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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter XV



THE Napoleonic Wars gave a stimulus to the evolution of an Anglo-Jewish community which was in the fuller sense of the word English. During the course of the long period of strain it increased in numbers, was consolidated through the cessation of immigration from abroad, became more anglicised; and some of its members began to play a part of real significance in the life of the country. These years, accordingly, witnessed the beginning of a process of adaptation, led by the Great Synagogue, by which the Jewish tradition received expression in a medium more acceptable to native-born English Jews and citizens of the modern world.

Signatures to new Takkanoth, 1791

The problems that exercised the community during Solomon Hirschell's Rabbinate were much the same as those of today--education, poor relief, Sabbath observance, synagogal decorum, the arrangements for the Kosher meat supply, and so on. Charitable organisation and the condition of the Jewish poor were the first matters to demand attention. From the close of the eighteenth century, a number of fresh institutions, conceived and regulated on English lines, began to make their appearance among the Ashkenazi community; and in their creation members of the Great Synagogue played an outstanding part. In 1778, there was established the Meshebat Naphesh, or Bread, Meat and Coal Charity - the first Ashkenazi institution of the sort, which is still doing admirable work after more than a century and a half of continuous activity. The roll of founders and list of early presidents comprise most of the leading congregational worthies of the time - the Cohens, Goldsmids, Van Ovens, Keysers, Josephs, and so on. Later, further institutions of this type were established in rapid succession--a Society for assisting the poor for their Sabbath Necessities (later known from the amount of the largess made available as the Five Shilling Sabbath Charity: 1798-1803), a Holy Land Relief Fund (1805), a Ladies' Benevolent Institution (1812), a Society for Clothing Poor Jewish Boys (1813), the Institution for the Relief of the Indigent Blind of the Jewish Persuasion (1819) and so on. In the winter of 1799/1800, Benjamin Goldsmid, supported by members of both sections of the community, took the chair at a meeting held to establish a Soup Kitchen (not the ancestor of the present institution of that name, which is a good deal more modern). The sum of £360 was speedily raised, several non-Jews being among the contributors; indeed, according to Levy Alexander it "would not have survived but for the support from Christian benevolence at Lloyds." By the year of Waterloo, thirty benevolent societies existed in the London Jewish community to look after the requirements of the poor.

In many cases, these institutions had their headquarters, as well as their inspiration, in the Great Synagogue. They were administered in the conventional fashion of the time, with occasional meetings of subscribers at the City taverns, anniversary dinners for the purpose of raising funds, and gargantuan libations of wine and spirits (from which the Readers and Beadles of the synagogues were, "from particular reasons", carefully excluded). Moreover, when the benefits available were not sufficient for all the applicants, lots were drawn, specially made lottery-wheels being used for the purpose.1

In 1795, Abraham Goldsmid and his brother Benjamin launched an appeal for funds to establish a Hospital for the Ashkenazi community (the Sephardim were already amply provided for in this respect) for the purpose of housing the helpless poor and teaching honest trades to the children of the lower classes. Such was the esteem these two brothers enjoyed in the City that non-Jews contributed as eagerly as Jews. Within a few weeks, upwards of £11,000 had been raised from 87 well-wishers, no fewer than 41 of whom were Christians (a further £9,000 was added to this amount before long).

Joshua Van Oven, 1766-1838, Surgeon to the Synagogue (from an engraving)

While this collection was being made, there happened to be in the press a work on the Police of the Metropolis, written by Patrick Colquhoun, one of the metropolitan magistrates, which contained some extremely severe strictures on the Jews. Dr. Joshua van Oven, the Physician to the Great Synagogue, took up arms in defence of his co-religionists in an extraordinarily interesting pamphlet, in which he drew attention to the enormous difficulties which lay in the path of the Jews of the lower order who desired to earn an honest living. He pointed out, too, the almost unbearable burden of charity that the Community had to shoulder - especially his own body, the number of paupers dependent on which was practically unlimited, as "all strangers are customarily considered as attached to this congregation". As a constructive suggestion towards the solution of the problem, he put forward a daring scheme for the establishment by Act of Parliament of an institution for the relief and improvement of the condition of the Jewish poor. This was to be administered by a committee appointed by the Synagogues, and supported partly by congregational levies and a tax on incomes, and partly (the crux of the scheme lay in this audacious innovation) by appropriating the poor-rate paid by Jews in the parishes in which they lived, but not enjoyed by their own co-religionists owing to the proud tradition of the Anglo-Jewish community that their poor never became a burden on the public purse.

Van Oven's plan was approved by Colquhoun on the one hand and by Abraham Goldsmid on the other; and the Great Synagogue appointed a committee to discuss details with the other City congregations. It came to grief, however, owing to the opposition from two different quarters. In the first place, in deference to the views of the local parishes, it was decided that the provision to appropriate the poor-rate paid by Jews was unwise. Accordingly, that clause was omitted in the application to Parliament, though the Synagogues were still to have the power to tax their members for the upkeep of the proposed institution. A modified Bill on these lines was drawn up and placed in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. At this stage, opposition developed from the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, which claimed that under the scheme they would have to bear a disproportionate degree of the expense while enjoying only exiguous benefits, the pauper problem in its acute form affecting the "German" communities alone. The measure was accordingly redrafted so as to apply only to the latter: but the scheme was now so emasculated that it was hardly worth while to carry on with it any further and it was allowed to lapse. Abraham Goldsmid now fell back on his original project, and in 1805 there came into existence at last the "Jews' Hospital" (Neve Zedek), with a more limited scope, which was opened in Mile End as an Asylum and School with twenty-eight inmates (five old men, five old women, ten boys and eight girls).

