David Newman
Views on the Borderline

From Canonicals to Sushi: The United Synagogue at 150

The outside of the Egerton Road Synagogue, now the Bobov hasidic Bet hamedrash in Stamford Hill
The outside of the Egerton Road Synagogue, now the Bobov hasidic Bet hamedrash in Stamford Hill

One of the oldest and most venerable of Anglo Jewry’s institutions, the United Synagogue, commenced its year long celebrations of its 150th anniversary, with its own version of the Siyum Hashas (completion of the entire Talmud) in London last week.  With 64 congregations, comprising 40,000 members, it is the largest synagogue body in Europe. The US  has come  along way from its beginnings  in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and the amalgamation of the first synagogues, none of which remain in situ today given the onward and upward mobility of the British Jewish community – from the East End initially to North and Central London, through North West London, South London and Ilford,  and more recently to outlying commuter suburbs such as Hadley Wood, Boreham Wood where the strongest growth is taking place amongst young families.

Contrast the nature of the year long events with those which took place fifty years ago at the time of the Centenary celebrations, and the social and religious change within the organization is clear to see. At the time, the Anglo Jewish community in general, and the United Synagogue in particular, had just come through what – even today – is seen as the largest crisis facing the modern orthodox community in what was (and is still) known as the Jacobs Affair, and was facing a crisis in declining communities, many of which were still bogged down in old English traditions and customs and which clearly did not appeal to the younger families of the time.

Ruled over by Sir Isaac Wolfson, without whom the US could have gone bankrupt, the US was a tightly controlled institution, reminiscent of many older Anglo institutions which, in many ways, was out of touch with the changing social and economic characteristics of the post War baby boom society.

The Rabbinate of the time still wore clerical canonicals (robes), a few still wore dogs collars copied from the Protestant clergy, and the services were long formal affairs, often lasting up to three hours on a Shabbat morning, Cantors and choirs, with little informal participation on the part of the congregation itself. Children were hushed (to be seen and not heard), the Wardens wore top hats and waist coats and abided by a strict code of laws and regulations, most of which had been drawn up almost a hundred years previously.

Women had almost no role to play apart from the Ladies Guild (usually ruled over by the Rabbi’s wife) whose task was to prepare the minimal Shabbat kiddush, decorate the Sukkah and the synagogue on Shavuot,  and prepare the annual jumble sale which was open to the wider community. Looking at the archives even further back (in the 1920’s and 1930’s), attempts to have women given voting rights in their communities was meant with strong opposition, and the then President of the US, Sir Robert Waley Cohen, threatened to resign if the proposal was accepted.

Fifty years on and the US is thriving, even as old synagogues left behind have shut down, only to be replaced with new, younger, communities which have sprouted forth in the outlying suburbs. The fact that two of the communities, Kinloss (Finchley) and Barnet (together with Hadley Wood) finished the seven year cycle of the Shas, is something which could not have been thought of fifty years ago, while the alternative range of Shabbat morning services, from the more formal (although nothing as formal as in the past), to young families, teenagers and alternative learning and study events, is something which is evidence of a vibrant and dynamic community which feels far less shackled by the Anglo customs of the past.

Today, as to be expected, women serve as members, and chairpersons, of their synagogue management committees, and occupy prominent positions in all United Synagogue committees, with the exception of the Rabbinate itself.

The United Synagogue is also the home of the London Beth Din, one of four orthodox Batei Din (Rabbinical Courts) in the London area, and also funds the office of the Chief Rabbi. The office of the Chief Rabbi has only had seven incumbents since its institution in 1844. The present Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is the first of these incumbents to have been educated in Israel, while his two predecessors, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, were both elevated to membership in the House of Lords and were seen as  constituting major moral voices on issues of the day.

And although the British Chief Rabbi does not really represent either the Reform, Liberal and Masorti communities on one side of the religious spectrum, or the rapidly growing ultra-orthodox Haredi communities at the other end, it is to the Chief Rabbi’s office that a Prime Minister or a television agency (not least the BBC) will first turn for any response to matters relating to the Jewish community.

The nature of the United Synagogue Rabbinate has also undergone change during this period. Todays young community Rabbis are not necessarily the Yeshiva scholars to be found in the more orthodox organisations such as the Adath Yisroel or the Federation of Synagogues (there is no shortage of synagogue organisations in the UK), but they come armed with the additional skills and professions  as qualified  social workers, family counsellors, and youth professionals. Almost all communities have regular Friday night dinners for professionals and the unaffiliated singles, maintaining an allegiance amongst those who would perhaps have been lost to the community at a future point, and for whom Shabbat morning services or Talmud sessions are not what they are seeking.

They also have a vibrant youth movement known as Tribe, which competes strongly with other religious youth movements such as Bnei Akiva, holding weekly events, summer camps and trips to Israel – all of which are well attended.

The inside of an old cathedral style synagogue, Dalston, destroyed in 1970

Working on the United Synagogue archives, I recently came across two boxes of material relating to the centenary celebrations which took place in 1970. One of these contained some forty original black and white photos of the events which took place at the time, a guard of honour for the visit of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to a formal reception at the Dorchester Hotel, a long procession of top hatted and waistcoated honorary officers of the United Synagogue for a special celebratory service, along with a book of long academic papers outlining the history of the organization.

I recall one Shabbat morning when my father, who was the Rabbi of the long since deceased Dalston Synagogue, and who lived in the apartment on top of the synagogue, coming down to Shabbat morning services two minutes before they were due to start. No one had yet arrived, with the exception of the Synagogue chairman, adorned in his top hat, waist coat and tails and demonstratively looking at his ornate silver pocket watch, having arrived on the early train from his new residence, berating my father for not having adhered to the constitution of the United Synagogue and being present, adorned in full clerical canonicals, ten minutes before the start of the services.

