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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter XVIII



IT has already been seen, in the first chapters of this work, how hard the Great Synagogue had struggled from its earliest days in order to prevent the establishment in London of any other place of worship following the same rite. The Takkanoth of 1722, possibly following in this the earlier set of regulations of 1690, had banned any rival synagogue within a radius of ten miles: a bye-law subscribed to by each member in 1704 had been directed to the same end: and the Hambro' Synagogue was instituted in 1706, and the New Synagogue in 1761, in the teeth of the most determined opposition. But, once they had become established, the new bodies themselves adopted much the same attitude. It was not mere prejudice or obscurantism, but arose from the fear that secession would weaken them and make them less able to support their burdens.

From the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria, a fresh element was introduced into the problem. The distribution of London Jewry had changed. The days were passing when the City merchant or broker lived above his shop or counting-house. There was a continual stream of migration to the more desirable areas of residence newly built all round the City: and the wealthier members of the community above all were tending to remove to the fashionable new thoroughfares in the neighbourhood of Westminster and Hyde Park. In view of the fact that the observant Jew would not ride to service on Sabbaths and Holydays, a serious difficulty was thus constituted. The only provision that existed for them within easier (though in most cases not easy) reach were the two small synagogues in the Haymarket (The Western Synagogue) and Maiden Lane. Yet, for all this, the City congregations - Sephardi and Ashkenazi alike - refused to countenance the formation of any fresh place of worship outside the traditional area. The reason was plain. It was not only a question of dignity and jealousy, but also of economics. The older bodies were situated in the centre of the neighbourhood of close Jewish settlement. They had on their shoulders the support of the poor and of multifarious charitable organisations. Were the wealthier members living further west to secede and form their own religious organisation, the burden on those who remained would have been overwhelming.

The question entered a new phase with the beginning of the Reform Movement. One of the reasons for this had been (as we have seen) the absence of religious provision and synagogal accommodation outside the City. When in 1842 the West London Synagogue of British Jews was opened in Burton Street, it became obvious that action would have to be taken soon, for otherwise the élite of the older congregations would become attached, notwithstanding their own inclination, to the solitary place of worship within easy reach of their own homes. Alternatively, they might break away from their present allegiance and establish their own congregation, with results which might prove fatal to the economy of the parent body. Clearly, there was only one solution--the establishment under the auspices of the Great Synagogue itself of a chapel-of-ease more conveniently situated, which would satisfy the religious requirements of those who lived in the vicinity without modifying their relations to the original community. Accordingly, at a meeting on November 7th, 1848, the Committee of the Great Synagogue adopted a resolution to the effect

That it being considered of the utmost importance that a place of worship in connection with this Synagogue be established at the West End of the Metropolis, this Committee do take the subject into consideration at the next meeting.

Matters moved slowly in those days. In the following January a sub-committee was appointed to report on the subject, but ten months passed before their report was submitted, and only in January 1850 was it approved at a special meeting of the Vestry. On February 24th, 1850, the Committee decided that the proposed new Synagogue should be within quarter of a mile west of what was then known as Regent Circus, and the sum of £6,000 was voted for the construction of the building. Since the matter did not concern the Great Synagogue only, all other City congregations, regardless of rite, were asked to collaborate. The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue duly appointed delegates to attend a conjoint meeting to consider the question, but the difference of Minhag proved an insuperable difficulty, and in the end they set up in 1853 their own Branch Synagogue in Wigmore Street - the forerunner of that at present situated in Lauderdale Road. The Hambro' and New Synagogue on the other hand fully approved the proposals, on condition that the new place of worship should be a branch of all three Ashkenazi synagogues in the City, and not the Great Synagogue alone. The authorities of this body were perfectly prepared to concur, on the not unnatural understanding that the expenses should be shared in what was the usual proportion for other purposes--one half, that is, being contributed by the two smaller bodies between them. But, though convinced that the establishment of a West End branch in connexion with one only of the City synagogues would endanger the others both from a pecuniary and from a spiritual point of view, the latter were not prepared to shoulder any part of the burden involved, and the Great Synagogue had to go forward in the enterprise alone.