Interior of the Synagogue, early nineteenth century (frontispiece to Isaac Levi's edition of the Haggadah, 1831)

The Neve Zedek subsequently amalgamated with another institution, of romantically humble origin. In 1818, some of the less exalted members of the Great Synagogue established a body called Honen liYetomim "for educating and relieving the distressed fatherless". It seems to have been restricted in its application, and perhaps in its duration as well. In 1830, however, the great cholera epidemic brought home in a peculiarly poignant fashion the need for some such institution. A poor couple named Assenheim, husband and wife, died within a short time of one another, leaving three helpless children. There was at the time no provision for such cases. A poor cucumber-seller, Abraham Green, whose sense of pity was aroused, left his stall and went round the streets and private houses and shops in the Jewish quarter to find help. Carrying two of the children in his arms and leading the third by the hand, he appealed to his warm-hearted coreligionists until he had collected in his cucumber-bowl the nucleus of a maintenance fund. This was the origin of the Jews' Orphan Asylum, which attained permanent form largely through the enthusiasm of Green's brother-in-law, Isaac Vallentine (founder of the Jewish Chronicle and of the Calendars which still [1940] appear under his name every year, and son of the synagogue functionary who had published the "Discourse of the Three Sisters" on the occasion of the death of Nelson). This institution, at first situated in St. Mark's Street, Goodman's Fields, was subsequently merged with the Jews' Hospital, and as the Norwood Jewish Orphanage, with nearly a century and a half of magnificent activity behind it, is today regarded as a model Anglo-Jewish charity. Its association with the Great Synagogue, as long as it was still situated in its original home, was very close: and, in the right-hand corner near the entrance, there was a special pew reserved for the boys, into which they were marshalled unerringly at every service by their master.2

A perennial problem that calls for attention in the Jewish community is that of Shechita. In the first part of the eighteenth century this was completely uncontrolled in London. The Shochetim generally received authorisation from the Rabbis before they were allowed to practise, and ever since the time of Aaron Hart those of the provincial communities too had looked to Duke's Place for their authority. In 1764, during the interregnum that followed the retirement of Hart Lyon, an episode took place which accentuated the supremacy of the London Rabbinate. It was discovered that R. Leib the Scribe3 and R. Moses ben Uri Hamburger, the Shochet, had taken advantage of the situation to license on their own authority certain youths to act as Shochetim. R. Moses moreover had given a similar licence to a certain Hirsch Mannheim, a resident of Plymouth and apparently the employee of the local community. The elected officers of the Great and Hambro' Synagogues, when they heard what had happened, took vigorous action. The culprits were punished by temporary suspension from office or restriction of activity: the lads were forbidden to practise until the new Rabbi had decided on the case: and Hirsch Mannheim, whose problem was more urgent, was to have his position regularised forthwith by the three official Shochetim of the London Ashkenazi community. The decision was made public by a proclamation in both Synagogues.

Of the early Shochetim attached to the Great Synagogue we know of a few in addition to the Moses mentioned above (who was in office between about 1750 and 1765): Mordecai Nathan (d. 1745?), Baruch Benedict, Meir, and Isaac (1759), and R. Treitel; while the earliest Kosher butchers whose names are recorded are Josele Butcher and Seligman Levy, called Mendel Butcher. Once they had received their licence to practise, however, there was no control over their activities except their own consciences, and as usual among Jewish communities there were recurrent quarrels. Even among the Sephardim conditions were far from ideal. Rabbi Hart Lyon, as we have seen, had been involved in one of their internal disputes on this question, and in 1788 a butcher deprived of his licence because he sold trefa meat unsuccessfully brought an action in the Court of Common Pleas. Among the Ashkenazim there was obviously less opportunity of maintaining discipline in such matters, though as early as 1754 an attempt was made by the two existing congregations to establish a joint system of control. In pursuance of this, in February 1759, a certain R. Aaron was chosen by the two congregations as Shochet in the place of the R. Treitel mentioned above, at a salary of 12s. weekly, with a certain R. Isaac to assist him at a salary of 5s.

Baron Lyon de Symons, 1743-1814 (from a portrait in the possession of Mrs H. B. Lewis-Barned)

Later on, with the vast increase in the London Jewish population, the growth in the number of synagogues, and the collapse of the communal unity which had existed under Hart Lyon, anarchy again prevailed, and conditions at the close of the eighteenth century were so serious that the need for reform was urgent. A meeting of the representatives of the Ashkenazi synagogues in the City was accordingly convened on April 18th, 1792, at which Baron Lyon de Symons brought forward an entirely new and comprehensive scheme for the organisation of the Kosher meat supply. His plan envisaged the establishment of a supervisory committee on which all the London congregations (including the Spanish and Portuguese) should be represented. Under its auspices, there was to be erected a Central Hall with twenty shops for the sale of meat: while the Christian butchers who received the surplus were also to pay a small amount for each head of cattle slaughtered. The co-operation of the Sephardi community was essential for the success of the scheme: and, in forwarding them the plans and estimates, Isaac Bing, the Secretary of the Great Synagogue, pointed out that the congregation would actually save money by adopting the proposals.

The Gentlemen of the Mahamad approved in principle of the idea of the establishment of a joint Shechita board, but they considered the proposed Meat Hall to be positively inadvisable. Letters were exchanged; the representatives of the Great Synagogue insisted that the two parts of the plan were complementary and could not be separated; and an impasse was reached. Meanwhile, under the stimulus of the Great Synagogue, the Ashkenazi communities pushed on with the scheme, and an appeal was issued (with little success) for subscriptions for the construction of the Hall. In the following year another attempt was made to carry out the plans, though with no better result than before.

The idea was nevertheless kept alive, the Sephardim doggedly upholding the more limited application. At length, thirteen years later, they triumphed, and the conjoint Board for the Affairs of the Shechita ("Shechita Board") was established on April 12th, 1804, with the co-operation of the four London synagogues--their first joint organisation other than the Board of Deputies. It proved a triumphant success. The meat supply was at last decently regulated, from the point of view of religious as well as material requirements. It was moreover justified economically as well. At the end of the first year a surplus of £397 7s. 9d. had accrued, which was divided among the four parent bodies; and since that time its liberality has benefited many deserving Jewish causes in the metropolis.

An allied problem was that of Passover flour, for which similarly all the London congregations originally made their own arrangements. This proved ruinously wasteful, in view of the great quantities of Matzoth that had to be distributed to the poor--one of the great burdens on the congregation, notwithstanding the various legacies (notably that of Lazarus Simon) left with this object. In December 1794, when the war with France had sent up prices to an unprecedented level, the four communities decided that henceforth they would have all the wheat ground at the same mill under joint supervision, thus considerably reducing overhead costs. (That year, in view of the high prices, two-thirds only of the customary free allowance was distributed, the remainder being replaced by potatoes.) In the end, the Great Synagogue assumed the duty of supplying all the flour for Matzoth for the Ashkenazim, purchasing the wheat and defraying the cost of the milling and the religious supervision. The flour was sold to the bakers at cost price, together with a tax to cover expenses (at one time this stood as high as 25s. a sack, but it was subsequently reduced to 13s.). Later on, as will be seen, the problem of joint distribution to those who could not afford to pay was also taken in hand.

