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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter XVII



ON Monday, October 31st, 1842, Solomon Hirschell passed away, advanced in age. A little more than two years earlier he had fractured his thigh as the result of a fall, and from that time onwards had been confined almost perpetually to his house. (His last appearance in the Synagogue had been on the Hosanna Rabba of 1841, when he insisted on completing the full seven circuits prescribed by tradition, though with frequent halts.) He had made an effort to leave his bedroom in order to celebrate the last New Year of his life, but the exertion was too much for him, and a mishap which would have been trivial in a younger man proved fatal. Had he lived two months longer, he would have completed his eighty-first year.

Seal of Solomon Hirschell

The problem of appointing a successor to the departed Rav was particularly difficult. No longer was the community preponderantly foreign, with requirements which could be satisfied by a Yiddish-speaking Rabbi of the old type. It was by now highly anglicised, with members who had attained not only a considerable degree of well-being but also a noteworthy standard of secular culture and were playing a part of some importance in the affairs of the outside world. However great their devotion to tradition, they required as their spiritual leader a person who combined something of the qualities of an English pastor with those of a Jewish teacher. Since the beginning of the century, moreover, the communities throughout the country--some of which were by now of considerable size and great influence--had become consolidated, and to these were to be added a number of others of more recent date in the British dominions overseas. All these, as well as the smaller London congregations, looked to the incumbent of the Rabbinate of the Great Synagogue as their Chief Rabbi, and were vitally interested in the appointment.

The Great Synagogue was quick to recognise its responsibilities. At a meeting held immediately after Solomon Hirschell's death, the Committee passed resolutions recommending that the office of Chief Rabbi should be filled as soon as possible, and that it was desirable that he should be duly authorised as the spiritual guide and director of all the Jews of the British Empire. The resolutions, implying that the Chief Rabbinate was no longer to be the preserve of the senior Ashkenazi congregation in London, was communicated to the various congregations throughout the country, and were universally approved, notwithstanding the obvious corollary that all should contribute henceforth to the expenses of the institution as well as benefit from its advantage.

A committee of representatives, including eight from the Great Synagogue, met under the chairmanship of Isaac Cohen in the Vestry room in Duke's Place on February 19th and 21st, 1843. The Great Synagogue delegates intimated the intention of the congregation to subscribe 500 yearly to the Chief Rabbi's salary, being a little less than one-half of the anticipated total, and it was decided that the Honorary Officers and three of the committee of that body, together with the Honorary Officers of the other London synagogues which collaborated, were to constitute a standing committee with which the person elected could communicate regarding the duties of his office. In addition it was determined that every congregation was to be entitled to a vote in the election for every 5 which it contributed yearly to what was termed the Chief Rabbi's Sustentation Fund, no single body being, however, permitted more than fifty votes--a noble piece of self-denial on the part of the Great Synagogue, the only body in the country which was affected by this limitation. It is interesting to note that, among the resolutions regarding the duties of the office which were endorsed at the meeting, one repeated in substance a Great Synagogue regulation of 1722, that the Rabbi should on no account pronounce a Herem against any person or deprive him of his rights in the synagogue without the consent of the governing body of the congregation in question.

A meeting of the Vestry of the Great Synagogue in February 1844 unanimously approved the alteration in the laws of the Congregation necessitated by the surrender of the Rabbinate to the community at large.

The selection of the new Chief Rabbi was accordingly made by a Committee of Delegates representing not only the Metropolitan communities, but also those of nineteen provincial cities. It is interesting to glance at the list, for it shows how the geographical balance of Anglo-Jewish life has changed in the course of the past century. The synagogues represented outside London were those of Liverpool (2), Glasgow (2), Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Dublin, Edinburgh, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Brighton, Chatham, Cheltenham, Falmouth, Ipswich, Jersey, Newcastle, Southampton, Swansea, and Penzance. (There were a few more, such as those of Canterbury, Sheerness, King's Lynn, Norwich, Sunderland, and Bath which do not figure in the list.) In London, besides the Great, New and Hambro' Synagogues, there were represented the Western Synagogue in St. Alban's Place and the Maiden Lane Synagogue. (At one time it had been hoped that the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, then without a Haham, would also join in the proceedings; but this could not be effected.) Notwithstanding this country-wide representation, the decision actually lay in the hands of the three City Synagogues, as was natural in view of the concentration of the great majority of English Jewry in the Metropolis; out of a total of 143 votes, the Great Synagogue had fifty, and the New and Hambro' forty-five between them, leaving fewer than fifty for the rest of the country.

