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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter XX



WITH the passing of the United Synagogue Act, the position of the Great Synagogue was fundamentally altered. For the good of the community as a whole, it had given up, gladly and deliberately, the position of dominance that it had enjoyed for nearly two centuries. Gone for ever were the days when it was synonymous with the community of the Metropolis. Gone were the days when its membership comprised the best part of the wealth and the genius of English Jewry. No more would some of the most eminent names in the Jewish world figure on its roll of members, and men in far corners of the earth speak of "The Great Shool" as the embodiment of their ideal in Judaism. Henceforth, all this belonged to the past. The primacy passed to other bodies, though none of them ever combined or ever could combine all those attributes which had given the congregation its distinctive quality in the past.

As years passed by, and Anglo-Jewry increased in well-being, and the tide of fashion receded more and more from the City area, the change became ever more inexorable, ever more pronounced. Yet, though the Great Synagogue changed in character, it continued to fill a distinct function in the life of Anglo-Jewry which could be supplied by no other place of worship.

Tablet affixed to Colours of The Jewish Battalion

Many of the old families associated with it for so many years, or even generations, were bound to the dignified old House of Prayer within whose walls they had been brought up, by manifold sentimental ties, and could not bring themselves to sever their connexion. Distance might indeed make it impossible for them to attend, except on the rarest occasions: but in many cases they retained not only their membership but also their interest. Thus, for example, several members of the Rothschild family continued to be seat-holders, and indeed one of them has always acted as presiding Warden from the time of the Union to the present day. (They are, too, one of the few families which long continued to make use, for purely sentimental reasons, of the synagogal register of births.) Partly as a result of this interest, the Great Synagogue was made to serve as a centre for a great deal of the beneficial work which was done by these devoted Jews in the City and East End area. The first Lord Rothschild above all, who succeeded his uncle Sir Anthony de Rothschild as Senior Warden in 1876, and retained the office until his death in 1915, was particularly sedulous in his devotion to the Synagogue's interests and, together with the members of his family, a regular attendant at the services on all the more important occasions of the Jewish year.1 Moreover, Duke's Place remained the great historic and sentimental centre for Anglo-Jewry as a whole. Synagogues as large and as stately could be built (though in point of fact few actually were). None, however, had the same quiet dignity: and none could appeal to the historic sense so much as this, the parent Synagogue of Ashkenazi Jewry in England, where the fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers of the leaders of the community had worshipped, where the voice of prayer had been heard, night and morning, at least since the beginning of the eighteenth century. (This historic appeal was enhanced when the original Hambro' Synagogue was closed in 1893, and the New Synagogue left the City area in 1905.) Accordingly, it was thither that the thoughts of the greater section of London Jewry turned on occasions of moment, and there that its representatives gathered for their religious manifestations on all great occasions in the life of the community or of the nation. Here, for example, the Chief Rabbis were inaugurated - Dr. Hermann Adler on June 23rd, 1891, Dr. J. H. Hertz on April 14th, 1913. Here princes in Israel of all lands were commemorated at their passing - men like Frederic David Mocatta, the first Lord Rothschild, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Chief Rabbi Chajes of Vienna, or, in a recurrent service, Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism. Here was held in 1930 the combined service which celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Jews' College, the seventieth of the Jewish Religious Education Board, and the sixtieth of the United Synagogue. Here, on March 9th, 1937, a representative communal service took place on the occasion of the coronation of King George VI. These are a few out of a long series which have linked the Great Synagogue up with all the most memorable events in the history of the Jewish people and of Great Britain during the last half-century. And it was natural that after the war of 1914-18, when the Jewish Battalions which had fought under the British flag for the deliverance of Palestine were demobilised, their colours were laid up here, in the historic religious centre of British Jewry. In due course, a tradition grew up, that, during his year of office, the Lord Mayor of London officially attended the service at the Great Synagogue in Duke's Place one Friday night.

Dr J. H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi, 1913-1946

Again: notwithstanding the movement of population, the Great Synagogue remained the centre of the activity of the Chief Rabbi, and to that extent (though not quite in the sense in which the phrase has sometimes been used) the "Cathedral Synagogue" of Anglo-Jewry. Dr. Nathan Adler lived for many years in the immediate neighbourhood, in Finsbury Square: his son retained an address in the City though resident in the West End: and the Chief Rabbi's office to the present day is within the historic synagogal precincts. Even when distance rendered it impossible for him to remain a regular attendant, it was at the Great Synagogue that he worshipped and preached on the most solemn occasions of the Jewish year: and he or his deputy delivered there, in the presence of the scholarly representatives of East End Jewry, the traditional Rabbinical discourse on the Sabbaths before the Passover and the Day of Atonement. Though on ordinary occasions he might worship elsewhere, the Great Synagogue remained his official seat and the scene of his regular public utterances.