It is curious, but unfortunately characteristic, that an outside impetus was necessary before the greatest problem of all - that of education - was systematically coped with. At the end of the eighteenth century, the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews had been founded. Its success at the outset was only slight. Sarcastic Jews would attend the conversionist sermons in full force; and it is told how when William Cooper, one of its most earnest workers, delivered a harangue in Duke's Place he was mobbed by the irate population. A little later, mainly under the inspiration of Lewis Way, it began to tackle the problem of conversionism in a more insidious fashion. The Jews should be approached first in a spirit of charity; thus they might be tempted to succumb in the end to propaganda. The new approach could boast some successes. In 1806, a complaint was made concerning a woman and her five children, who had been "trepanned" by the London Society. The Wardens of the Great Synagogue were asked to take action and to convene a meeting to consider what action should be taken. The Secretary communicated to the Board of Deputies on the matter, as one of general interest. The Portuguese representatives, however, questioned whether the case came within their cognizance, and though their attorney was consulted it was left for the Great Synagogue to act alone. With commendable courage, they sent a deputation to wait upon the conversionist body to protest against the methods that were being employed to wean away souls from Judaism. But there was little or no result.

In 1807 the London Society established a Free School for Jewish boys and girls. The methods employed in cajoling indigent parents to send their children to attend created great indignation in the Jewish community. On January 10th, Rabbi Hirschell delivered a sermon at the Great Synagogue forbidding the members of his flock to enrol their children in this pernicious institution; an abstract being subsequently published in Yiddish and English. The new school only had a very qualified success, but sufficient for the example to be followed. Another Free School was opened in the Jewish quarter in 1811, though very few of the three or four hundred pupils were Jewish, and those of the lowest section of the population. Two years after, the Duke of Kent (Queen Victoria's father) was persuaded to lay the foundation-stone of the Episcopal Jews' Chapel and a school for boys and girls in Palestine Place, Bethnal Green. (Some time after, His. Royal Highness discovered the real nature of the methods followed and withdrew his patronage.) Though none of these institutions had any important results, their cumulative effect was too great to be opposed merely with exhortations and deputations. Hitherto the only provision for education in London Jewry (other than a host of private teachers) had been the Talmud Torah established in connexion with the Great Synagogue in 1732 - a rudimentary Day School, presided over by a melamed of the old type, frequently ignorant and uncouth, who confined his teaching to Hebrew and the mechanical translation of the Bible into Yiddish.4

In 1788, under the auspices of Dr. Joseph Hart Myers, the institution was reorganised on a broader basis. The regulations breathed, of course, in the fullest measure, the spirit of the eighteenth century. It was to be confined to boys, no provision being made for girls. No child was to be admitted ~ below the age of six or above the age of nine, and by way of entrance examination they had to show their ability to read the prayer-book in Hebrew. They were to attend the Great Synagogue regularly, under the supervision of their " Rabbi", on the special seats allotted to them. They had to be present, dressed in their best apparel, at the funerals of members of the Charity, and in certain circumstances one of them would be chosen to recite the Kaddish in his memory in the year following his death. The curriculum was hardly ambitious:

§xvi. ... The boys shall be instructed in the accustom'd manner (under the control and direction of the Committee) : Hebrew-Reading, and Writing; also Gemara5 to such whose capacity will admit; and English-Reading, Writing, and Cyphering.

It was, however, more than merely an educational body:

§xxvi. The boys shall be new cloath'd every Rosh haShanah5 in the following manner; a suit of cloaths in the present mode, of a mulberry colour, lin'd with blue shallon; brass buttons, and a brass plate on the left side, with the words Holy Confraternity of Talmud Torah: established A.M. 54925 on the said plate; a shirt, a hat, a pair of shoes and stockings... The best cloaths shall be brought to school every Sunday, in a proper bag, and left there till Friday.

An indication that one sad abuse which we lament today is not purely modern is given in another brief but pregnant -regulation:

§xxx. No boy to remain in this school more than six months, after his Bar-Mitzvah.5

Thus reorganised, the Talmud Torah school continued its activities in a couple of rooms in Ebenezer (or, as the East-End Jews called it, Aven Ezra) Square, Houndsditch, between Stoney Lane and Gravel Lane, where it remained for a little more than a quarter of a century. At length, in 1815 (largely through the enthusiasm of Dr. Joshua van Oven) a movement was set on foot to develop it into a scholastic institution on modern lines, which should be the Jewish answer to the conversionist foundations referred to above and remove the temptation of succumbing to their blandishments. Thus, in 1817, the Jews' Free School was opened.

At the beginning, the management and methods were somewhat primitive. There was only one master, who was assisted (in accordance with the Lancastrian plan) by selected senior boys who acted as monitors. Old-timers used to tell long after how, owing to the paucity of elementary schoolbooks, they learned the shape of the letters from a rotating disc, while they practised writing by tracing the letters with their forefingers in a trough of silver sand, which could be smoothed over ready for the next attempt. But (largely through the munificent interest of the Rothschild family) the institution rapidly developed and its methods were brought up to date, so that it became one of the finest as well as one of the greatest institutions of its sort in the world. This is only one of the long series of by-products of the Great Synagogue, conterminous by now with a good part of the organisation of London Jewry. The relations between the Free School and the Congregation continued to be very close. The boys were regularly shepherded to worship in the Synagogue, a pew or large box in the left-hand corner near the door (corresponding to that of the Jews' Orphan Asylum on the other side) being reserved for their use. The twenty-odd selected pupils enrolled in what still bore the name of the Talmud Torah Section had to attend service not on the Sabbath only, but every day. In compensation for this matutinal discipline they enjoyed certain privileges. Four or five of them assisted the Reader from the Almemor in chanting psalms, to a characteristic sing-song, before the service began. The candle-ends left over in the Synagogue were regarded as their perquisite, and they were given the wine-goblet to drain on the occasion of a circumcision. They had new suits of clothing twice each year6, and were apprenticed to a useful calling when their school-days were over. And, on the Rejoicing of the Law, in place of a generic invitation to children to ascend the Almemor to hear the Reading of the Law, "the pupils of the Talmud Torah" were specifically mentioned and went up in a band to chant the prescribed blessing and to hear the benediction invoked on their tousled heads.

