time in the various publications regarding the cause célèbre of Henry Simons. This was a Polish Jew (presumably Zevi Hirsch ben Simeon) almost entirely ignorant of English, who fell among thieves while travelling about the country in 1751 and alleged that he had been robbed of a belt of money--an episode which led to a series of prosecutions for theft, libel and perjury, at the close of which he was handsomely vindicated in the Courts of Law. For some reason or other, the case seized on the popular imagination, and several pamphlets were issued on the one side or the other in connexion with it. The witnesses on Simon's behalf included Naphtali Franks, "the great rich Jew", who testified how the other had been forced to "pawn his veil" (i.e. tallith) as a result of his losses: Lazarus Simon, the Overseer of the Poor (Gabbai Zedakah) of the Synagogue, who had given him relief and used to see him "publickly, and constantly" at the place of worship: and Meyer Polack, Clerk of the Synagogue, who once gave him half a guinea out of the poor-box, and at another time sixpence out of his own pocket. Naturally, the affair was closely followed in Duke's Place, from which many of the witnesses on Simon's behalf came. In particular, feelings ran high against a certain Jacob Abrahams (a native of Wintzenheim in Alsace, and accordingly known in London as "Wants-money"!) who had given evidence on the other side. To avoid unpleasant consequences, Aaron Franks (Naphtali's cousin) gave him a letter to take to Lazarus Simons, suggesting that action should be taken by the congregation to anticipate untoward consequences:
We see from this how vigilantly and how energetically the Congregation watched over the good name of Jewry in those far-off days.
A day-to-day history of the Synagogue at this period would hardly be enthralling, even if the records were in a condition to permit us to make the reconstruction. Only here and there is there anything to record beyond the merest small-talk. On February 28th, 1748, indeed, there was a flutter of excitement when the Synagogue was broken into and property was stolen, including plate and vestments, to the value of £300. Subsequently, the culprit--a certain Jeremiah Levy--was apprehended. Seven years later, in 1755, there was a similar untoward episode, when it was found that a pair of bells left to the Congregation by Moses Heilbuth in 1748 was missing. An enquiry was made, and the two beadles were found guilty of culpable negligence in their custody of the Synagogue property, one of them being fined ten guineas and the other suspended for six months. Yet another episode of the sort took place on the night of May 20th, 1767: a silver cup and caster "used in certain benedictions" being stolen by a baker's boy named Joseph Phineas "who blinks with his eyes", subsequently convicted. (In the course of the evidence it was stated that "upon the wardens being chosen, they have a list of the vestments and they give them from warden to warden.") These occurrences are probably responsible for the fact that hardly any of the appurtenances now in possession of the Congregation are anterior to the middle of the eighteenth century. Minor peculation was presumably more common; in 1756, for example, Mr. Lewis Oppenheim's seat in the Synagogue was broken into, and he advertised a reward in the public press for information which would enable him to recover the lost property. In 1738, the Ashkenazim had doubtless shared in the mourning of their Sephardi co-religionists, when there was a serious conflagration in their Synagogue round the corner, and we read how on Candlemas day "a fast was observed by the Jews on account of their Law being burnt in a late fire in Duke's Place." Notwithstanding the growth of the congregation, it had its periods of financial stress, and in 1734 a special levy of £4 a head had to be made on all members, as has been mentioned before. The year 1746, however, brought an unexpected windfall, when the Wardens received the sum of £50 to be distributed among the poor of the community from the executors of one Timothy Motteux, perhaps a benevolently inclined French Huguenot (the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue had been similarly remembered). 1751 saw an auction for the benefit of the orphans in the room attached to the synagogue (the Kahalstube, as it was called) of the goods of Moses [ben Hayim] Hyams, recently demised, for the benefit of his orphans--an illustration of the paternal if despotic power of the community. In 1752-3, various appurtenances for the Scroll of the Law were purchased from one of the members, Moses Israel, a silversmith, probably to be identified with the Moses ben Israel haCohen of the records. Nine years later, in 1761, the Charity Fund acquired from Joseph Levy, of Frankfort, that magnificent ewer and beaker for laving the hands of the Priests which is still used on festive occasions--a splendid example of English silversmiths' work of the period.
