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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter XIX



THE foregoing chapters have illustrated the growing cordiality which had begun to prevail since the beginning of the nineteenth century between the three historic City Synagogues. It had received expression by now in a joint Shechita Board, in a close co-operation for the relief of the unattached poor, in the emergence of a Chief Rabbinate commanding common allegiance and receiving universal support, in the foundation of joint institutions, in one case in collaboration in establishing a subsidiary conventicle, and in a number of minor details. Everything was pointing, in fact, to the formation of a closer union: and the tokens of this became more and more pronounced.

This tendency received a striking illustration about this time. The old cemetery at Brady Street was becoming full--especially the portion used by the Great Synagogue, burials in which had to be discontinued by a compulsory order of the Home Office. It happened that the New Synagogue, which in 1761 had acquired the nucleus of this ground for its own purposes, had already taken steps to purchase a fresh plot in West Ham. The Great Synagogue had been either tardy or negligent, and had made no similar provision on its own account. It was thus found necessary to approach the junior body with a view to collaboration. A joint sub-committee representing the two congregations was accordingly appointed to deal with the question. At a meeting on March 30th, 1857, it was agreed that the New Synagogue should convey to the senior body three-fifths of the total area acquired at a proportionate cost. At the same time it was decided to reduce expenditure and avoid overlapping by setting up a Conjoint Burial Board, composed of five members of each Synagogue, to superintend all the arrangements at the new "House of Life", and to buy a new ground when it should prove necessary. This agreement was embodied in an indenture signed on November 26th, 1857. The agreement for a Joint Burial Board carried a step further the union between the two larger City synagogues which had been foreshadowed in the pact of 1835: but the provision for continuing it after the West Ham ground was full proved superfluous, for by that time the two bodies had been knit together in a closer union. Thus, over the period of one hundred and eighty years of its independent existence, the congregation of the Great Synagogue made use of only three cemeteries.

The least active of the three City congregations was the Hambro' Synagogue, which since Georgian days had ceased to play a prominent part in the affairs of the London community. Its appurtenances were particularly fine, it had considerable vested property, but its membership was inconsiderable and its administration in the hands of a very few well-to-do families, who were tiring of their responsibility. It is tragicomic to note how tamely the body whose birth had been accompanied by such fierce quarrelling a century and a half before now prepared to surrender its identity, for no apparent reason other than inanition. In April 1863 the Governing Body passed a formal resolution:

That, considering the present condition and future prospects of this Congregation, an amalgamation of its members, funds and property with those of the Great Synagogue is eminently desirable.

Thirteen conditions were, however, stipulated, safeguarding the rights, dignity and obligations of the smaller congregation if the amalgamation should take place: from the ranking of its Past Wardens in the congregational hierarchy as though they had held office in the Great Synagogue, to a suggestion that the historic site of their place of worship should if possible continue in use for religious purposes or as a house of study.

The Great Synagogue authorities, instead of being overwhelmed with pleasure at the opportunity thus afforded them, requested to be allowed to see the balance-sheet of the Hambro' Synagogue for the past three years, together with a full statement of its properties, liabilities, and obligations: and a sub-committee under the chairmanship of the everwilling Lionel Louis Cohen was appointed to investigate the matter. Their report concentrated on the financial side. They pointed out that the proposed amalgamation would result in a great increase in the burden of the Great Synagogue, which would have to shoulder all those obligations towards the poor which the Hambro' Synagogue now bore: that the increase in membership would entail the loss of the amount formerly obtained by letting vacant seats for the High Holydays: and that in the long run instead of profiting from the amalgamation, they would lose over £200 a year. Against this they would obtain only the building and site of the Hambro' Synagogue (subject to a rent charge of £40 per annum), its furniture, property and ritual appurtenances, and an annual sum from investments of a little more than £150. The moral advantage was unquestioned, but the material gain was highly doubtful: and the proposals were accordingly allowed to lapse.