Entrance to the Synagogue (from an early nineteenth century engraving)

Poor relief, however, was the greatest communal burden. Contemporaries pointed out how very differently the three Ashkenazi synagogues in London were circumstanced with regard to this. The Hambro' Synagogue was the most happily situated, counting a small number of opulent persons with a very few poor; the New Synagogue had few wealthy members, most being middle-class or poor; the Great Synagogue, largest of all, had the most wealthy, but at the same time the most paupers. Moreover, all poor newcomers to London (Orahim, or wayfarers) were considered to be attached to it, so that its financial burden was unlimited. A modus vivendi was however arrived at with the sister communities, as has been seen, the unattached paupers receiving each week sixpence a head from Duke's Place, and threepence from Magpie Alley and Leadenhall Street. Later on, the former body amortised its obligations by an outright payment to the Great Synagogue of £60 a year.

Regulations of Burial Society of Great Synagogue, 1810

A problem still remained as regards the dead, for interment even in the most economical fashion entailed considerable expense. A rough-and-ready rotation was generally followed: the Great Synagogue made itself responsible for the burial of two paupers, then the New and the Hambro' for one each, and then the Great began again. This system proved less easy in execution than might have been expected: partly because native-born paupers, or those who had been in England for a considerable time, were considered to have a prescriptive claim on some specific body, which was sometimes hotly contested. Accordingly, there were unseemly wrangles from time to time between the three congregations about responsibility for the burial of some penniless stranger. The matter came to a head one night in September 1790 when, since the Great Synagogue and the New could not agree whose turn it was, a coffin was left lying in Duke's Place, to the scandal of the entire neighbourhood. The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue intervened, and persuaded the New Synagogue to accept the responsibility.

That same year, difficulties arose with the Hambro' Synagogue. The Great Synagogue decided that the £60 yearly which this congregation had hitherto given it for the relief of Orahim was inadequate, and demanded that the amount should be increased to £200. A long-drawn and extremely stilted correspondence ensued, and more than once negotiations seemed about to break down. In the end, a compromise was reached, the contribution being increased to £120. But in June 1794 the dispute broke out again, the two congregations being unable to come to an agreement regarding the burial of a child. Alexander Phillips, the presiding warden of the smaller body, appealed to the Portuguese Mahamad to negotiate an agreement between the two warring communities. Accordingly, a joint conference was held, at which two representatives of the Great Synagogue threshed out the problem with an equal number of gentlemen from the Hambro' and five Sephardim. The conference recommended a compromise on the same lines as that which had already been reached in the matter of poor-relief: for a six-months period, from Nisan to Tishri, the Hambro' Synagogue was to pay the Great an additional £50, in return for which it was to be relieved of all responsibility for the burial of the poor. (In future years, the Gentlemen of the Mahamad were to decide on the amount payable.) There was some difficulty before this agreement was ratified, the Hambro' Synagogue endeavouring to repudiate the action of its representatives; but in the end the plan was accepted. In the winter of 1800, a similar agreement was arrived at with the New Synagogue, which had been sumptuously reconstructed just before. Two years later, the last relic of the original bitterness against this body disappeared, when Nathan Solomons, its leading member, married a daughter of Asher Goldsmid and was admitted to the membership of the Great Synagogue, eternal amity between the two places of worship being declared.

Friction between the Ashkenazi synagogues in the City was thus reduced: but it was not by any means eliminated. The obvious course was to reconstitute the three bodies into a single congregational organisation--which was in fact accomplished long afterwards. The protagonist of the idea was Baron Lyon de Symons, whose passion for symmetry made the discord which he found in London supremely unwelcome in his eyes. Owing to his efforts, a conference of delegates took place in 1804 with the object of accomplishing a union, or at the least a fusion of receipts and expenditure. Clearly, this would have entailed a greater sacrifice on the part of the two smaller congregations than on that of the larger. The representatives of the Hambro' and New Synagogues accordingly rejected the proposals, though the former suggested the appointment of a joint committee to consider the state of the poor. The conference was on the point of breaking down when Rabbi Hirschell, newly appointed and full of zeal, proposed that each congregation should elect plenipotentiaries empowered to adjust all differences without further reference. His suggestion was carried out, and the next meeting was held under the Rabbi's own presidency. It was agreed to continue with an arrangement similar in essentials to that which formerly obtained. The Great Synagogue was to take upon itself the burden of relieving all the unattached paupers, towards the expense of which it was to receive a fixed annual subsidy from the other two bodies. Similarly, it was to provide the burial for two paupers out of every four, as heretofore, the other bodies assuming the responsibility jointly for the rest. So as to avoid ill-feeling on another matter which gave rise to constant friction, it was agreed that no Synagogue should henceforth accept as a member any person attached to one of the others.7 The conclusion of this "treaty" on March 9th, 1805, was hailed with jubilation; and the Rabbi commemorated the occasion by sending each of the three bodies an elegant poem in Hebrew, beautifully indited, congratulating them on the happy event.

