West London Synagogue of British Jews

Upper Berkeley Street, London W1






Written by Jessica Wyman
to celebrate the 150 year anniversary in 1990 of the break from the Orthodox Synagogue
Reproduced with kind permission of West London Synagogue


In 1990, West London celebrates a remarkable anniversary; it is 150 years since the decision to break away from the Orthodox synagogue and establish a new branch of Judaism, based on what are now considered Reform lines. Anglo-Jewry in 1840 consisted of some twenty thousand people.  In many respects, the situation of the community was very favourable.  Unlike in mainland Europe, Jews did not need formal legal emancipation, and there were no more restrictions on Jewish religious rights than on other non-conforming Christian groups.

Prior to 1840, Anglo-Jewish society was divided along the Sephardi/Ashkenazi lines. Bevis Marks, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, maintained all the old traditions.  Criticism, though initially mild, had been voiced since the early nineteenth century focusing on the lack of decorum during services and the poor quality of religious instruction provided.

The first serious demand for change came in December 1836 when Moses Mocatta presented a petition to the Sephardi Mahamad (Council).  No changes were forthcoming.  It was not until 1838 that the Elders of Bevis Marks finally convened a meeting of members to placate the now growing numbers of individuals calling for reforms.  By then the priorities of the reformers had altered; their chief claim was the establishment of a branch synagogue in the West End, where many of the members now lived.  This however conflicted with the Ascama 1, the governing rules of the congregation, which forbade the building of any Sephardi synagogue within six miles of Bevis Marks.

In view of the grievances felt by certain congregants, a meeting was held in the Bedford Hotel, Southampton Row in April 1840.  Of the 24 people gathered there, no fewer than 18 came from just four leading families - Mocatta, Montefiore, Henriques and Goldsmid.  They resolved to establish a new community, incorporating all the changes they had earlier proposed.  These would include a shorter revised service, a new prayer book, and a sermon in English.  These ideas confirmed the worst fears of the conservatives at Bevis Marks.  In particular they denounced the new prayer book which they viewed as heretical, despite only very minor changes in the liturgy. As the reformers' plans became more developed, so the criticism became more vociferous.  Ultimately in September 1841 the new congregation was denounced by the Chief Rabbi and its members were subject to Herem or excommunication order.

The Herem order did nothing to weaken the resolve of the reformers.  Premises had been found in Burton Street, a Minister (Rev. David Woolf Marks) had been selected and the new prayer book completed.  On 27 January 1842, the West London Synagogue of British Jews was consecrated, the name reflecting the unity now existing between Sephardi and Ashkenazi members and expressing the patriotism felt for Britain by the congregants.

The problems faced by the new congregation did not cease with the inauguration of the synagogue.  The Herem order refused access to the burial ground attached to Bevis Marks.  Arrangements were made with Maiden Lane Synagogue to use their burial grounds, and one member, Mrs. Horatio Montefiore, was buried there.  The confusion caused by her death illustrated to the founders the need for their own burial grounds, and in 1843 the Balls Pond Road cemetery was opened.  Body snatching was still prevalent, and the rules for the Keeper of the Burial Ground alluded to this problem, stating that the keeper shall himself lock all gates and doors, and not be absent from his dwelling after sunset.

The issue of marriages was also a source of conflict between the old and the new congregations.  The 1836 Registration Act required all marriages to be listed, and Registrars were employed to ensure that the system worked effectively.  Special provisions were made for Jews and dissenting Christians, who were allowed to maintain their own practices, provided that notice was given to the Registrar and the certificate obtained.  The Secretary of the Synagogue was responsible for the keeping of the marriage registrars, which were issued to them by the Board of Deputies.  Sir Moses Montefiore, the President of the Board of Deputies and an outspoken critic of the West London Synagogue continually refused to certify the synagogue, maintaining that he was unwilling to call this place of worship a synagogue.  As a result, for any years members had to solemnize their weddings by two separate ceremonies on the same day - a civil one before a Registrar, and a religious service in the synagogue.