The Synagogal organisation of the Metropolis remained therefore as complicated as ever. Leaving out of account the Spanish and Portuguese and the Reform communities, and certain minor places of worship, there were in London three independent synagogues, which maintained various collaborative institutions, with two dependent chapels-of-ease. Those in whose hands lay the greatest responsibilities and financial burden lived in the suburbs and West End; the religious institutions and the centre of administration were retained by the City: and the system was rendered practicable only by a jealous preservation of proprietary rights by each synagogue over its members and its members' families, regardless of personal predilections. The difficulties of the method were made apparent at this time in a dispute between the Great and New Synagogues which became for some while a cause célèbre in the Anglo-Jewish community. The one congregation had inadvertently accepted as a member, in contravention of its undertakings under the standing "Treaty", a person who belonged by prescriptive right to the other. The solution of the problem was obvious if authoritarian. But the person concerned refused to comply with it, insisting on retaining his membership in the congregation to which he wished to belong and not that to which he was told he should be affiliated. A conference was arranged between the two executive bodies, and there was a general feeling that the time had come for relations between the various London congregations to be reconsidered with a view to an entirely new arrangement.

On the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles, in the autumn of 1866, the Chief Rabbi as usual invited the Wardens of the Great Synagogue to take breakfast with him after the morning service in his Succah at his house in Finsbury Square. In the course of conversation, he impressed upon them how important he considered it that the London congregations to which he ministered should be united in a single organisation, in order to prevent in future such disputes as had punctuated the past. They were deeply impressed, and promised to do what was possible. The machinery for the preliminary discussions was already there, as the conference between the executives of the Great and New Synagogues had not yet been concluded. They invited the co-operation of the honorary officers of the Hambro' Synagogue, who had so recently expressed their desire for absorption by the Great Synagogue. In the following month (November 1866) the question of amalgamation was submitted to the Boards of the three congregations. All passed resolutions approving the principle, and appointed delegates to confer on the subject and to prepare a definite scheme. Later on, the Bayswater Synagogue was invited to send its delegates also, though not the wholly dependent body in Portland Street, which did not have a separate legal existence. The moving spirit throughout the deliberations was Lionel Louis Cohen, who had been present at the historic breakfast in Dr. Adler's Succah, threw himself heart and soul into the work, and was mainly responsible (with Dr. Asher, Secretary of the Great and subsequently of the United Synagogue) for the successful outcome.

The discussions, like all discussions at this period, were long and involved. Nevertheless, the main features of the scheme were adopted by the constituted authorities of the synagogues concerned, and on April 19th, 1868, general meetings were held at which the proposals were approved and ratified and the Boards of Management were authorised to take all necessary action. The next step was approval by the Charity Commissioners, this being requisite owing to the fact that various trusts and endowments were involved. The latter in turn presented the scheme to Parliament, and on July 14th, 1870, an Act "confirming a scheme of the Charity Commissioners for the Jewish United Synagogues" (33 and 34 Victoria, chapter cxvi) received royal assent. Thus the United Synagogue came into being.

The scheme (to use the words of a former writer) aimed "to unite the members of the Synagogues generally into one great Congregation, having one common interest, governed by one fundamental code of laws, and capable of embracing every kindred Metropolitan Congregation in one bond of membership." It did away with the old proprietary rights of those whose families had previously belonged to one synagogue or the other: and the "Branch Synagogue" in Great Portland Street was to be admitted into the Union on the same footing as all the others.

It was in fact rather more than a Union. It could have been more truly described as a Reunion. The congregations involved other than the Great Synagogue had their histories intimately associated with it. There was the Hambro' Synagogue, which had branched off from it after bitter words as a result of the great dispute in the community in 1706, and had remained in a state of excommunication until 1750. There was the New Synagogue, fruit of another hard-contested secession about the beginning of the reign of George III. There was the Branch Synagogue in Great Portland Street, opened in 1855, and dependent on the parent congregation for all things until the Union came into effect. There was the Bayswater Synagogue, in which proprietary rights were shared by it with the junior City community. The foundation of the United Synagogue was therefore in fact the reconstitution of the "Holy Community of Ashkenazi Jews in London", established in or about 1690, but divided from the time of the ill-starred dispute sixteen years later. The Great Synagogue and its errant daughters were now one again, in a greater institution which reverted (though hardly aware of the fact) to the traditions of London Jewry at the time of the Glorious Revolution.

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