Congratulatory Poem by Solomon Hirschell on 'Treaty' between the City Synagogues, 1805

It was generally stipulated on such occasions that the arrangement entered into was to last for six years. On September 12th, 1811, accordingly, the Hambro' Synagogue, which conceived that its interests had been adversely affected, gave six months' notice that it did not propose to renew the "treaty". Early in the following year yet another joint committee was set up to see whether a basis of agreement could be found. Detailed reports of the proceedings on this occasion, with summaries of all the speeches, have been preserved. The orthography is weak, and the grammar poor; but this constitutes nevertheless an historical document of real importance, throwing much light on the social life, the communal organisation, and the every-day speech of London Jewry at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The negotiations broke down, and for the next three years the two synagogues pursued independent paths. But, in March 1815, while the diplomats of the Great Powers were assembled at Vienna to refashion the face of Europe, the representatives of the two synagogues came together in Duke's Place to consider the revision of their own "treaty". The new arrangement was concluded on March 15th. The Hambro' Synagogue now agreed to increase their annual donation to £125 and to look after the last rites for six adult paupers each year, in return for being absolved from all further responsibilities. Hardly was this approved, than diplomatic relations with the New Synagogue entered upon a critical stage. In 1818, the plenipotentiaries of the two bodies met in conference, but both sides proved unaccommodating and the result was a total impasse. It does not seem to have been the fault of the Great Synagogue, which fulfilled its obligations to the letter even in the case of persons who were on the pay-roll of other congregations: a memorandum in the New Synagogue registers notes how "On Thursday, 10th December 1828, Judah Stettenheim, otherwise Jenkins, singer, who assisted the Hazan as Meshorrer, in a state of Insanity hanged himself, and was sent as an Oreah to the Great Synagogue, who accepted him, it being their turn."

A new name was now appearing, with increasing frequency, in the Synagogue registers. In the year of Trafalgar, there had arrived in London a guttural young Frankfort Jew who for the last few years had been in business in Manchester in cotton goods. He had prospered rapidly and amazingly; yet it was considered a stroke of great good fortune when in the following year Levi Barent Cohen bestowed on him the hand of his daughter Hannah. Young Nathan Mayer Rothschild (for that was his name) had already been admitted a "House-holder" of the Great Synagogue, and it was under its auspices that he entered beneath the marriage canopy. He took a dutiful rather than an enthusiastic part in its affairs: subscribed to its various activities, served conscientiously in the various offices; and in 1818--when he was at the height of his reputation in the City - became Warden, in conjunction with his brother-in-law, Solomon Cohen.8 From this period onwards, down to our own day, the names of persons belonging to the family have never been absent from the membership roll, and over a majority of the time they have been included among the executive officers.

Nathan Mayer Rothschild, 1777-1836, Warden in 1818

Nathan Mayer Rothschild's term of office was not adventurous, and the most important innovation with which he was associated (in conjunction with his nephew, Louis Cohen) was the establishment of the services for the poor at the Jews' Free School on the solemn occasions of the Jewish year - an institution that continued to the present time, and in which his family continued to take special interest. (It may be mentioned, for the comfort of those who consider that our own generation has a monopoly of religious degeneration, that overflow services on the High Festivals, to accommodate those who needed no accommodation on ordinary Sabbaths, had been arranged under the auspices of the Great Synagogue at least since 1800.) Another problem which concerned him deeply was the administration of poor-relief. The earliest number of the first Anglo-Jewish periodical, The Hebrew lntelligencer of January 1st, 1823 ("price Six-Pence"), published details regarding a "Proposal of Mr. Rothschild to the Committee of the Great Synagogue". His suggestions embodied a scheme of practical philanthropy for advancing sums of money to necessitous members, to be repaid in small instalments; and he offered to subscribe £500 to start a fund for the purpose.9 (The details had been drawn up, it is said, by the distinguished mathematician, Benjamin Gompertz, the first Actuary of the Alliance Assurance Company, which Rothschild had established on hearing that his kinsman had been excluded from employment elsewhere because of his faith.) This suggestion failed to have any practical outcome: it was only half a century later that the Jewish Board of Guardians put something of the sort into practice.

But above all, Rothschild's fastidious sense of organisation was offended by the wasteful and (from the point of view of the general public) disgraceful lack of union between the three City Synagogues, and it was to this problem above all that he devoted his attention. Thanks to his mediation, friendly discussions were reopened between the Great and the New Synagogues in September 1824; and in the following May representatives of all three bodies came together at his residence in New Court, St. Swithin's Lane, above the counting-house which was by now one of the financial centres of Europe. No final arrangement was then concluded, but a more friendly spirit was shown than had usually been the case hitherto. But as yet the attempt was premature. In 1828, once more, Rothschild placed his residence and his services at the disposal of the representatives of the three congregations. Again, though an understanding on general principles was reached, no agreement was signed. At the time of the great cholera epidemic of 1830 the three congregations worked harmoniously together in order to protect their poor from its ravages, under the leadership of the Great Synagogue which had been appealed to by the authorities. In 1834, a further crisis arose over the inevitable question of burials, and yet another conference was summoned. On June 19th, 1835 after prolonged negotiations, an agreement was at last reached, and published forthwith. (Articles of a New Treaty agreed on by the sub-committee of the Great, Hambro' and New Synagogues, A.M. 5594 and 5595.) This provided in effect that in all matters relating to the relief and burial of the unattached foreign poor, one-half of the authority and one-half of the expenditure (together with one-half of any incidental income from the burial of more affluent strangers) should fall to the lot of the Great Synagogue, the remainder being divided in equal proportions between the other two bodies. It was agreed at the same time that all flour for Passover should be purchased conjointly: that monthly statements should be exchanged between the Synagogues: and that the Overseers of the Poor in each should be appointed at a common charge. These were to act in rotation--those of the Great Synagogue for six months, of the Hambro' for three, and of the New for three. A standing Committee of Arbitration was set up, consisting of three members of the Great Synagogue and two each from the others, to carry the "treaty" into effect. The arrangement - in a modified aspect, the precursor of the United Synagogue - was on this occasion durable, remaining in force, without serious friction, until the establishment of the Board of Guardians in 1859 rendered much of it superfluous.10

This arrangement was confined to the London Synagogues following the Ashkenazi rite, there being collaboration with the Sephardim only as regards the questions of Shechita and the preparation of Passover flour. But in the political sphere there had been an increasing tendency to co-operation. During the first half-century of its existence, the Board of Deputies had met only occasionally, and the Ashkenazi communities (who seem however to have maintained some sort of parallel activity between themselves) were represented on it only in a sporadic fashion. Thus, on March 27th, 1789, when after a long hiatus the Deputies resolved to present a congratulatory address to the King on his recovery from illness, Baron Lyon de Symons represented the Great Synagogue in the deputation that waited on Lord Sydenham with this object. There was another joint meeting in 1800, when an address was presented to the King on his escape from assassination. (The Deputies doubtless recalled, with a thrill of pride, that their co-religionist David Moses Dyte had been responsible for saving His Majesty's life.) Five years later, the Portuguese Deputados wrote to the Ashkenazi congregations requesting the attendance of their representatives at meetings when occasion demanded, and this seems to have taken place afterwards at slightly more frequent intervals.