Fifteen candidates presented themselves, but the names of three only were placed before the electors. There was Dr. Nathan Marcus Adler, Chief Rabbi of Hanover; Dr. Hirsch Hirschfeld, Chief Rabbi of Wollstein; and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Provincial Rabbi of the Province of East Friesland, later to be known as the great pillar of German orthodoxy. (Another promising candidate, Rabbi Benjamin Auerbach of Darmstadt, had withdrawn.) It had been hoped that the selection would be unanimous: and the story of Anglo-Jewry might have been significantly altered if, as was at one time proposed, Rabbi Hirsch had been agreed upon by the champions of his two rivals as a compromise candidate. But when the ballot at the three City synagogues on December 1st, 1844, proved to be in favour of Dr. Adler, the question was decided: and on the scrutiny of the returns on the following Wednesday, it was found that he had been almost unanimously elected, with 121 votes out of a total of 143. On July 9th, 1845, he was inaugurated as Chief Rabbi in the Great Synagogue, crowded with all the talent and ability that English Jewry could boast. It is said that the bells of some of the City churches were rung in honour of the event - resounding testimony to the excellent relations between the Jewish community and its neighbours.

Dr N. M. Adler, Chief Rabbi 1845-1890

Nathan Marcus Adler had been born on December 11th, 1803 (this was the date given in his testimonials, though in the Jewish Encyclopaedia it is indicated as January 15th, 1803), and was now just over forty years of age. His father, Marcus Baer Adler, member of a Frankfort family long distinguished for its learning, was Rabbi of Hanover at the time of his birth, and he had therefore come into the world as a subject of King George III of England - a fact that carried some weight at the time of his appointment. He had, moreover, other English connexions, for his grandmother had been a sister of the penultimate Chief Rabbi, David Tevele Schiff. Born at the dawn of a more liberal age, he had studied at the universities of Göttingen, Erlangen, Würzburg and Heidelberg; had qualified almost simultaneously in 1828 for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Erlangen and the Rabbinical diploma from Rabbi Abraham Bing of the same city; had been given his first appointment as Rabbi of Oldenburg in 1829; and within a year received a call to his native city of Hanover in the same capacity. The recommendations which he had presented were of the most cordial nature: it was said that they were backed by private communications from Queen Victoria's uncle, the Duke of Cambridge, who had come into contact with him as Viceroy of Hanover. Because of his German origin and upbringing, the Prince Consort found him congenial company; and family legend tells how he, expert in the problems of nationality, warned the Queen on an historic occasion of the legal complications that might ensue were any of her children born in Germany.

Dr. N. M. Adler's period of office, which lasted for nearly half a century (1844/5-1890) belongs like that of his son and successor, Hermann Adler (1890-1911), to Anglo-Jewish history at large. His activity was, however, centred in the Great Synagogue, and that congregation took the outstanding part in almost all the innovations and reforms with which this period was associated, converting the Anglo-Jewry of 1844, not very different from that of half a century before, into a community which in essentials was identical with that of today.

Dr Hermann Adler, Chief Rabbi 1891-1911 (Caricature by 'Spy')

Not that the change was immediately apparent, save in the modern education and graces of the new Rabbi. At the outset of his career in London, he even had his own personal attendant, or Meshores, who accompanied him wherever he went in the old style - Joseph van Gelder, a familiar figure among London Jews in the middle of the last century; but he was the last person to hold this picturesque office. The Synagogue continued to be conducted according to the traditional method. There was still in force an elaborate system of fines - for refusing to be called to the Reading of the Law, for not attending at service when due to have this honour, for not being present at meetings of the congregation or of any committee, or for leaving before the discussions were over. At the beginning of the proceedings, indeed, the roll was called, almost as at school, to see who was absent. Elections to office were made, as in the old days, on Hosanna Rabba, the results being made known to the congregation by means of a special Mi sheBirach on the next day, Shemini Atsereth. On the eve of the second Sabbath after the conclusion of the holyday, those elected were inducted into office immediately before the evening service, with a special festive ceremonial A procession was formed, headed by the Rabbi and the new dignitaries. As they entered the Synagogue a special prayer, Blessed are ye in your coming in, was intoned; and the remainder of the service had a character of its own, with music specially composed for the occasion by Mombach. Still and for long after, the Beadle delivered a feather and candle to all members, shortly before Passover, for use in the ceremony of Searching out the Leaven.