Officiating in the Canonicals – gowns and dogs collars

The contrast could not have been greater when, some five years ago, at the induction of Chief Rabbi Mirvis at the beautiful St. Johns Wood Synagogue, both Rabbi Mirvis and Sacks wore simple kippot to their heads (they did wear clerical gowns) while not one of the officiants or wardens wore anything but simple lounge suits and kippot. One (Sacks) mentioned the Beatles in his outgoing address, while the other (Mirvis) mentioned North London football rivalries in his induction address. Such humour would not have been acceptable to the clergy at the previous celebrations fifty years ago.

Change is also reflected in gastronomical preferences. Fifty years ago, a cake and a cup of tea were the norm for a Shabbat morning kiddush, with the occasional cracker and chopped herring thrown in on special occasions. Today, the inter community competition for best Kiddush of the year is in full swing – and any synagogue without a fully fledged cholent, the obligatory platter of fruit and vegetables (for the health conscious yuppy generation), the best smoked salmon and, increasingly, plates of sushi (also reflecting generational change and upward social mobility), is unheard of.

The old photos threw up an amazing personal discovery. At the reception attended by the Queen, each of the Jewish and Zionist youth movements of the time were requested to send four young representatives to make up a guard of honor for the royal visitors. And there, in the line is a little (dare I say sweet) David Newman, wearing the white shirt and blue neckchief of the Bnei Akiva youth organization, speaking to the Duke of Edinburgh – no doubt trying to convince him of the ideology of Torah v’Avodah and the importance of going to live in Israel!!!

The United Synagogue  also has an important architectural heritage, although the most beautiful “cathedral” synagogues which were built at the end of the nineteenth century, such as Dalston, North London (Lofting Road), Shacklewell lane, the Great Synagogue, and others (too numerous to mention) are no longer. Some have been destroyed altogether, while many have been transformed into places of worship for other religious faiths, be they Mosques (Shacklewell Lane, Brondesbury) or Churches (Hackney). Only two of the former architectural gems remain, the New West End in the centre of town right next to Hyde park, still functions as a synagogue, while the New Synagogue (in Egerton Road) has  been transformed into a beautiful bet hamedrash by the Bobov hasidic community in the heart of Haredi London in Stamford Hill – the original windows and the marble plaques with the Prayer for the Royal family still intact.

The newer synagogues are nowhere near as grand or ornate, but are functional buildings containing community halls and other facilities enabling a more diverse range of activities than simply the holding of services.

Possibly the single most important heritage features today is the amazing collection of David Hillman stain glass windows, which adorn no fewer than seven of the synagogues. Over 100 are to be found in St Johns Wood alone, while others are spread around, with some of them having been relocated from their original synagogues which have now shut down (such as Bayswater, Cricklewood or New Cross) to new synagogues which have taken advantage of this beautiful and unique decoration (such as Boreham Wood, Woodside Park and Kenton). Hillman himself was the son of the former head of the London Beth Din in the early part of the twentieth century, while his sister was married to Rabbi Dr. Isaac Halevi Herzog, the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel (and father of president Haim Herzog). A move is presently being made to have all such windows placed on the heritage list of protected buildings so that these unique collections of windows cannot be moved or broken up in the future – unless they are transferred as a complete group to new synagogues, in either the UK or Israel.

The United Synagogue is also the owner of a number of cemeteries, old and new, scattered throughout the Greater London area, their respective locations reflecting the movement of the Jewish community during the past 150 years. The most impressive of these is the Willesden cemetery, where many of the past Rabbis and Chief Rabbis, along with other Jewish notables such as the Rothschild family, are buried, and which has recently been awarded heritage funding for its continued upkeep and for turning it into a visitor centre where people can come and learn about Anglo Jewish history.

The Cemetery also includes a room where many tens of Torah Scrolls are stored, some of them no longer usable and others to be passed around the synagogues for such occasions (such as the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur periods) when extra scrolls are required for additional services.

Despite a number of attempts on the part of this writer to transfer some of the unused Torah scrolls to new young communities in Israel lacking any of their own, and thus creating living links between UK and Israeli communities,  the US has argued that it needs all of them for its own internal use, even if they are not being used for 50 weeks of any given year. Changing their policy on this to commemorate the 150th Anniversary would surely be another appropriate form of celebration. It would also strengthen the links between UK and Israeli communities, in accordance with  the strong pro-Israel and pro-Zionist sentiments of both its religious and lay leadership.

Come what may, the United Synagogue enters its 150th year in a strong position, religiously, socially and financially. Many of its communities have a vibrancy which I do not recall when growing up in inner city London of the 1960s and early 1970s. Long may it continue to serve the wider Anglo Jewish community, creating the next generations of committed adults and families (at least those who decide to remain in the UK rather than come and live in Israel) in one of the Diaspora’s most important Jewish communities.

About the Author
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. BIO: David Newman holds the Chair of Geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University, where he founded the Department of Politics and Government, and the Centre for the Study of European Politics and Society (CSEPS) , and served as Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences from 2010-2016. Professor Newman received the OBE in 2013 for his work in promoting scientific cooperation between Israel and the UK. From 1999-2014 he was chief editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. David Newman moved to Israel from the UK in 1982. In 2017 he was selected as one of the 100 most influential immigrants to Israel from the UK. His work in Geopolitics focuses on the changing functions and roles of borders, and territorial and border issues in Israel / Palestine. For many years Newman was involved in Track II dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians.He has additional research interests in Anglo Jewish history, and is a self declared farbrent Tottenham Yid.
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