Thus, when the movement for the emancipation of English Jewry started in 1829, there was in existence the nucleus of the machinery by which the efforts were governed. Since, as it happens, the leaders in the agitation were Ashkenazim (above all Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, at that time a pillar of the Great Synagogue) the Sephardi element automatically lost the unquestioned predominance that it had previously enjoyed. Henceforth it ranked with the Great Synagogue on equal terms, the other two London congregations (the only ones represented thus far) lagging far behind. Thus the heavy expenses in connexion with the petitions to Parliament in 1829 were divided among the four bodies, the Great and Bevis Marks Synagogues each paying one-third and the Hambro' and New Synagogues each one-sixth. The same happened in 1831, in connexion with Robert Grant's abortive Emancipation Bill. In 1835, the proportions were crystallised in the new constitution which was adopted for the Board. There were to be twenty-two members--seven of them from the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, seven from the Great, and four each from the other two City congregations; expenses were however to be divided as before, one-third each being assigned to the two larger, and one sixth each to the two smaller bodies, on the understanding, however, that the total was not to exceed £300 per annum. (It was only in 1836 that the Westminster Synagogue secured representation, while the first provincial participation dates to 1838).

Marriage Contract ('Ketubah') of Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, 1804

Even then, with its membership only a tiny fraction of what it is today, some persons considered the Board too unwieldy to deal with matters of urgency. On September 6th, 1838, Isaac Lyon Goldsmid wrote to the Vestry of the Great Synagogue complaining at this, at the illogicality of restricting representation to full members of the Congregation, and at the attempt to make it the sole medium of communication with the Government. (After all, he pointed out, the amelioration in the position of the Jews in England in recent years had been due not only to its activity, but to the zeal of private persons like himself.) The writer took the matter very seriously, threatening to withdraw from the Synagogue unless he received satisfaction. The Vestry communicated his letter to the Deputies, who invited him and his son Francis (the first Jewish barrister) to attend a meeting to discuss the matter with them. To meet his criticism, a resolution was carried to the effect that the existence of the Board did not preclude individuals from exerting their influence for the promotion of their civic rights and privileges. This, however, only half-satisfied the critics, and, though for a time Goldsmid remained a member of the Great Synagogue, he declined to act as one of its Deputies when elected to that office in the following year.

While its external relations were being readjusted, the domestic organisation of the Great Synagogue was being overhauled. The year 1808 witnessed a very important innovation in the inauguration of the Legacy Fund, which was to become a fundamental part of its financial system later on. On the death of Levy Barent Cohen, so long one of its most zealous supporters, it was found that he had left the congregation 500 in Government securities, to accumulate for fifteen years, when the total was to become available for general congregational purposes. By a new communal byelaw passed that spring, this principle was extended to other legacies. The amount of the founder's benefaction was far exceeded by some subsequent bequests - e.g. one of nearly £5,000 from Judah Phillips of Jamaica: £3,900 for the benefit of the poor from Asher Goldsmid in 1823; and the legacies, mention of which has been made elsewhere, of Moses Schiff in 1816, Daniel Eliason in 1824, and Moses Samuel in 1839.11

By 1828, thanks to wise administration, the invested property of the Congregation, exclusive of special funds, amounted to upwards of £28,000--a remarkable contrast to its state of semi-insolvency at the time when the new Synagogue was opened, and striking testimony both to the increased well-being of its members and to their devotion to its interests.

In another financial reform the Great Synagogue led the entire Anglo-Jewish community. The comparatively modest amounts which figure in the accounts did not comprise the total income of the various officials, which was swollen from a number of incidental sources--specific offerings made at the Reading of the Law, fees for officiating on special occasions, and so on. In 1808, this degrading system was brought to an end and the salaries of all officials were consolidated (offerings on behalf of the Meshorrerim only being henceforth allowed). The Great Synagogue was the first in the country to make this salutary innovation, which even the Spanish and Portuguese congregation did not imitate until many years later. Another new regulation made in the same year reduced the number of the Parnassim (in whose hands the management of the synagogue was vested) from three to two. More important was a new rule whereby the congregation renounced the right to adjudicate in monetary disputes where more than £5 was involved--a matter in which it clearly yielded to circumstances. The same period witnessed a reorganisation of the financial records of the congregation, a new series of account-books on a more modern system being opened in 1826. The year 1828 saw the congregational organisation enriched by the establishment of a Decayed Members' Fund (Misheneth Zekenim), which continued active until the time of the organisation of the United Synagogue.

Regulations of the Great Synagogue, 1791

The regulations for the administration of the community were embodied in an elaborate code. The earliest of the series, probably drawn up in 1690, is now lost. An account has been given of that of 1722, with its 97 clauses, subsequently increased to 211. It is stated that this, or one based on it, was printed in 1761, but no copy is to be traced. On the reconstruction of the Synagogue in 1790, it was considered fitting to revise the statutes. A special sub-committee was appointed, consisting of five members of the Vestry and five ordinary members of the Congregation, and a completely new code was drawn up, after prolonged deliberation. This, magnificently indited and signed by all the full members, is among the congregational muniments. In the course of the same year it was printed, thus becoming available to a wider circle. The language used, as before, was Yiddish, with a very considerable admixture of Hebrew. Various amendments of no great importance were issued in 1808. In 1827, however, there was an extremely significant development. The time having arrived for the laws to be revised yet again, they were drawn up, and published for the first time in English, following the sensible example set during the past decade by the New Synagogue in London as well as by the Liverpool and Brighton communities.12 The text was accompanied by an admirable version in pure but slightly artificial Hebrew, due to the learned pen of the poet and lexicographer, Michael Joseph, who had introduced to England something of the spirit of the Meassefim who had initiated a Hebrew renaissance on the Continent. About this time, too, English was substituted for Yiddish for the proclamations made by the Beadle in Synagogue--the invariable mode of communication in the traditional Jewish community. (This reform dates in the New Synagogue from 1824, but that body lagged a little behind the other two in the process of anglicisation.) In another respect, an improvement was made at this period in the organisation of the Great Synagogue, something on the model of a parish church--for, indeed, its functions in the Jewish community were not dissimilar. The problem of the clandestine marriage was all the more serious in the Jewish community in view of the simplicity of the ritual, and this means was occasionally used by the unscrupulous not only to marry wealthy wives but also to blackmail wealthy fathers. A notorious case of the sort, in which a noteworthy member of the Great Synagogue had been concerned, was brought before the Law Courts in 1798, when a clerk of George Goldsmid's, named David Bromer, enticed his employer's sixteen-year-old daughter Maria to the Shakespeare Tavern in Covent Garden and there, placing a ring on her finger, had pronounced the traditional formula of espousal. Unfortunately for him, the witnesses in whose presence he had performed the ceremony were technically invalid, and the Court, after hearing the views of the Beth-Din, decided that it had no force in law. In 1825, however, Solomon Bennett, the engraver, who fancied his scholarship and had assailed the Chief Rabbi for want of it, presided at a more regular but unofficial marriage ceremony, and it was considered necessary to take steps to stop the abuse. It was accordingly decided that in future the names of parties attached to the Great Synagogue who proposed to marry should be displayed in a conspicuous position on the walls for seven or eight days before the ceremony was to take place.13