The Ark (from a photograph)

Yet, by the side of these eighteenth-century relics, there was a constant sequence of expansion and reorganisation, bringing the old bodies into harmony with the new conditions. One institution after the other in London Jewry derives its existence in its present shape to this period; and in the evolution of them the Great Synagogue, the Chief Rabbi's official seat, played a dominant role.

Typical was the case of the Beth Hamedrash, a traditional foundation which now assumed its modern form. A "House of Study" had almost certainly existed in connexion with the congregation from its earliest days; notwithstanding Hart Lyon's failure to organise such an institution on the Continental model during his Rabbinate, a "Beth Hamedrash of the Holy Congregation of the German Jews in London" was in being in 1782, when it received a legacy of £10 a year "for ever" under the will of Samuel de Falk, the "Baal Shem".1 Though attached to no individual congregation, it was from the Great Synagogue that it received its greatest support, as was only to be expected. In 1841 the new institution (now under the management of a Board of Trustees headed by Solomon Cohen, son of Levi Barent Cohen), was removed from Booker's Gardens to 1 Smith's Buildings, Leadenhall Street. At a meeting held in the Great Synagogue chambers on January 2nd, 1842, a Provisional Committee was appointed to consider how it could be made more effective, as for a variety of reasons it had lapsed into inactivity. The Trustees proposed that it should be extended and used to "train up youth for the various offices connected with the ministration of our religion". The scheme was approved by Rabbi Hirschell, and subscriptions collected, but the scheme proposed--anticipatory of the later Jews' College--was never carried into effect. Hirschell's library was, however, acquired for it with money bequeathed by Solomon Arnold, of the New Synagogue, and in 1849 Abraham Lyon Moses, at Dr. Adler's request, provided the funds for engaging a Librarian (the first was Rabbi Aaron Levy, who served until 1872). When the Chief Rabbi established a society for Talmudical study in connexion with the institution and began a regular course of lectures, the Beth Hamedrash in its modern form had come into shape.

When the time came for overhauling the somewhat antiquated charitable system of the London Jewish community, it was once more the Great Synagogue that took the lead, with remarkably successful results. The "treaty" between the three City Synagogues, renewed in 1835, remained in force without any modification for many years, and it was by it that most of the poor relief was regulated. In 1844, indeed, Henry Faudel had published a pamphlet in which he advocated a radical revision of the entire system and the amalgamation of all existing Jewish charities into a single organisation, something on the lines of the method which has since become common in some centres of the United States. Nothing, however, was done. Meanwhile, the problem of the poor acquired a different aspect, both because of the increase in their number (at least in proportion to the total growth of the community) and of the growing wellbeing and anglicisation of the upper classes, who no longer considered the unscientific traditional method to be really satisfactory, notwithstanding its warm humanity. Accordingly, on January 12th, 1858, the Committee of the Great Synagogue passed a resolution:

That it is deemed advisable that a conjoint Board of Guardians be appointed to relieve the strange and foreign poor.

That a copy of the foregoing resolution be transmitted to the Presidents of the Hambro' and New Synagogues requesting that their honorary officers will meet the honorary officers of this Synagogue as early as possible to confer on the matter.