Page from the earliest Commemoration Book (registering bequests of Lazarus Simon, Benjamin Mendes da Costa, etc.)
Those who had supported the Synagogue in their lives did not fail to remember it, in many cases, at their death; and some pious members of the Sephardi community--Benjamin Mendes da Costa, Moses Gomes Serra, and others--similarly showed themselves mindful of its needs. English law, however, regarded any bequest for the support of the Jewish religion, if challenged in the courts, as devoted to a superstitious object, and therefore invalid: and, partly for this reason, partly because to the Jew the support of suffering humanity is more important than the maintenance of the pomp of the public worship, charitable objects were generally uppermost in the mind of the testators. Thus, when Isaac Franks died in 1736, he left his brother and executor, Aaron Franks (among other benefactions) the sum of £2,500 on trust, the income of which was to be devoted to the purchase of coals, clothing, provisions and other necessities of life for distribution half-yearly, at Purim and the New Year, to " poor German Jews and their families, living in England". Besides this, a legacy of £1,250 was to be given to the synagogue, £100 to the poor of the parish, and £150 to the East India Company's hospital at Poplar, while the Rabbis received £100 "for praying for my soul" This was not an unusual formula in wills at the time, notwithstanding the fact that a legacy in such terms was not then enforcible in law. Thus, in 1764, another member of "Moses Hart's Synagogue in Duke's Place", Simon Jacob Moses, of Bury Street, left not only "£50 to the Learned Rabbys if they pray for my soul", but an additional £100 to his nephew, Jacob Nathan Moses, one of his executors, "if he will pray for me at Synagogue for one year" - i.e. recite the Kaddish. His other legacies included £50 to his book-keeper, Lefman Salamon Pollock, and £10 to his clerk, Lefman Meyer Pollock (subsequently Secretary of the Synagogue), £15 to the poor, £50 for the "Parnossims or rulers" of the Great Synagogue, £10 to the Burial Society, and the same amount to the Charitable Society for Educating Children - i.e. the Talmud Torah.2
The Congregation was to receive another great benefaction on the death of one of its oldest members. Simon ben Eleazar, or Simon Lazarus, of Goslar, near Halberstadt, an ancestor of the Franklin family, was Moses Hart's uncle and left Breslau with him in 1697 to settle in London; here he played a prominent part in communal affairs until the time of his death in 1725. His son, named after his grandfather, and known in England as Lazarus Simon, succeeded Moses Hart in his place as Jew Broker and married the latter's sister Margoshes. He remained active in the service of the Great Synagogue for many years, as repeated references in these pages have shown: and he was elected co-warden with Aaron Franks in 1750, 1753, 1756-7 and yet again in 1760. On his death in 1764, he left the congregation the sum of £3,500, Of which £2,500 was to be applied to clothe and give a small gratuity each year to twelve destitute persons, half of them men and half women, and the remaining £1,000 in distributions to the poor twice yearly before the Holydays. It was stipulated that the men's outfit should consist of a coat and waistcoat, a pair of breeches, two shirts, two neckcloths, a pair of shoes, a pair of stockings, and a hat; while the women were to receive a gown, a petticoat, a pair of stays, a pair of shoes, a pair of stockings, two shirts, two handkerchiefs, two caps, and two aprons. In order to prevent one very obvious abuse, any of the recipients who sold or pawned the outfit were debarred from further benefit from the fund. In accordance with a decision reached in 1808, only decayed members of the congregation were to be eligible for the clothing charity. This proviso is no longer adhered to, and preference to enjoy the benefits is now given to poor widows. With this reservation, however, and with due regard to the changed fashions in clothing, Lazarus Simon's legacy is faithfully administered by the United Synagogue to the present day.