'Selection of Sundry Laws', 1801

The Great Synagogue, London, was perhaps at this period, in the first half of the nineteenth century, the most important of all Jewish congregations in the entire world from certain points of view. It was famous everywhere for its wealth, its liberality, its public spirit. It numbered among its members some persons, such as the Rothschilds and the Goldsmids, who played a significant role in the public life of more countries than one. It was regarded as a sort of Fairy Godmother for the Jewish world generally, and was continually receiving from overseas requests for support, assistance, advice, intervention. When in 1840 Sir Moses Montefiore left on his memorable mission to Damascus, it was the scene of a great public meeting, and it liberally supported the pious errand from its funds. All the communities that had by now come into existence in England and the British Isles generally--both the old centres in remote country towns and seaports and the new in the growing industrial cities of the Midlands--regarded it as their parent body. The structure of the Great Synagogue, with its characteristic apse containing the Ark, was imitated in them, and from them by some of the colonial places of worship. Their regulations and liturgy were modelled carefully upon its own. Its Rabbi was looked up to as their spiritual head, turned to for advice, consulted in times of difficulty, applied to when there was any question of appointing or dismissing a minister. It was, for example, with a recommendation from the "High Priest", Solomon Hirschell, that Barnett Simmons was sent down from London in 1811 to act as officiant at Penzance, with a covering letter from their former supporter, Lemon Hart (Warden of the Great Synagogue in 1817), venturing to hope that the community would "behave to him properly, for you may rest assured those articles are very scarce in this Market". At Plymouth, the congregational byelaws specified that, if a dispute between two Jews was too complicated to be solved locally, it should be referred to the Rabbi and Beth Din of the Great Synagogue in London. When in 1817 the handful of Jews settled in Bedford found themselves excluded because of their faith from the educational advantages enjoyed by all other inhabitants of the town by virtue of "Harper's Charity" and determined to carry the matter before the Law Courts, it was to the Great Synagogue that they applied in the first instance for encouragement and support. That body, warmly sympathetic, appointed a subcommittee to take charge of the matter, under the chairmanship of Samuel Samuel (one of Moses Samuel's public-spirited sons), enlisted the support of the New Synagogue, took the opinion of counsel, and supported the application in all its laborious stages, though for the moment without success. Elsewhere in the country--at Canterbury, at King's Lynn, at Norwich--the diminutive local communities, a little uncertain of their position, thought it safest to deposit their title-deeds and records for safety with the Great Synagogue in London, as the parent community of all the congregations in the British Isles, This influence was by no means confined to England. It spread, too, to the new England that was springing up beyond the seas, and even farther afield. In Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the first congregations, established at this time largely by London emigrants, did their best to set up a miniature Great Synagogue on those distant strands. Every stage in their progress and every religious difficulty in their way was faithfully reported to Duke's Place, whence advice and assistance were always forthcoming; and its Rabbi found his mail-bag so swollen by the applications which came to him now from overseas that he had to request relief from the post office. When in 1842 Abraham Hart, a son of an old London family, left for New Zealand in the hope of being able to organise Jewish emigration thither, the Great Synagogue conferred upon him in an honorary capacity the membership privileges usually forfeited on removal: and the congregation which he set up in Auckland was almost a branch of that in London. The regulations of the earliest South African community at Cape Town, drawn up in 1849, were not only based on those of the parent body, but even laid down that the forms of prayer and customs were to follow those of the Great Synagogue, London. Even outside the British Empire, this influence was felt. When in 1825 New York's earliest Ashkenazi synagogue, Bnai Jeshurun, was established--the parent body of a community now numbering some two millions - the preponderance of Englishmen among its earliest members led to the fact that the services and the constitution of the Great Synagogue were taken as its model from the very outset. Ritual difficulties were submitted to Solomon Hirschell, a good amount of whose correspondence with this new-born community is extant; and on Purim, the contributions of the "half-shekel" collected in the synagogue were sent to him to distribute in London.

But the Great Synagogue gave more frequently than it received. If there were a fire in Constantinople, a famine in Poland, an earthquake in the West Indies, the cry for help was certain to be heard in Duke's Place, as the sufferers were well aware. On a single Sabbath in 1841 for example, no less than £300 was offered in the Synagogue on behalf of those left homeless by the recent fire at Smyrna, to be supplemented on the Day of Atonement by a further £100 (this was in addition to some £300 on this occasion for the metropolitan charities). An episode is on record of 1832, when Nathan Mayer Rothschild forwarded the Synagogue an application that had been addressed through him by the Jews of the island of St. Thomas asking for assistance in the construction of a place of worship. The sum of £20 was voted, and forwarded for despatch by the same channel. The great financier refused, however, to accept the cheque, and gave instructions that the West Indian community might draw upon him for the amount, together with an additional ten guineas in his own name.