The Conference was duly held on February 25th, in the Chambers of the Great Synagogue, which was represented by Sir Anthony de Rothschild, Louis Nathan and Ephraim Alex. (One of the two New Synagogue delegates was Marcus Samuel, father of the first Lord Bearsted.) They unanimously recommended "that it is desirable that a Board of Guardians be appointed to attend to the relief of the strange and foreign poor", and that the three City Synagogues should place at its disposal a sum equal to the average amount expended by each of them for this purpose during the last three years. Nothwithstanding this, and the sympathetic reception of a pamphlet by Ephraim Alex explaining the scheme, nothing resulted. Alex, however, was determined to carry it through, and in his capacity of Overseer of the Great Synagogue, he succeeded a year later (February 22nd, 1859) in securing approval for the following resolutions:

(1) That it is highly expedient that the relief of the strange poor be managed by a Board of Guardians constituted of delegates from the three City Uniting Congregations.

(2) That the following gentlemen be appointed the delegates of this Board with power to meet the delegates appointed by the other two congregations and make such arrangements with them for one year as shall seem most desirable to effect the desired object, viz., Messrs. E. Alex, Samuel Moses, Lewis Jacobs, S. A. Jonas, Joseph Lazarus, Jacob Waley, M.A., and Lionel L. Cohen.

(3) That £220 be placed at the disposal of such Board of Guardians for one year to be paid in monthly instalments.

(4) That the Secretary of the Synagogue do attend the meetings of the Board of Guardians when requested and finish all information, books or documents bearing on the relief of the strange poor.

Three days afterwards the initial meeting of the new Board was held at 31 New Bridge Street. The attendance was heartbreakingly small. Only the Great Synagogue was represented, and out of its seven delegates only three - Alex, Waley, and Cohen - put in an appearance. Their enthusiasm was, however, proof against minor disappointments. The first-named was requested to act as Chairman of the new body, and the last-named took upon himself the arduous duties of Secretary; the New and Hambro' Synagogues were again approached and asked to collaborate; and on Monday, May 16th, 1859, the first meeting of the Board of Guardians for the Relief of the Jewish Poor was held at the Great Synagogue Chambers. It was thus that there came into existence that superb charitable organisation, now regarded as a model in every country and among followers of every creed, which, after its small beginnings as a Conjoint Board of the three historic City Communities, now commands the support of every section of the London community without distinction. Its overwhelming share in the creation of "the Board" is not the least of the services of the Great Synagogue to London Jewry.

The establishment of the Board of Guardians relieved the existing synagogues of only part of their charity obligations. It was in the first instance supposed to deal only with those termed the "Strange Poor", or Orahim, who had no specific claim on any congregation and who formed the subject of the "Treaties" of 1805 and 1835 between the City synagogues. In addition to these, there were those - mostly natives - who for some reason or the other were attached to one of the synagogues, claimed support from it as a right rather than a favour, and were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the various charitable bequests left to the individual congregations in the past. Its appetite for charitable reform whetted, the Great Synagogue attempted to take this question in hand as well, and on July 14th, 1859, a sub-committee was appointed to report their opinion (among other things) "in reference to any improved system for the poor generally". It was Lionel Louis Cohen who now took the lead, and in January 1860 he submitted an elaborate "scheme for the Better Management of all the Jewish Poor" which he subsequently published, with some acute observations at the close. He advocated in effect: the appointment of another, more ambitious Board of Guardians representing the three City Synagogues, to deal with the problem of the "stipendiary" poor, and suggested a new system for combined medical relief and the supply of unleavened bread on Passover. His scheme was rather too complicated: the setting up of another Board so soon after the first seemed curious: and the proposals were not adopted. Ultimately, with the extension in the scope of the Board of Guardians for the Relief of the Jewish Poor to all classes, native as well as foreign, and with the establishment of a closer union between the three City Synagogues, the problem of organisation was automatically solved.

In the general setting of East End charity and philanthropy, the part taken by the London Hospital was of course outstanding. Established in a Jewish area, it had as we have seen received solid Jewish support and made special provision for Jewish patients from its earliest years; and separate accommodation for them had been discussed even in the reign of George III.2 The idea was not abandoned. In 1837 an influential deputation representing "the Committee for the more effectual relief of the sick poor of the Jewish Community requiring medical aid in and about London" (including several outstanding members of the Great Synagogue) presented a memorandum to the Hospital asking for the establishment of a Jewish ward. The implementation of this was delayed for a short while owing to lack of room, but the rebuilding scheme completed in 1842 made it possible for arrangements to be made; the Society referred to above was accordingly wound up, its funds being applied to the Hospital. In 1853, however, for technical reasons, non-Jewish patients were admitted to the ward, which thus lost its specifically Jewish character. The Vestry of the Great Synagogue registered a warm but respectful protest, pointing out that the new scheme was "contrary to the spirit of the agreement between the Committee of the London Hospital and the Jewish Community." Much correspondence and negotiation ensued, but at last in 1860 the Great Synagogue Committee triumphed, the Jewish ward being reopened--this time for good.