A full list of the major benefactions to the Congregation, in the middle years of the eighteenth century, is subjoined. The list begins with the bequests of Isaac Franks and of Moses Hart. All names are of course given in their Hebrew form: the English forms, when ascertainable, together with the date of death, are appended in brackets:
The list continues with additional entries in a later hand, presumably belonging to the last decade of the century. Among the entries are included Margolis b. Judah, who left the Synagogue £144, and Abraham Samuel, son of a Rabbi Raphael, whose bequest was described an indefinite "proper gift".
Apart from these legacies and others (e.g. the pair of bells and house in Fleet Street bequeathed to it in 1748 by Moses, son of Samuel Heilbuth), the Synagogue benefited from the generosity of living members from time to time. The congregation gratefully recorded year by year such benefactions as that of Judah b. Menahem, who gave a donation of £100 on some special occasion, Judah b. Eliezer Levi (£50), Judah b. Samuel Levi (£20 and a scroll of the law) and many others; the bounty of some of them is mentioned elsewhere in these pages.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the cemetery acquired by Benjamin Levy in 1696/7 was beginning to get full. In accordance with a practice which was not uncommon in Ashkenazi congregations at the time, they at first attempted to cope with this problem by vertical instead of latitudinal expansion--that is, by covering the ground with a stratum of earth of sufficient depth to make fresh graves. It would seem that the south-western section of the ground, and the stretch behind the caretaker's lodge, were artificially raised in accordance with this practice, which some contemporary English observers noted as being alien to the other section of the Jewish community. (When this happened, tombstones were sometimes placed back to back, indicating that two bodies lay, one beneath the other, under the same memorial.) But in the nature of things, this could only be a temporary expedient. In the spring of 1740, a fund had been opened for the maintenance of the Cemetery. It was decided that all persons called to the Law henceforth should make an offering for this object, and a new functionary was henceforth appointed, year by year, to act as Treasurer (Gabbai Tikkun Beth Hayim). In 1748, Moses Hart, Aaron Franks, Elias Levy, Samuel Adolphus and Naphtali Franks - those never-failing benefactors - were appointed a sub-committee for the purpose of buying fresh land for a cemetery. In the course of the following year, the freehold of a site adjoining the original ground (described as "being situated in Three Colt Yard in Mile End and the Hamlet of Mile End Old Town, in the Parish of St. Dunstan, Stepney") was acquired for the sum of £150. A further payment of £21 was made to secure access to the public highway. The new ground lay at right-angles to the old, the whole henceforth being in a rough L-shape. The negotiations had been carried on through the medium of Lazarus Simon, himself to be laid to rest shortly after in the old ground, where his tombstone, recently restored by pious descendants, may still be seen.
There was by now a regular keeper resident in the cemetery, in accordance with the terms of the will of Isaac Franks, who had left the Synagogue among his other bequests an annuity of £10 to be paid to the ground-keeper for the time-being. The conditions are still piously carried out. The gravestone of the earliest beneficiary is still decipherable: it marks the last resting-place of Mordecai, son of Moses Nathan, of the province of Hesse, Shochet in London and keeper of the burial-ground (the date is apparently about 1745). In the newer part of the ground, one may read the epitaph of his daughter, which adds the interesting detail that he had been resident in Ireland before coming to England: it marks the resting-place of Leah, daughter of Mordecai Irelander, the Shochet and keeper of the Cemetery, and wife of Leib ben Joseph of Nassau (in Denmark!); she passed away in 1774, in her seventy-second year. Mordecai ben Moses Nathan's successor was his son, Nathan Nathan who, born in 1710, died in 1795 in his eighty-fifth year, after having occupied the obviously salubrious profession of cemetery-keeper for fifty years. One night in January 1758, shortly after midnight, he ran out with a naked sword to assist in overpowering a burglar who was struggling with a local householder among the tombs, his wife, Eve Nathan, meanwhile summoning the watch.