But in 1848, the building in Burton Street was proving too small for the congregation.  New premises were acquired in Margaret Street, Cavendish Square, at a cost of five thousand pounds.  Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, who donated five hundred pounds towards the building fund, was given the honour of laying the foundation stone, and the synagogue was consecrated on 25 June 1849.

The synagogue had an enlarged capacity of 400, seating 250 downstairs and 150 in the ladies gallery - women and men sat separately for festival services until as late as 1977.  The Jewish Chronicle report describes the "harmony of the proportions and colour which prevails throughout."  The positive tone of the article did not continue when discussing Rev. Marks' address; it notes critically that the lengthy narration of past disputes was not befitting the solemn ceremony of consecration!  The rift with the orthodox had still not healed, as no ministers, let alone the Chief Rabbi attended.  However, in a mark possibly more of resignation than of respect, the Herem order was finally lifted, thus removing the stain of illegitimacy on the new congregation.

Throughout the period 1849 to 1867, membership continued to rise.  With failure to purchase property at the back of Margaret Street, new premises were again required.  After a long search the area of Upper Berkeley Street was chosen, and the present Synagogue was consecrated on 22 September 1870, its third and final location.

Rev. Marks, the Senior Rabbi, was now at the height of his career.  He hosted the Emperor of Brazil at the synagogue in 1871, and was invited to lecture all over the world.  He never lost touch with his community though, and was able to resolve many controversial issues in a very sensitive manner.

The social isolation affecting the synagogue and its members became more diluted as the reformers became increasingly involved in the general institutional life of the community.  West London was soon represented on the Anglo-Jewish Association, Board of Guardians and the Jewish Religious Education Board.  However it was not until 1886 that the synagogue was allowed to send representatives to the Board of Deputies.  Previously the Board had not even invited the co-operation of the synagogue on neutral topics such as charity.  Furthermore, despite a new Chief Rabbi being in office, earlier tensions were still evident.  Not even the occasion of the Golden Jubilee service of the synagogue in 1892 could persuade the Chief Rabbi to attend.

After the turmoil of the First World War, it was appreciated that radical change in every aspect of synagogue life was necessary.  A committee was established to examine ways to increase attendances at services, and to promote a more active and involved congregation.  The war had made people understand that the old order of society had disappeared, and that changes must and would occur.  Indeed this new approach had been seen during the war, with the synagogue enlarging its philanthropic work, with the establishment of an Infants Welfare Centre in the East End.

In the 1920s, initial efforts were made to invigorate the congregation.  A monthly magazine was introduced, though its publication was sporadic in the early years.  A social committee was formed in 1927; followed by a debating and drama society, despite strong criticism from some of the members, who felt that the only function of the synagogue was a religious one.  The publication of 'Judaism as Creed and Life' by Morris Joseph, then the Senior Minister of West London, provided the reform movement with fresh theological backbone.  However, it was not until the arrival of Rabbi Harold Reinhart in 1929 that the complete reorganisation and revitalisation required took place.

In the decade leading up to the Second World War, the synagogue blossomed from solely having a distinguished membership with  a healthy balance sheet to a vibrant thriving community.  The religious services were completely reorganised.  This included not just the reinstatement of the daily service, but also involved a thorough revision of the prayer book.  The children's religious classes were enlarged and structured, with a Hampstead branch opening to ease pressure on the limited space in the building.  Funds were raised to build the Synagogue Annexe which provided much needed classrooms and office space.

In 1933, the synagogue first became aware of the serious problems facing Jewry in Germany.  Throughout the 1930s. a warm welcome was assured to the Rabbis and scholars who fled from Nazi Europe. Many were graduates of the rabbinical colleges and their presence gave a new strength to the Reform movement.  They were assisted in finding employment, often connected with the new Reform communities being established in Golders Green, Glasgow and elsewhere.  Rabbi Reinhart and his wife also quietly sustained many individuals from Europe who had been irreparably damaged by their experiences.