Further delays now resulted by reason of certain mild reforms in the service, nowadays regarded almost as commonplace (such as the division of the Sabbath morning service into two portions, and the curtailment of the Mi sheBirach) which were discussed in a series of negotiations with the Chief Rabbi, occupying more than twelve months. The Western Synagogue then interposed, pointing out that, as they had upwards of 120 vacant seats, there was clearly no lack of synagogal accommodation in the West End, and that the opening of a new place of worship would prove extremely prejudicial to their interests. The Great Synagogue authorities, perhaps mindful of the independent action of this congregation at the time of the Reform controversy a few years before, refused to discuss the matter. The Maiden Lane Synagogue, nervous now that it might be entirely swamped, proposed amalgamation, but the discussions on the subject led to no result.

There was now no further excuse for delay, and the Vestry was showing signs of restiveness at the continual procrastinations. At last, in the summer of 1853, the lease of a warehouse in Portland Street was taken for the purpose of a temporary synagogue, and shortly afterwards building operations were started to adapt it for its new purpose. On March 29th, 1855 (six and a half years from the date when the proposals had first been formally approved, and on the sixty-fifth Hebrew anniversary of the consecration of the Great Synagogue itself) the new place of worship was inaugurated in the presence of a large and distinguished congregation. Simon Ascher, Reader of the Great Synagogue, conducted the service, and the sermon was delivered by the Chief Rabbi. In 1870 this was superseded by the beautiful building in which the congregation now worships: the Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street, the foundation stone of which had been laid by Baron Lionel de Rothschild a year before. Before the consecration service of the original building began, a proclamation was made from the Reading-desk to the following effect:

Notice is hereby given that this building now about to be consecrated is a Branch of the Great Synagogue, situate in Duke's Place, in the parish of St. James's Aldgate, in the City of London.

This was by no means a merely formal declaration. What had been established was not a new congregation, but only a new synagogue, at which services were to be held for the convenience of those who lived in the vicinity. No weddings were solemnised within its walls. It was not allowed to have separate officers or committee. Its affairs were controlled by a subcommittee appointed in Duke's Place: and though those who worshipped there were allowed a voice in electing the officers who were to manage the interests of the two synagogues, the ballot-boxes were carried to the City for counting. But before long the Branch Synagogue of the Great Synagogue in Portland Street was no longer sufficient to meet all requirements. The westward drift from the City continued: and quite a large Jewish settlement, comprising members of all three City synagogues, was growing up also in what was then the new suburb of Bayswater. Here local enthusiasm took the lead. On July 11th, 1860, a meeting of residents in the district was held, and an agreement reached as to the desirability of establishing a new congregation in the neighbourhood. There was general reluctance to setting up an independent body, and negotiations were accordingly opened with the Great and New Synagogues with a view to making the new place of worship a branch of both those communities, in the same manner as the Great Portland Street Synagogue was of the former alone. After several meetings and conferences, it was resolved that "a Synagogue be established, and that it be a branch of the Great and New Synagogues under the religious direction of the Chief Rabbi." £7,000 towards the cost was raised locally (£4,000 more than had been promised), and each of the two parent-bodies contributed in addition £1,500 towards the cost. On July 10th, 1862, the foundation stone was laid: the building (still in use) was consecrated on July 30th, 1863. In view of the fact that there were in this case two sponsoring bodies instead of one, it proved impossible to adopt the same system of administration as at the Portland Street Synagogue, and local honorary officers and committee, with limited powers, were elected. Similarly, it was impracticable to keep weddings under equally strict control, and, after consulting the Attorney General on the subject, the City synagogues were finally compelled to permit the daughter body to appoint its own Marriage Secretary and conduct ceremonies under its own auspices.1 Thus in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the status of the Great Synagogue was profoundly altered. It ceased to be a localised place of worship, with activities restricted to the historic Duke's Place and the East End. It was now a community, spread throughout the Metropolis, and maintaining (in one instance, in conjunction with a sister-body) three widely-separated houses of prayer. It was a complicated arrangement, and one which could in no circumstances have continued indefinitely. In the event, it lasted for only a few years.


1 In addition to these established Synagogues outside the City area, mention should be made of the North London Synagogue, the construction of which in 1864-8 was materially assisted by advances of money from the Great Synagogue, though its members only paid a poll-tax to retain their affiliation to one or the other of the City shools. In addition, the members of the Borough New Synagogue (which had developed out of a minyan established "over the water", on the other side of the London Bridge, in the middle of the eighteenth century, and had been helped by the Great Synagogue by the loan of four Scrolls of the Law in 1823) retained burial rights in the older congregations.


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