A mere ground-keeper was found later on to be an insufficient safeguard. It was the age of the "resurrection men", who removed recently-interred corpses and sold them to the medical schools for dissection. The Jew's particularly profound veneration for the bodily shell in which a human spirit had been enclosed rendered this possibility a constant dread in the community, though hardly more so than it was among the ordinary population. Accordingly, as with other cemeteries, Christian as well as Jewish, a system of watch and ward was devised. A sort of wheeled sentry-box was provided (at Brighton, something more than a century ago, a bathing-machine was adapted for the purpose!) which was moved about the ground and placed near newly-made graves, which were watched from it so long as was necessary. At the Great Synagogue, a law was passed to the effect that all members of the congregation between the ages of eighteen and seventy were to be obliged to lend their services in rotation. Each night, therefore, three of them, armed with blunderbusses, performed this cold and rather gruesome duty, from as early as four o'clock on winter evenings to seven in the morning. At intervals, they had to ring the bell of the watch-tower to show they were alert: in some grounds, they were supposed to walk about every hour and to call "All's well" if they found nothing amiss. Among the Synagogal records there are preserved rosters of the roll of service, "for the guarding of the House of Life". It was possible to obtain exemption only on the payment of a substantial fine, of which too the records are preserved. (It will be recalled how Zangwill's "King of the Schnorrers", with this object in view, obtained alms for a purpose which he euphemistically, and misleadingly, described as "to keep an old man out of the cemetery".) This system continued to obtain until well on in the nineteenth century.3
The Cemetery, like the Synagogue, attracted some attention among non-Jews. One eighteenth-century account speaks of it in the following terms:
In another respect, Jewish burials caused comment in the early days. In the seventeenth century, in order to foster the textile industry, legislation had been passed compelling all persons to be buried in shrouds of wool, and of no other material, under pain of a fine payable to the parish. This, however, was contrary to the religious practices of the Jews, which prescribed for such purposes the use of the simplest material. Since both of their cemeteries were at the beginning in the same part of Mile End, the resultant payments constituted quite a considerable source of income, which it would have been inequitable to restrict to that part of the parish in which their burials took place, though so few resided there. Accordingly, an order was made for "fines on Jews for not burying in wool in Mile End Hamlet to be divided among all hamlets in Stepney parish".
"Gamaliel ben Pedahzur", whose description of Ashkenazi life in London in the first half of the eighteenth century has been quoted above, gives some interesting details of the organisation of the Kabronim-Chevra, as he calls the Burial Society. The pious duty of digging the graves was performed of course by its members, who cast lots among themselves to determine whose turn it was to take part. A female counterpart of the Society, going by the same name, was responsible for providing the shrouds, and its "clerk", a poor woman, distributed various portions of it to the members, so that all should be able to participate in this meritorious deed. Burials took place at that time within twenty-four hours of the death, the time of the funeral being announced in the synagogue at the time of service by the "Clerk", or Beadle.
Up to a time almost within living memory, all the principal mourners attending a funeral were supplied with black "mourners' cloaks" which continued to be worn throughout the Shiva week and on the following Friday night when they attended Synagogue. Thus, with exquisite Jewish feeling, any deficiency of attire was covered, and the poor were saved from being put to shame. This custom continued until the second half of the last century, when for sanitary reasons it was discontinued. In those early days (it may be added), and long after, Jewish deaths were announced by the Beadle or some other representative of the synagogue, who went round the Jewish quarter with a great copper money-box ("bix") which he rattled as he went. This intimated that a death had taken place: if anyone wished to know who it was, he had to put a contribution in the box.
In 1786/7, a subscription was raised for performing certain works at the Cemetery (probably including the construction of a solid boundary-wall). At the same time, the Burial Society founded nearly a century before was reorganised, and a new roll was compiled of those willing to perform the pious duty of preparing the bodies for burial and watching by them before the last solemn rites. Two parchment registers used for this purpose, for the men's and women's societies respectively, are preserved in the congregational records. Year by year, on the Thursday before Hanukah, the Burial Society held a fast which was observed by all members (the ritual is preserved in a rare volume Rephuath haNephesh, a handbook for its pious work, printed in London in 1780). On the conclusion of the service, the members proceeded to the Cemetery, where the Rabbi delivered an address, and the pardon of those buried there was formally asked for any neglect in the last duties administered to them.
