The Jews

Pages 149-151

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 1, Physique, Archaeology, Domesday, Ecclesiastical Organization, the Jews, Religious Houses, Education of Working Classes To 1870, Private Education From Sixteenth Century. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.

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The traditional unit of Jewish organization is a territorial one-the community. The history of the Jews in London and its environs has centred on the tension between maintaining the unified community and progressive fragmentation, due more to successive waves of immigrants from different communities than internal schism. The earliest division was between the Sephardim (adherents of the Spanish rite) and Ashkenazim (adherents of the German rite). The first synagogue of the Resettlement, opened in Creechurch Lane in the City in 1656, was attended by both until 1692 when the Ashkenazim opened the Great Synagogue. (fn. 1) During the 18th century a few wealthy families, mainly Sephardim, had country houses in Middlesex, where they sometimes held religious meetings, (fn. 2) but they all belonged to one of the two communities and most held seats at one of the City synagogues, the Sephardi Bevis Marks (1701), (fn. 3) or the Ashkenazi Great, Hambro' (1725), (fn. 4) and New (1761). (fn. 5)

Most Sephardim lived in the City near the synagogue and its associated institutions- Talmud Torah (teaching of the law), Hebra (burial society), and schools dating from 1664 and 1730. (fn. 6) But the Ashkenazim early began the movement out of the City and five synagogues had been opened for them by the beginning of the 19th century, one near the Strand, and others in the East End. The dispersal of the Ashkenazim led to the first positive efforts to maintain the unity of the community. In 1808 the City synagogues (fn. 7) agreed to maintain the framework of the original Ashkenazi community under the authority of its rabbi. Even more important was the rabbinate of the two Adlers, Nathan (1845-90) and Hermann (1891-1911), especially as this came after the community had received a shock with the foundation in the West End of a Reform synagogue, formed mainly by a group of dissident Sephardim, but also linked with the continental Reform movement. Formal relations between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities were polite and both co-operated in the Board of Deputies, founded in 1760, to further the interests of the Jews in England, in the Beth Din (Law Court) and Shechita Board (to deal with kosher food), both set up in 1804. But each community maintained its liturgical traditions, and a proposal for a joint West End Synagogue in 1849 was rejected on liturgical grounds by the Sephardim. (fn. 8)

Nathan Adler's policy of consolidating the Ashkenazi community began with the issue in 1847 of regulations confirming the supremacy of the Chief Rabbi in questions of religion and ritual practice, and in 1855 the Jews' College was opened in Finsbury Square for training teachers and ministers. Adler also encouraged a group of young Benthamite Jews in 1859 to found the Board of Guardians, which was an attempt to co-ordinate and supply the gaps left by the large number of heterogeneous, overlapping Jewish charities. Adler's initiative also lay behind the United Synagogue, created by Act of Parliament in 1870. Consisting of the City Ashkenazi synagogues and making provision for the admission of other synagogues and the erection of new ones, the United Synagogue was characterized by a common financial system and governed by a committee. (fn. 9) Orthodox, but increasingly characterized by Victorian 'decorum' in worship and by sermons in English, the United Synagogue was the expression of the more prosperous, longer-established Anglo-Jewry. Through its newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, it advocated a policy of Anglicization, which was largely accomplished by the Jewish schools, the Westminster Jews' Free School (1811), the Jews' Free School, Spitalfields (1817), the Stepney Jewish Schools (1865), and the Bayswater Jewish Schools (1866). (fn. 10)

The chief challenge to the United Synagogue came from the East End, into which immigrants from eastern Europe flooded during the period from 1882 to 1914. A Jewish Dispersion Committee (1902) tried to attract them to areas like Notting Hill and in 1899 the United Synagogue adopted an Associated Synagogue Scheme to facilitate the establishment of self-supporting but less expensive metropolitan synagogues. Some of the immigrants joined the United Synagogue, but the majority preferred to remain in the East End where they found their relatives and familiar institutions like the hebra or chevra, a benevolent society to which a small synagogue was often attached. The earliest hebra dated from 1853 and there were 20 in 1870, but the numbers multiplied greatly with the arrival of the immigrants. Small, noisy, often dirty and insanitary, and outside its control, the hebroth were attacked by the United Synagogue as a barrier to social assimilation and a potential source of anti-Semitism. As an alternative, in 1889 it proposed an East End Scheme, to consist of a large synagogue with all the ancillary services the immigrants required. Many immigrants, however, distrusted the westernized and often lax Anglo-Jew of the United Synagogue. The East End Scheme had to be abandoned and in 1887 twenty-one hebroth joined in the Federation of Synagogues, a large burial society 'to preserve the structure of east European Jewry'. (fn. 11)