This had one curious, and perhaps slightly unfortunate, result. If the Great Synagogue was the official seat of the Chief Rabbi, then the Chief Rabbi was its Minister, and another one would be superfluous. Hence the congregation has never had its own preacher since the time when its Rabbi became the property of the community at large. The Chief Rabbi himself would address the congregation on the most solemn occasions of the Jewish year, as has been mentioned. Visiting preachers would occupy the pulpit from time to time, and considered it an especial privilege. Of recent years, it has become customary to invite ministers of the various Metropolitan synagogues to deliver a sermon at the Friday evening services, when the Princess Sabbath is melodiously welcomed in the presence of a very large congregation. But all this is not entirely satisfactory as a substitute: and the fact remains that the parent synagogue of Anglo-Jewry, where sermons in English first became a regular institution, is the only one belonging to the United Synagogue that has no Minister attached to it and where the sermon is not regularly delivered by its own preacher.2

Six Readers of the Great Synagogue

On the other hand, the Great Synagogue has prided itself on its long sequence of sweet-voiced Hazanim, who have continued to set the standard for Anglo-Jewish liturgical melody. Simon Ascher, whose four decades of devoted service bridged over the period of transition between the old and new stages in the Synagogue's history, was assisted from 1851 to 1854 by A. L. Green, subsequently Minister of the Central Synagogue (who had been permitted to conduct a service in Duke's Place in 1835 as an infant prodigy of fourteen!) and from 1857 onwards by Moses Keizer of The Hague (1831-1893), a dignified Hazan and Baal Kore of the old school. The election that succeeded Ascher's retirement in 1870 (two years before his death) was a remarkable one, the Dutch Jewish colony in London vociferously supporting a compatriot from Gröningen, a traditional home of sweet singers in Israel. But they did not command many votes, and the choice of the congregation fell on Marcus Hast, already well known on the Continent as teacher and composer, who continued that great tradition for nearly forty years, from 1872 to 1911. Apart from his great vocal qualities and deep piety, he deserved well of his community by reason of his monumental work, Avodath haKodesh, in which the musical traditions of the Great Synagogue were set down for all time. In 1888 Abraham Elijah Gordon (father of Samuel Gordon the novelist, who was at one time Secretary of the Congregation) joined him on the Almemor as Second Reader--an office which he continued to occupy with success until his retirement in 1919. His associate in later years was Abraham Katz, of the Great Synagogue of Amsterdam, who was chosen in 1913 out of over one hundred candidates, after a particularly spirited election which led to a democratic revolution in the government of the Synagogue. The latter continued in office until his death in 1930, his successor being the short-lived Jacob Rivilis (1932-7). Simcha Kusevitsky (appointed 1937) and Hermann Mayerowitsch (appointed 1921), were the incumbents in 1940, worthy heirs to a noble heritage. The beauty of the Great Synagogue services owed a great deal, too, to the skill and devotion of the choirmasters, such as Samuel Alman, who brought the choir up to a remarkably high standard and achieved a degree of collaboration between Reader and Choir not often found in English synagogues. Not, of course, that physical always accompanied the musical harmony. Indeed, at the end of the century there was a prolonged strike of the Great Synagogue choir, which burst upon the community on the eve of the High Festivals; and not even the bottle of eau-de-Cologne which Lord Rothschild sent as usual to the Hazan to help him to sustain his exertions on the Day of Atonement sufficed to restore sweetness to the atmosphere. Those who managed the affairs of the Synagogue were not content for it to become a mere historical monument, but saw to it that the convenience of those who attended and the requirements of the age were not neglected. Abraham Rosenfeld, whose election as Warden in 1879 as the result of internal differences had marked the end of the absolute sway of the old quasi-aristocratic families, and who remained in office for twenty-nine years, was responsible for a number of alterations, not all of which passed unopposed or uncriticised. Thus, for example, during his regime the high brass grill round the women s gallery, which was supposed to preserve the decorum and propriety of their men-folk's devotions, was removed. In 1895, electric light was introduced, much to the distress of some of the conservative element; though previously the heat of hundreds of candles in the great Dutch brass candelabra was oppressive, particularly on such occasions as the Day of Atonement, and the top hat even of a Peer of the realm was not immune from the devastation caused by trickling wax. Some time before this - a change less open to criticism - the Bar across the Synagogue, which separated the paupers from "privileged" and other members, had been removed.