In the course of time, the new cemetery too became old. The pleasant garden-ground in which it had been situated was now a wilderness of bricks and mortar, in which the House of Life provided the only touch of verdure. What in 1749 had been Three Colt Yard was softened into Colt Yard, and finally metamorphosed to Alderney Road. At length, in the last decade of the century, a new burial-ground was purchased, as we shall see, the old one being henceforth used only for reserved graves or in special circumstances. It was only in 1853 that the last interment was carried out - that of Henrietta, first wife of Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, who was himself laid to rest upwards of forty years later at Willesden.
His collaboration in acquiring the new ground was the last important service rendered by Moses Hart to the congregation. He was by now advanced in years. In 1756, he asked to be excused from attending further to synagogal affairs, on the score of his failing health. An old account-book of the Synagogue, contemporaneous with this, begins with a record of the offerings made for his recovery from illness, including one of £18 in his own name.4 But this turned out to be his last, as on November 19th, 1756, he died, being then in his eighty-first year. By a codicil to his will, made shortly before his death, he left to the elders or wardens of what he termed "my Synagoga in Duke's Place" a legacy of £30 per annum for repairs and his rights and title to the Burial Ground at Mile End. An earlier codicil, revoked by this one, renounced to the Congregation all his interest in the Synagogue also: this, however, he had already made over at the time of its construction - a fact which seems to have slipped his memory for the moment, unless he had intended to duplicate the transfer in order to avoid any possible legal quibbles in future, or the document antedated 1722.
There was another legacy, of what was then the very large sum of £1,000, to the London Hospital, of which his son-in-law, Elias Levy, had been a Governor. These generous benefactions by Jews are perhaps responsible for one extremely interesting detail in the early organisation of that institution, displaying a broad-mindedness and tolerance hardly to be imagined at so early a date. Even before the Hospital was incorporated in 1759 special arrangements were made for a diet to conform with Jewish religious prescriptions. A minute of 1756, repeated in the Bye-laws of 1769, under the heading "Jew's Diet", prescribed that they were "To be allowed Twopence Half-penny per Day in lieu of Meat or Broth, but to receive Bread and Beer like the other patients, according to the Diet they are on." Later (about 1796) this was slightly modified: Jews were to receive "Fourpence per Day, with Bread and Beer, when on Full or Middle Diet: but when on Low, Milk, or Fever Diet, no Money." (This was embodied in the Bye-laws of 1829, but the amount was raised shortly after to 9d.) There is every reason to believe that this tolerant arrangement was partly due to the munificence in the support of the institution of that family to which the Great Synagogue owes its origin.5
Rabbi Aaron Hart had predeceased his brother by a few months. He had seen the Ashkenazi community in England grow from a handful, who could assemble for prayer in a room in a converted dwelling-house, to a body of some thousands, scattered throughout the country, with nascent communities in the provincial centres who looked to him for guidance. He passed away in the spring of 1756, at the age of eighty-seven, having served as Rabbi of his community for upwards of fifty years. He was buried, like his brother, in the old ground at Alderney Road, probably under one of the tall tombstones which apparently mark the family plot. But no inscription is now legible, and it has been an act of obvious piety to the memory of the first Rabbi of the Great Synagogue that a monument has recently been set up in the ground commemorating the members of this great family of Anglo-Jewish communal workers.6
Great Synagogue home page on JCR-UK
This website is
owned by JewishGen and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain. All
material found herein is owned by or licensed to us. You may view, download, and
print material from this site only for your own personal use. You may not post
material from this site on another website without our consent. You may not
transmit or distribute material from this website to others. You may not use
this website or information found at this site for any commercial purpose.
Copyright © 2002 - 2017 JCR-UK. All Rights Reserved