We were arguing in 1841 — and happily, the broiges is still going

But it is fair to say that overall Judaism in Britain today is more self-assured and vibrant than at any previous stage in our history


When the first edition of the Jewish Chronicle was published, Britain’s small Jewish community was arguing. Members of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation at Bevis Marks had been told by their leaders that they could not establish a branch synagogue in the West End.

So they seceded from Bevis Marks, along with others who had been agitating for shorter, more decorous services. They teamed up with members of the Ashkenazi community to establish the West London Synagogue.

It became Britain’s first Reform congregation. Sir Moses Montefiore, President of the Board of Deputies, consulted with Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell and excommunicated them all. For the next 30 years, Montefiore excluded the West London Synagogue from the Board.

After Dr Hirschell’s death, London’s four Ashkenazi congregations elected Nathan Marcus Adler as Chief Rabbi. Although he also opposed the West London Synagogue, he recognised that many people were unhappy with the long, chaotic, traditional shabbat service. In 1847 he published his Laws and Regulations, designed to anglicise the service and make it more decorous.

He forbade entry into the synagogue during the public prayers and banned the auctioning of aliyot to the Torah. Making a noise to obliterate Haman’s name on Purim was forbidden. Brides were not to walk seven times around their groom under the chupa. Clerical garb, including dog collars and gaiters, were to be worn by all officiants.

In 1855 Adler opened Jews’ College and in 1870 he was instrumental in creating the United Synagogue. Formed by Act of Parliament and partly modelled on the Church of England, it represented patriotic, English Judaism. The Chief Rabbi was the sole religious authority in the community, the Jewish equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The United Synagogue didn’t suit everyone. In the East End, many of the newly arrived, impoverished immigrants prayed in small chevrot, often in chaotic, cramped and unhygienic conditions.

Realising that institutionalising the chevrot would help improve their conditions, Whitechapel’s Liberal MP, the banker Montagu Samuel created the Federation of Synagogues and invited them to join. The Jewish Chronicle hoped it would make to make “our foreign poor ... English in feeling and conduct”.

Adler retired in 1880 but he didn’t give up the title of Chief Rabbi. He appointed his son Dr Hermann Adler as Delegate Chief Rabbi, a role he filled until his father died in 1891.

He then served as Chief Rabbi for 20 years, allowed nobody else the use of the title Rabbi and embroiled himself in controversy when he “inhibited” (using an Anglican term) Rev Morris Joseph from being appointed minister at Hampstead Synagogue.

Dr Adler wrote to the JC saying he could not appoint Joseph because he refused to publicly recite the sacrificial prayers and intended to expound opinions “not in accord with the teachings of traditional Judaism”.

Meanwhile, trouble was stirring at the West London Reform Synagogue. Several of its leading members felt that the Reform movement was stagnating.

Led by Lily Montagu and Claude Montefiore they established the Jewish Religious Union for those “who are not in sympathy with the present Synagogue Services”. It held Saturday afternoon services, mainly in English, with instrumental accompaniment. In 1911 it became the Liberal Jewish Synagogue.

Hermann Adler died that year. An electoral college dominated by the United Synagogue, and commanded by Lord Rothschild appointed Dr Joseph Hertz in his place. Hertz’s domineering personality made him the de facto leader of all British Jewry.

He faithfully shepherded them through two world wars, held the centre as strictly Orthodox and Reform refugees from Europe altered the religious balance, fought the recently formed Union of Hebrew Congregations over shechita and battled incessantly with the President of the United Synagogue.

His edition of the prayer book, though now hard to find, is still the best English language commentary on the siddur, while his excellent Pentateuch & Haftorahs is scarcely to be found in Orthodox synagogues today, because it dares to quote non-Jewish commentaries.

The career of Hertz’s successor, Israel Brodie, was overshadowed by the Jacobs Affair, in which he first refused to appoint Dr Louis Jacobs as Principal of Jews’ College and then forbade him from returning as rabbi of his old congregation, the New West End.

After a very public and lengthy row most of the New West End membership resigned. They set up the New London Synagogue, where Rabbi Jacobs ministered for the next 40 years. The Jacobs Affair was British Jewry’s greatest controversy. It led to the creation of the Masorti movement, to which Rabbi Jacobs agreed to attach his name, despite not supporting its formation.

Israel’s victory in the 1967 war boosted confidence and self-respect. One could be Jewish with pride, it became acceptable to wear a kippah in the street. The United Synagogue dispensed with most of Nathan Marcus Adler’s reforms while the Liberal and Reform movements experienced a massive growth in membership. Judaism in Britain didn’t feel the need to be quite so English.

The eras marked by the incumbencies of Chief Rabbis Immanuel Jakobovits and Jonathan Sacks saw something of a regeneration in religious life.

New Jewish schools opened, initiatives like the Spiro Institute and Limmud boosted adult learning, women successfully campaigned for greater involvement in synagogue services and management. Student chaplaincy was established and renewal movements like Chabad and Aish discovered a market.

And in the Charedi community more and more babies were born, making them more numerous, more visible, and more influential.

But there was conflict and difficulty too. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks found himself embroiled in arguments over the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, Jewish Continuity and the expansion plans of Masorti.

Intermarriage rates rose and the community polarised, the centre giving way to extreme religiosity and secularity. We are now in the era of Chief Rabbi Mirvis, and although the controversies are fewer, and largely around sexuality and identity, they are conducted with the same passion.

Still, it is fair to say that overall Judaism in Britain today is more self-assured and vibrant than at any previous stage in our history.

Harry Freedman’s latest book, Britain’s Jews: Confidence, Maturity, Anxiety, is published in November by Bloomsbury

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