The office of the Secretary of the Great Synagogue--the medium of communication between the City Synagogues, and the place of origin of so many ameliorations in the communal organisation--was at this period the hub of the Anglo-Jewish community. It was presided over in succession by two men who left a profound mark on the development of modern Anglo-Jewry. In 1843, there was elected to the office Simeon Oppenheim (1798-1874) a grandson of the mainstay of the congregation at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Samuel Joseph. In 1809, at the age of eleven. he had been one of the bevy of children who had strewn flowers in the path of the Royal Dukes when they visited the Synagogue. Later, he followed the family tradition of communal service, becoming Treasurer and Charity Overseer, until at last he entered the service of the congregation in a professional capacity. He continued to serve as Secretary for nearly a quarter of a century, in the course of this period witnessing and taking a prominent share in the various developments in the Anglo-Jewish community that emanated from Duke's Place. When he retired through old age in 1866, there was a contested election and a degree of public interest, not to say excitement, which in our days would seem incredible. The successful candidate was Dr. Asher Asher, who had come to London from Glasgow in 1862 and entered into partnership with Dr. Canstatt, the first medical attendant to the poor under the newly-established Board of Guardians. Asher's letter of application, it may be observed, was submitted both in Hebrew and in English - a tribute to the scholarly interests of the recipients as well as of the applicant. The position that he occupied in the Anglo-Jewish community, down to his death in 1889, was unique. With him ended the days when the Secretariat of the Great Synagogue was equivalent to the Civil Service of the London community as a whole.3

Interior of Synagogue, nineteenth century (from Illustrated London News, January, 1890)

Dr. Adler's Rabbinate witnessed the last revision of the Laws of the Great Synagogue. In November 1854 it was determined that the code of 1827 needed overhauling, and a sub-committee was elected, presided over by Dr. Barnard van Oven, to carry this into effect. Their report was presented in March 1858 to the Vestry, which for the next three years subjected the proposals to a minute but leisurely examination. The proposed new code was then laid before a joint committee comprised of the Vestry and forty-two members of the Congregation, and once more submitted to careful scrutiny; the parts relating to religious matters being finally presented to the Chief Rabbi for his approval. Like the previous codes, it was printed and circulated to members. But herein was a token of decadence. No longer was the English accompanied by a Hebrew version, as had been the case on the last occasion (when the English had indeed been a concession to ignorance): any language besides the vernacular was now, alas, superfluous. Thus, some seven years after the revision had first been proposed, the new code was finally approved and came into effect. It continued in operation for less than a decade, as before that period had elapsed the Great Synagogue itself became merged in a wider body. Yet the governing code of that wider body as it exists today is to a large extent based upon this body of regulations of 1861; itself a revision of those of 1827, of 1790, of 1722, and so ultimately of those drawn up when the Ashkenazi Jews of London first formed themselves into an organisation in or about 1690.


1 Abraham Nanzig (above, p. 192), as a member of the Beth Hamedrash "of the three Ashkenazi communities in London", officiated in 1783 at the celebration of the completion of the study of the entire Talmud, his address on this occasion being printed as an appendix to his Aleh Terufah. This would imply that the institution had already been in existence probably for at least seven years. "Beth Hamedrash" is the official and traditional transcription used in London: this erratic tradition has made complete consistency in the present volume impossible.

2 See the details regarding the London Hospital in the eighteenth century given above, pp. 105-6.

3 On the establishment of the United Synagogue, Asher's place was filled by the Assistant Hazan Moses Keizer, formerly his clerk. Subsequent secretaries of the Great Synagogue included Alfred Henry; Samuel Gordon the novelist, son of the Hazan A. E. Gordon (appointed in 1894); and Isaac Dainow. who now fills the office.

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