The Rabbi of the Synagogue had negotiations with the New World of a more delicate nature than those mentioned above. When in 1825 the swashbuckler American journalist, Major Mordecai Manuel Noah, attempted to solve the Jewish problem by founding the refuge-city of Ararat, near Niagara Falls (he got as far as laying the foundation-stone), he nominated various "commissioners", including the most distinguished Jewish leaders in Europe, to co-operate in the scheme. Among these was "Dr." Solomon Hirschell, of the Great Synagogue in London. The Rabbi showed indeed his solid good sense by declining the nomination, and even associated himself with the Grand Rabbi of France in a protest against the scheme, which was published in the Journal des Débats. It was to Zion, rather than to Niagara, that his gaze was turned.14


1 When in 1908 the report of the Joint Select Committee on Lotteries was published, it was felt that even charity lotteries might be illegal, and the Drum used by the Five Shilling Sabbath Charity (which still carried on its activities in the Vestry of the Great Synagogue) was deposited in the London Museum. Another, which was presented to the same body by Meir ben Manus Leib and his wife in 1800, is in the Jewish Museum: it is the work of a Jewish craftsman, S. L. Lazarus. There was another example in the Mocatta Museum, which was destroyed when University College was bombed in the autumn of 1940.

2 The Cholera Epidemic of 1830 left Anglo-Jewry another legacy. It was at this time that there was introduced the practice of reciting the pathetic hymn of supplication, Shomer Yisrael, daily: it was formerly read only on fasts. It must be added that according to another account a certain Nathan Barnett had anticipated Abraham Green's action some years before the cholera epidemic, and that Vallentine's part was incidental.

3 =Levy Marks: see above, p. 86.

4 It is worth while to quote a little-known picture of Jewish education in England at the close of the Hanoverian era which appeared in the Liverpool periodical, Kos Yeshuoth, in March 1846:

For fifty years, the Poles, who came to this country for an asylum, after a struggling life of unsuccessful commerce in their own country, put in their claim for encouragement in scholastic pursuits; translated the Hebrew words into low German... Hundreds of words given in this pseudo-translation were quite unintelligible to the pupils, who were learning an unknown language by means of another unknown language. Thus the task was repeated day by day, without improvement either in the teacher or the scholar There was no inducement to persevere in such a course of Hebraic study after the age of thirteen. What was hammered in was soon forgotten...

The best-known pedagogues of Hanoverian London were R. Zimra, in Crown Court, in the West End; R. Gedaliah in Back Alley, Drury Lane; R. Leb: of "Norwich" (Solomon Graditz), founder of the Westminster Jews' Free School; and above all R. Moshe Eleazar, of Gravel Lane (formerly of Lea). father of N. H. Solomon, whose school at Hammersmith and then at Edmonton was subsequently famous. There was a school in Mansell Street kept by John Levy, who was assisted by Jacob Myers, grandfather of Myer Davis, the historian. The schools of S. Lyon of Cambridge, H. Hurwitz of Highgate and -- Garcia of Peckham were of a more select type.

5 The words are given in Hebrew.

6 A resolution of 1864 prescribed that a greatcoat was to be given to each of the Tehillim-boys (as they were called).

7 Such was the indignation aroused by any breach of this old-established convention that on one occasion, when the nineteenth century was well advanced, a member of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue who on his marriage to a daughter of a Great Synagogue member allowed the ceremony to be performed by Rabbi Hirschell was expelled from his congregation, a sharp letter of remonstrance being sent to the officiant.

8 Already in October 1813 he had been elected Gabbai Zedakah by a majority; on that occasion he declined to serve, but professed his willingness to pay the statutory fine instead.

9 The Hebrew Intelligencer was a little behind with the news: the minutes inform us that his plan for this institution (which he proposed to call Davar Tov, or "A Good Thing") had been communicated to the committee on the financier's behalf by Mr. Samuel Samuel on November 11th of the previous year. Already in 1818, he had taken steps to establish a "Savings Bank for the Jewish Nation" in London while he was Warden.

10 By this time (since 1830) Wardens and Treasurers of the City Synagogues collaborated also in the administration of a legacy of £2,000, the interest on which was to be applied to monetary gifts for the poor under the title: "Ellis Wolfe's Mite for the Relief of his Jewish Brethren". (The testator had made provision in his will also for the Christian poor of his native place, Dover.)

11 Among the benefactors of the Great Synagogue other than those mentioned in the text were Hendele Solomons (1837), Abraham Michel (1821), Hannah Benjamin of Chatham (18--), Abraham Lyon Moses (1854), Benjamin Elias (1827), Mrs. Catherine Joseph (18--), and Maurice Benedict Worms (1866). In 1846 Isaac Cohen (Levi Barent Cohen's son) left the congregation £2,000 for the poor and £1,000 for general purposes. S. Simons, of Savannah (Georgia) made a bequest (through Abraham Goldsmid) in 1810, and S. Nathan of Charleston, N.C., one of $2,000 in 1821.

The Synagogue was responsible for the administration, not only of the almshouses established by A. L. Moses in Devonshire Street (Cambridge Road), but also for the Joel Emanuel Almshouses opened in 1854 in Wellclose Square.

12 Levy Alexander had published in 1801 A Selection of Sundry Laws...for the Government of the Congregation of the Great Synagogue, London, Translated into English: but this was an unofficial production.

The 1791 Code was indited and artistically decorated by the communal scribe, Isaiah ben Jehiel of Leeuwarden.

13 At this period, and for some time to come, a disproportionate number of London Jewish marriages were celebrated within the walls and under the auspices of the Great Synagogue. (As has been seen above, there was a hall over the entrance porch for the celebrations among the poor.) It is recounted that, when a number of weddings took place on the same day, the waiting brides were accommodated on a bench by the side of the Ark, screened off from the rest of the building by a temporary curtain. Here they would remain in waiting until their turn came and they were summoned forth by the Beadle's stentorian call: "Kallah for Mr. ---!"

14 This was not the only enterprise of the sort in connexion with which Hirschell's assistance was asked. In A Private Journal kept during the Niger Expedition, by William Simpson, Civilian (London, 1843), we learn how "at the suggestion of some Christian friends he was provided by the two Chief Rabbis [Sephardi and Ashkenazi] in London with letters commendatory to their brethren, in case it should be found that in the providence of God towards that memorable people, any portion of them were located in the interior of Africa". The Hebrew text of Solomon Hirschell's letter, written for him by the Dayyan Aaron of Lissa and dated 23rd Nisan 1841, is given in extenso.

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