Provincial Jewry
in Victorian Britain




Extract from papers on
Provincial Jewry in Victorian Britain

Papers prepared by Dr. (later Prof.) Aubrey Newman for a conference at University College, London, convened on 6 July 1975 by the Jewish Historical Society of England
Reproduced here with Prof. Newman's kind consent)


Page created: 7 March 2017
Latest revision: 10 March 2017


Prepared by Aubrey Newman

During the course of the nineteenth century, a factor which assumed a growing importance in the life of the provincial communities was the Chief Rabbinate. This was the result of two factors, one coming from the activities of the host community and the other from a changing view of the institution by its principal occupant in these years. The external factor was the need for registration of marriage secretaries through the Board of Deputies under the terms of the Marriage Act of 1836. The Board of Deputies refused to recognise any congregation as a Jewish community unless it secured the approval of the Chief Rabbi; in effect the Chief Rabbinate had now a veto over all new congregations, and the operation of this control was to be seen as early as 1847, with the publication of Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler's Laws and Regulations for all the Synagogues in the United Kingdom, when it could be claimed: 'The erection of a new Synagogue must have the sanction of the Chief Rabbi besides that of the Board of Deputies. Technically speaking, that was not altogether true; new congregations could come into existence and new buildings could be erected, but they could not operate fully and freely without the authorisations which only these two could grant.

The development of the Chief Rabbinate goes back of course into the eighteenth century, when gradually the Rabbi of the Great Synagogue came to be regarded as the arbiter of difficulties and problems. By the time of the death of the incumbent Chief Rabbi in 1842, it was accepted that his successor would have to be regarded as having a jurisdiction wider than that merely of the Great Synagogue, and that the provincial communities would have to be involved in the election of a successor. They were prepared to participate, accepting also for the most part that they would have to pay a share of the expenses of maintaining the office. The committee which elected Dr. Nathan Adler included therefore, apart from the London synagogues, two congregations in Liverpool, two in Glasgow, and one each in Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Dublin, Edinburgh, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Brighton, Chatham, Cheltenham, Falmouth, Ipswich, Jersey, Newcastle, Southampton, Swansea, and Penzance. Their votes were not all equal, because there was a minimum of 5 contribution to qualify, and the number of votes depended upon the total payments made to the support of the office, but they participated fully. There were others also in existence which did not take part, but these certainly represented the bulk of the provincial congregations.

Dr. Adler made his presence felt from the beginning. He was responsible for a series of searching questions being sent to each of the provincial congregations, and he framed a series of Laws and Regulations to which he expected adherence by those acknowledging his authority. He began too a programme of 'visitations', and for the rest of his active life the provincial congregations could expect to receive visits and examination by him. This was not at all unwelcome; after his death a representative conference of Metropolitan and Provincial Congregations met to discuss the election of a successor and expressed the opinion 'that means should be adopted for frequent pastoral visits to Provincial Congregations, either by the Chief Rabbi himself or by ministers delegated by him. On the other hand, not all the provincial communities were prepared to pay for his services. A Report drawn up for the United Synagogue in London in 1871 complained bitterly of failings in the provinces.

There were in all 27 Congregations who, at the outset, promised to contribute: 5 Metropolitan, 21 Provincial, and 1 Colonial. Of these originally contributing Congregations, 9 Provincial and the 1 Colonial have ceased to pay for the periods set against their names; 4 Congregations, which contributed later, have also ceased to do so. There are several Congregations who pay irregularly, and only 11 Provincial Congregations whose payments are as regular as the Metropolitan Congregations There are no fewer than 21 Provincial and 15 Colonial Congregations participating in the benefits of the Chief Rabbi's supervision, who have never contributed to the Fund.

The utmost efforts of the United Synagogue seem to have had little effect; in 1891, on the occasion of the election of Dr. Hermann Adler as his father's successor, a report drew attention to this same fact.

The Executive Committee cannot refrain from drawing attention to the utter inadequacy of the contributions to the maintenance of the office of Chief Rabbi which are made by Synagogues outside the United Synagogue. These Synagogues are constantly calling upon the Chief Rabbi to use his influence in the collection of funds towards building new Synagogues and towards the purchase of Cemeteries, inviting him to consecrate their edifices and to examine their Schools. They participate in all the advantages of the Chief Rabbi's supervision; he communicates with them on all celebrations which have a Communal interest; they write to him continually concerning their local affairs; they invoke his decision on religious questions; they rely on him to find and to examine suitable officials as Preachers, Readers, Teachers, and Chochetim, and they appeal to him for his advice on every conceivable occasion. Although repeatedly solicited to contribute to the Chief Rabbi's Fund, the majority of the Synagogues referred to, though some of them are well able to afford a payment, have hitherto ignored the applications made to them, while the subscriptions of contributing Synagogues are, in many cases, inadequate to the services rendered.

There are, at the present time, twenty-three Congregations in England and twenty-four in the Colonies which do not contribute at all towards the maintenance of the office of Chief Rabbi, although they all avail themselves of his services. The contributions made by the Council towards the maintenance of the office of Chief Rabbi is far in excess of what the United Synagogue should be called upon to pay, and the Executive Committee venture to express the hope that Congregations will respond in a becoming and liberal manner to the appeal which they propose should be addressed to them.

There is certainly ample evidence of the number of provincial tours conducted by Dr. Nathan Adler or by his son Dr. Hermann Adler, the Delegate Chief Rabbi. The Jewish Chronicle reported them faithfully, while the non-Jewish provincial press showed quite clearly the way in which the office had come to be regarded by the outside world as the equivalent to a Bishopric (or even Archbishopric). Indeed, the report of 1891, already quoted, commented elsewhere that 'the visitation of Provincial Synagogues and Schools is exclusively the function and duty of the Chief Rabbi, as is the visitation of a diocese by its Bishop'. The character of Dr. Hermann Adler also lent itself to this connection, for it was reliably stated that he had even been seen clothed in episcopal gaiters.

The result, however, was that by the death of Dr. Nathan Adler the office of Chief Rabbi commanded a wider authority than it had when he was first appointed. The delegate conference appointed in 1890 to consider the question of his successor was attended by 32 Provincial communities and only five of those did not register their votes at the formal conference held the following year to ratify Dr. Hermann Adler's succession.

There were, however, very serious problems emerging, problems both in London and in the provinces. Not all communities were willing to accept a jurisdiction exercised by the Chief Rabbi, either because they owed allegiance to bodies such as the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation or the Reform, or because they considered that Anglo-Jewry was insufficiently orthodox and traditional for them. There were difficulties over the licensing of Shechita, just as it was often difficult to make the smaller provincial congregations understand the necessity of obeying the civil authority in questions of marriage and divorce. Nonetheless, by the end of the century, one of the strongest forces for unifying the Anglo-Jewish community as a whole, both the native-born and the foreign-born, was the existence and strength of the office of Chief Rabbi and of its incumbents in this period of strain.



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