Top hats in Joburg: the global reach of the United Synagogue

The 150-year-old organisation has had an influence far beyond these shores


This year the United Synagogue marks its 150th anniversary. Very little literature has considered the impact of this formidable organisation beyond London.

The nascence of the US by Parliament in 1870 allegedly had its roots in a convivial discussion in Chief Rabbi Adler’s succah in 1866, where the idea of the US was first broached. Adler wrote halachic responsa to lonely colonial outposts and his influence extended across an ever-growing British Empire.

Adler vigorously fought for central Orthodox governance. One of his most important acts was to form Jews’ College. The college has been described as “the Jewish theological seminary of the British Commonwealth”, which is largely accurate. For example, many of South Africa’s Jewish clergymen, including Chief Rabbis Casper, Rabinowitz and Harris, were graduates of Jews’ College, bringing US clerical garb and style to South Africa.

Today Jews’ College is restyled LSJS and its long-distance courses reach more South African and Australian students than Jews’ College ever did.

In 1890, the JC wrote that without Adler, “it is probable that… wholesale Reforms and… undesirable extravagances that characterise American Judaism would have found their way into our community” .

Arguably, the primary outcome of Adler’s ministry is that most British Jews remain nominally Orthodox. This was partially achieved through anglicisation of synagogues, which appealed to congregants. US by-laws insisted on rabbis appearing in clerical cap and gown. Wardens wore morning dress and top-hats.

With notable exceptions, London synagogues have largely dispensed with this sartorial code. Paradoxically, certain provincial and Commonwealth congregations follow these customs more tenaciously than their London counterparts.

At Liverpool’s magnificent Princes Road synagogue, the clergymen wear canonicals and a mixed-choir accompanies services; a phenomenon once commonplace in the US but now unique to Princes Road. Further afield, Montreal’s Sha’ar Hashomayim congregation insists on caps and gowns for its rabbis and cantors and top-hats and morning dress for its wardens on Shabbat and tail-coats on festivals. Services led by Cantor Zelermeyer feature choristers in canonicals, something unseen in Britain for many years.

The Johannesburg Great Synagogue’s successor, Great Park, is the only congregation in Africa whose wardens still officiate in top-hats and tails. A Johannesburg dayan related the “message of dignity and decorum” this dress-code “conveyed to the other worshippers”. This is just one example of long-lasting cultural influences of US custom across the Commonwealth.

The volume most associated with the US is undoubtedly the Singer’s Siddur. Published in 1890 by the celebrated Reverend Simeon Singer, it featured a stately English translation. “No pains have been spared,” Singer announced, “to render the work… worthy of its place as the Authorised Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire.” This became the primary siddur across the Empire and an American edition, The Standard Prayer Book, was introduced. No siddur until that point had been in such wide use, from Birmingham to Bulawayo to Brisbane.

Today, widespread singing of Yigdal at Friday night services and Adon Olam on Shabbat morning in Commonwealth congregations is largely attributable to US minhag Anglia rite and the Singer’s Siddur’s influence. It remains popular in its latest green incarnation with yellow and green bookmarks.

Other US literary output includes Chief Rabbi Hertz’s commentary on the Pentateuch. It was the standard Chumash in Commonwealth synagogues and classrooms and is widely used across America. The Chumash is still in print, an astonishing fact considering it was published in 1936.

Some congregations are products of multiple levels of US influence. For example, US president, Sir Isaac Wolfson (from 1962 to 1973) imported US influence to the $18 million gargantuan Jerusalem Great Synagogue, where full choral performances are led under the talented maestro Elli Jaffe, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music. The synagogue president, Major Jaffe, wanted a wardens’ box installed and top hats worn, but was outvoted.

Apart from the soaring Great Synagogues of Sydney, Jerusalem, Johannesburg and elsewhere, which imitate edifices associated with US “cathedral” synagogues, other US architectural influence is evident in David Hillman’s stained glass, which arguably constitutes the highest form of this art in synagogues and is showcased in Britain and Jerusalem.

The Royal Family prayer boards which flank arks in British and Commonwealth synagogues are testimony to the US’s patriotic spirit. Today, Stamford Hill’s New Synagogue, which is now a Bobov shul, is the only Chasidic synagogue with plaques expressing allegiance to Britain’s Royal Family.

A most important US contribution is its influence on synagogal music. Great US-trained cantors were sent to communities across the world. The decorous Anglo-Jewish sacred music tradition is largely accredited to the Duke’s Place Great Synagogue choirmaster, Julius Mombach.

In recognition of his scholarship, the entire congregation rose when he entered. His compositions are immortalised in the Voice of Prayer and Praise, a US volume of sheet music (the “Blue Bible”) compositions, which are in use worldwide. These melodies have warmed Jewish hearts for generations.

May this vital organisation bring Jews across the globe closer to their magnificent heritage for many years to come.

Rabbi Sher is a postgraduate student in education and psychology at Cambridge University


Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive