Solomon Schonfeld: A Purpose in Life

Error-strewn life of a tyrannical titan

By Geoffrey Alderman, November 5, 2009
Solomon Schonfeld: bully

Solomon Schonfeld: bully

By Derek Taylor
Vallentine Mitchell £45 (pb: £16.95)

Last year, Derek Taylor co-authored a work on Jewish Parliamentarians, the numerous errors in which were catalogued by Professor W. D. Rubinstein in Jewish Historical Studies.

Now, in a biography of Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, Mr Taylor appears disinclined to learn from past mistakes — something he shares with his subject.

Schonfeld (1912-84) transformed the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (founded by his father) from a minor appendage of the Anglo-Jewish body politic into a central element in its daily life. He worked tirelessly to rescue Jews from Nazism, working with the established communal organs when it suited him and against them when it did not.

He expanded the Jewish Secondary Schools Movement into a major engine of socio-religious change, trampling upon the law of the land in so doing. Following a series of court cases he was stripped of all legal authority over the JSSM, and ended his life in disgrace.

Mr Taylor’s book contains some alarming errors. Highbury County School (which Schonfeld attended) was not founded by the Grocers’ Company. The Chief Rabbi is not “the sole authority” for recommending that synagogues be authorised to conduct marriages. The League of Nations could not have played any part in the protection of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s, for it had ceased to exist in 1945.

The Board of Deputies did not vote to confer “rabbinic status” upon the Liberal and Reform movements in 1971; it has never exercised such a power.

The polemic itself often veers off subject. The inner workings of the UOHC get scant attention. Schonfeld was a bully and a moral blackmailer — that much Taylor admits — but those who assisted him in his illegal transactions are not named. The demographic shift in the charedi population that left Schonfeld as an anachronism in his own kehillah is under-explored.

It is interesting to learn that Schonfeld frequented theatres and cinemas. What rabbinical head of the Union would dream of doing that today?

During his lifetime there were those who worshipped the ground Schonfeld walked upon. There were others who cursed his existence. Whichever verdict we accept, this bombastic figure surely deserves a better biography than the one Derek Taylor has written.

Geoffrey Alderman’s book ‘The Communal Gadfly’ is published by Academic Studies Press

Last updated: 11:45am, November 5 2009