Another challenge to the unity of the Ashkenazi community came from the Machzike HaDath. Established in 1891, it was the first attempt to form a community based on very strict observance, particularly in relation to the Sabbath and meat-slaughtering. It clashed with the Chief Rabbi over the latter and set up its own organization which still survives, although within the framework of the Shechita Board. In 1905 economic reasons forced it to join the Federation's burial scheme. (fn. 12)

Immigration also introduced into England Hassidim, followers of an 18th-century east European pietist movement. In 1886 a Hungarian and German separatist movement founded the North London Beth Hamedrash, which in 1911 developed into the Adath Yisroel congregation. This was an independent orthodox community outside the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbi, with its own courts and other institutions. In 1926 a number of small synagogues, affiliated to Adath Yisroel for burial purposes, established the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations 'to protect traditional Judaism'. At the other end of the religious spectrum, the Jewish Religious, founded in 1902, opened the first Liberal synagogue in Hill Street, St. John's Wood, in 1911. (fn. 13)

The severe damage caused in the East End during the Second World War hastened the dispersion of Jews to other parts of London and to more distant suburbs. Refugees from Nazi persecution tended to concentrate in North London, forming two nuclei of Union synagogues around Stoke Newington and Golders Green and a colony of Hassidim in Stamford Hill. Most of the synagogues serving congregations in the outer suburbs have been established under the auspices of the United Synagogue. Liberal and Reform synagogues, both affiliated to the world union for Progressive Judaism, although numerically a minority, have grown steadily, being especially strengthened by the influx of German and Austrian Jews in the 1930's. Most Federation synagogues are still in the East End, with a few scattered elsewhere, although there has been a general decline. The Sephardim have opened Persian and Bokharan synagogues in Stamford Hill. (fn. 14)


  • 1. Bevis Marks Records, ed. L. D. Barnett, 5, 29-31.
  • 2. Ibid. 33; C. Roth, Rise of Provincial Jewry, 16 25; H. F. Finberg, 'Jewish residents in eighteenth-century Twickenham', Trans. Jewish Hist. Soc. xvi. 129-35.
  • 3. Bevis Marks Records, ed. Barnett, 25.
  • 4. Founded by members of the Hamburg community: ex inf. Mr. E. M. Marmorstein.
  • 5. V. D. Lipman, Social Hist. of the Jews in England, 1850-1950, 5.
  • 6. Bevis Marks Records, ed. Barnett, 25.
  • 7. Also alarmed for economic reasons by the decline in their membership.
  • 8. Lipman, Social Hist. of Jews, 13-16, 39; Lipman, 'A survey of Anglo-Jewry in 1851', Trans. Jewish Hist. Soc. xvii. 171-88; A. Barnett. The Western Synagogue through two centuries, 1761-1961, 19-29, 82, 179.
  • 9. Lipman, Social Hist. of Jews, 40, 50-64.
  • 10. Ibid. 46-49.
  • 11. Ibid. 121. Their opponents ascribe the foundation to the political motives of Samuel Montagu. For immigration and the Federation see Lipman, Social Hist. of Jews, 71-75, 85-101, 120-30; L. P. Gartner, The Jewish Immigrant in England, 1870-1914, 187-203.
  • 12. Lipman, Social Hist. of Jews, 123-6; Gartner, Jewish Immigrant, 209-14.
  • 13. Lipman, Social Hist. of Jews, 156-7, 171; ex inf. Mr. E. M. Marmorstein.
  • 14. Lipman, Social Hist. of Jews, 167-77; Jewish Year Bk. (1964).