The war years resulted in unprecedented difficulties for the synagogue, yet every important aspect of its work was maintained.  Services were never missed, although they were often held to the accompaniment of air-raids.  The patriotism of the members was proudly displayed.  Prayers for the successful end of the war were included in every service.  In addition, special commemorative services were held, marking the annual National Day of Prayer and the plight of European Jewry.

A period of reconstruction followed the end of the war.  The synagogue itself had escaped serious damage, although repairs were required to the roof, windows and doors.  The cemeteries had both suffered direct hits, with tombstones broken and the lodge in the Balls Pond Road destroyed.

All this however was overshadowed by the realization of the full extent of the horrors of Nazi Europe.  Immediately after the war, the synagogue undertook practical steps to alleviate the situation of those who had already suffered to much.

The largest venture was the establishment of a hostel for orphan children, who had survived the concentration camps.  Lingfield House became the home of the refugee children for three years.  Alice Goldberger was appointed Matron, and provided all the children with loving care.  The first children arrived in November 1945, and by the following June, West London was supporting twenty-nine children.  For the synagogue as a whole, the children at Lingfield became 'their' children.

In 1956, under the auspices of the Association of Synagogues of Great Britain, the Jewish Theological College (now the Leo Baeck College) was opened at Upper Berkeley Street.  With the destruction of the traditional centres of learning in Europe, the need for an institute to train rabbis and teachers was paramount.  This was especially relevant in the post-war period, when the number of Reform synagogues rapidly expanded from just four to over thirty.  Rabbi Dr. Werner Van der Zyl, who was to become the Senior Minister of West London in 1959, was appointed Principal of the College, and together with Leonard Montefiore, the distinguished Vice-President of the synagogue, devoted himself to the development of the College.  It began with five students including Rabbi Lionel Blue and Rabbi Michael Leigh, who was Assistant Minister here before moving to Edgware Reform.  The Leo Baeck College moved to larger facilities at the Sternberg Centre, Finchley in 1981.

In the twenty years following 1957. the synagogue was fortunate in being able to call on the leadership of Presidents such as A. S. Diamond (a Master of the Supreme Court), Edward 'Jock' Mocatta (an eminent banker) and His Honour Alan King-Hamilton, Q.C. (a distinguished Old Bailey Judge.)

The last twenty years, under the outstanding leadership of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, have seen the synagogue continue to grow and develop.  Indeed, West London is now the largest synagogue in England with over 2,400 members.

In recent years, West London has become a steadily more active supporter of Israel.  Over the last decade, the synagogue has undertaken new projects, linked to the establishment of reform kibbutzim in Israel and a project renewal programme in Ashkelon, in addition to numerous smaller projects. The Soviet Jewry campaign is another important area of community involvement, which has received the active support of many members.  In 1987, the synagogue sponsored three Jewish families; two of them are now living in Israel.  In 1989, the synagogue sponsored the first ever youth trip to visit refuseniks in Moscow and Leningrad and this has now become an annual event in the youth programme.

The synagogue is also in the forefront of inter-communal and inter-religious activities.  The participation of the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Remembrance Service in 1988 is just one example.  Inter-denominational workshops and conferences have often been hosted at West London and indicate the commitment of the synagogue to participate and contribute fully to British society.

As West London looks back on 150 years, there is much to celebrate.  The future holds much promise - the large congregation, the active groups, the caring clubs all augur well, and with further positive development of a community centre within our existing structure, there will be an opportunity to create a complete synagogue centre.  But perhaps it is to the past that we should once more reflect.  In 1849, the vision of the 'seceders' was to create a religious but reform community, based on the ideals of equality between men and women, and the encouragement of education, charity and communal work.

The founders would be very proud of their creation

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Formatted for JCR-UK by Louise Messik: 2003
Reformatted: 24 November 2011
Latest revision or update (formatting): 9 March 2015



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