Apart from the sentimental and historic importance associated with it, the Great Synagogue retained its significance from a more practical point of view. The immediate neighbourhood of Duke's Place was no longer residential, shops and warehouses having invaded those streets where the élite of the Anglo-Jewish community used to reside. The area of Jewish residence - the "Ghetto", as the novelists and journalists termed it - moved eastwards, as had been the tendency from the beginning. But even so the Synagogue remained within easy walking distance of the great reservoir of Jewish population in the East End, and was the natural place of worship to which many attached themselves. Hence, however much the West End might regard it as an historical monument, to many in the East End it remained their "neighbourhood synagogue"--the place of worship at which they attended Divine service week by week or day by day, the focal point of their spiritual life, the centre of their Jewish activity. They appreciated its historic importance, and valued its traditions: but they were most concerned with its religious functioning, and wished it to be above all an efficient, well-organised and inspiring centre of Judaism. Others might attend on state occasions. They (reinforced sometimes, on celebrations such as Purim, by business men who worked in the neighbourhood) were its backbone at ordinary times. And, when a famous Hazan was to render the service, or a well-known preacher was to give a discourse, or some notable event in Jewish life was to be commemorated, the East End would pour forth in its hundreds and the Synagogue regained all the éclat of its palmiest days.3

By virtue of the enthusiasm of these regular attendants, and to meet their requirements, the Synagogue continued to develop its organisation, thus proving its vitality and enlarging the scope of its work. During the nineteen-twenties, for example, the Guild for Social Service was established, with its regular programme of lectures and functions. In 1932, a hall was provided in the basement to serve as the centre of its activities, named the Ernst Schiff Hall, in commemoration of a member of the family of the eighteenth-century Chief Rabbi who had been Warden from 1924 to 1931. Much more might be added in connexion with the domestic chronicle of the Synagogue in these past years; but what has been said is sufficient to show that it is not a mere fossil, dependent on tradition and with nothing else on which to rely.


The Lord Mayor at Service at the Great Synagogue, 1928

Front row, left to right: Alfred Myers, CC, Ernst Schiff, Sir Charles Batho (Lord Mayor), Lionel de Rothschild, Dr I. Feldman, I. H. W. Abrahams, CC

In the two hundred and fifty years that have passed since its foundation, the Great Synagogue had known many vicissitudes. It began its existence as a little conventicle of Jews following the Ashkenazi rite, subordinate to the Spanish and Portuguese congregation established some thirty years before. It did not acquire stability together with independence, and a series of disputes led it to give birth to offshoots, which constituted in conjunction with it the historic framework of the London Jewish community until comparatively recent times. Meanwhile it expanded. One architectural reconstruction after the other was necessary in order to keep pace with the constant demand for more accommodation: until at last, one hundred years after the establishment of the community, the present stately place of worship was consecrated. The congregation had the faculty of inspiring the deepest devotion of its members; generation after generation, the same names figured upon its roll of membership and its board of management, names which include some of the greatest in the annals of Anglo-Jewry. Jews settled in the provincial cities, and subsequently those of the overseas empire, sought affiliation to it, and its spiritual leader became recognised as Chief Rabbi of British Jewry generally. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Synagogue led in every movement for the amelioration of the condition of the community at large, and was partly responsible for the establishment of most of the great institutions--political as well as charitable - which gave English Jewry its strength. When the tide of fashion left the Synagogue area and was followed by so many of its members, it was responsible for the construction of new places of worship in the other districts of the Metropolis to satisfy their needs; and, when these were at last solidly established, it presided over their merging into a greater organisation, gracefully giving up the primacy that it had enjoyed for nearly two hundred years. Thereafter, it has retained its importance, not only as the sentimental centre of the great mass of Anglo-Jewry, but also as a centre of spiritual life for the Jews of the immediate neighbourhood. Its functions have altered from generation to generation, but not its spirit: and it can afford to look to the future with equanimity just as it can look back on its past with pride. The record of two and a half centuries assuredly justifies the title applied to it long since in a different sense and thereafter always maintained - "the Great Synagogue".


1 Lord Rothschild's interest was commemorated in 1888 by the establishment of the Rothschild Great Synagogue Fund, consisting of that part of the £100 annually offered by his family at the Synagogue which was not required for current expenditure; it ultimately reached a substantial amount. On the occasion of his Barmitzvah in January 1853, his father had celebrated the completion of his thirteenth year by offering £130 to charity; and his mother by apprenticing thirteen poor children.

2 [This was written in 1940.]

3 Services in the Great Synagogue were often described in the Press: there is a chapter devoted to it, too, in Charles Morley's London at Prayer (London, 1909). There was a memorable occasion in 1884 when there were five Barmitzvahs on a single Sabbath, of Masters Ezekiel Richard Levy, Louis S. Green, Louis Harris, Dick lsaac Solomons and James Abraham Samuel. They all survived to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day when, on May 26th, 1934, they all attended the Synagogue and were "called up" to read the same portions of the Law as they had chanted half a century before: the father of one of them, then aged ninety, distributing the Mitzvoth.


Service for Civil Defence Workers, 1940

Ruins of the Synagogue, May 1941 (drawing by V. Bulkley Johnson)

Ruins of the Synagogue, May 1941


On May 11th, 1941, corresponding to Iyyar 14th, 5701, the Great Synagogue was totally destroyed by fire as a result of a German bombing attack on Central London

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