the former

Sunderland Jewish Community

Sunderland, Tyne & Wear





From Kretinga to Sunderland


Chapter 4

Early problems of integration and recognition


Despite the ‘old guard’ fully accepting the responsibility of supporting the incoming brethren in their material and financial needs, and worshipping together as co-religionists their attitude towards them was ambivalent. Whilst the Board of Guardians and Benevolent Society were available to afford succour, if required, they were certainly not intending to compromise their customs and privileges for those of their unsophisticated but rigorously orthodox brethren from abroad. This chapter maps the course of the conflicts between them in many areas of communal life which basically balanced the entrenched and valued rights of the one against the aspirations and determination of the other. First, however, it is necessary to describe the background of the ‘establishment’, starting with their beginnings as a community after 1760.

Between 1760 and 1780 conditions in Poland for the native Jewish community were years of persecution, bloodshed, and increasing antisemitism. The Ukrainian Haidamacks, who were savage organised bands of serfs and malcontents, found the Jews easy targets for their attacks. Rapacious gentry seized control of local government, causing a lack of economic opportunities and a shortage of money. This caused an escalation of accusations of blood libel and witchcraft. No wonder this has been described as the ‘dark ages’ of Poland and Lithuania. Although many suffered, including the clergy and Polish noblemen, the Jews were the hardest hit. Synagogues, Jewish homes and businesses were looted.75. In addition, the Turks, posing as the saviours of Poland, murdered and plundered on every side.76.

Small wonder that many Polish Jews fled abroad, probably from Danzig, many to the north-east coast and Sunderland where they formed the Polishe Shool, the synagogue which was party to the Split of 1781. Apart from an earlier ‘split’ in Portsmouth, this was the earliest recorded division in Anglo-Jewry, according to Roth.77. The fact that the Polish congregants left to form their own congregation, after some time of joint worship with the existing Israelite Congregation, evidenced the growing number of Polish Jews.

Although there is no direct evidence of the reason for the ‘Split’, apart from the obvious wish to worship according to the customs and rituals of Poland, it is probable that the established members resented the ‘differences’ of the newcomers and were most zealous in preserving their privileges, whilst the later arrivals resented the entrenched views of the incumbents and the lack of opportunity to develop their own ethos. This was the same pattern as emerged in the conflict between the Litvaks and the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation in the 1870s.

The Polish community gradually declined in number. Lipman noted that in 1851, ‘Sunderland boasted two congregations’, the Polish and the Israelite.78. The census returns for 1851, showed that the Polish Congregation’s attendance in its Vine Street synagogue was only twelve worshippers on Sabbath mornings (only 34 of its 74 seats were let), whilst forty to sixty worshipped at the Israelite synagogue (according to its reader Mr. David Joseph who gave evidence to the census). We learn of the total disintegration of the Polish Congregation through an entry in the Hebrew Congregation’s Minutes dated 20th January 1862, ‘Letter was read from Mr. Collins for the amount of £7.7s.3d.for the two scrolls and other requisites belonging to the Vine Street Synagogue to be purchased by the Congregation for the use of the community at the new Synagogue’. Collins was obviously the congregant deputed or volunteering to carry out the negotiations.

The first Minute Book of the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation records the visit of the Chief Rabbi, The Very Rev. Dr. Nathan Adler, accompanied by his son Dr. Herman Adler, in 1862, to consecrate a new synagogue and the proceedings were reported at length in the local and Jewish press.79. They were met by the Honorary Officers in five carriages at Leamside Station, ‘and four horses and two postillions’ carried them to the Queen’s Head, the premier local hostelry. In an address of welcome, reference was made to a prayer that the ‘fruit’ of the Divine Blessing will be seen in the ‘future peace and concord of our Community’.80.

The question arises as to how the Congregation could afford this expense. If we are to believe Myers Marks, when speaking for the Polishe Shool, he pleaded poverty to the Board of Deputies in 1841, pleading that ‘times were bad’,81. and we know there was an increase in the Board of Guardian’s funds required ‘for the increase in the poor and needy’ in 1869,82. so this was money not easily found. It is probable that the Officers of the Congregation felt the occasion warranted this outlay, and pride demanded they greeted the Chief Rabbi to a welcome he would long remember, even if they were hard pressed to find the necessary monies.

As regards ‘future peace and concord,’ this pious hope was not to be realised. The Minutes reveal that great progress and proficiency had been made by the schoolchildren in their Hebrew studies under the tutelage of Rev. M. Woolf.83. The Minutes of the 28th March also reveal that Rev. Woolf was presented with an address and watch and especially thanked ‘for being a promoter of peace and goodwill in town. This could be taken at face value or could imply that peace and goodwill was not always present.  The Minutes of the 30th August 1863 refer to a disturbance in the Synagogue ‘on the morning of the 15th inst. Fined one shilling...’ There is no record of the nature of the disturbance and whether this was an individual offence or part of a wider discontent.

However, as reported in the Jewish Chronicle of 28th February 1868,84. the then Minister of the Congregation Rev. Isaac Hart, stated in a hard-hitting sermon:-

'It would appear that this community, in common with many other provincial communities, is cursed with that spirit of unrest which leads to dissension and quarrels, and which in too many instances has terminated in ruin and bankruptcy. (He then took as his text the words of King Joash to the priests: 2 Kings. Chap 12 Verse 5: 'Why repair ye not the breaches of the house?') In eloquent and touching words he pointed out to his hearers the errors into which they had fallen. In forcible and convincing language he forewarned them of the consequences of their folly, beseeching them, in terms of earnest entreaty, to make up their differences, to forgive and forget, to join band in hand in combined and determined effort to save the ruin-threatened structure’.

The article goes on to say the congregants were well pleased with the earnest efforts of the preacher, and exhorted them to follow his advice. Strong words indeed, but what acts or omissions caused them to be said?

There is nothing in the various Minutes of the Community to indicate any major disruption. The Minutes of the Israelite Congregation at this time, between April 1867 and February 1868, record the death of its President. Mr. Lotinga and a hotly fought election to find a successor. There are references to the Hebrew Classes being very short of funds, and other relatively minor matters of concern, but hardly sufficient to warrant such swingeing criticism. With the decline of the Polish community, presumably it was the newly arrived Litvaks who were the source of dissent and quarrelling. Whilst undoubtedly many had arrived in Sunderland by 1868 through Barnett Bernstein’s agency, we know the great mass of migrants would not arrive until 1881 - following the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Levy gives no explanation for Rev. Hart’s strictures, other than referring briefly to the article in the Jewish Chronicle.

The actual cause, therefore, remains a mystery, or, at best, a matter of speculation.  There may, however, be a clue contained in an unpublished article by a former Rabbi of the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation, Rabbi Bernard Susser, B.A., concerning the Rules and Regulations of the Adath Yeshuran, Sunderland 1823 (that being the original name of the Israelite Congregation).85. The Rabbi pointed out that there were three types of membership at that synagogue, not just in 1823 but throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, namely the Ballei Battim;86. the Tosharim;87. and the Orchim.88. The privileged Ballei Battim, jealously guarded those privileges and it was rare indeed that any of the other two types of worshipper were permitted to join their ranks.  The newcomers from Lithuania fell into the lower two categories.  In der heim, many of them had been figures of repute and standing and they bitterly resented being treated, as Levy put it in his History, ‘not as second class but as fourth class citizens.’ (History, p. 227)

Until they settled down in their new country and achieved relatively comfortable circumstances, - as indeed many of them did, - they remained working class or middle class Jews, painfully aware of their reduced circumstances and especially of their lack of precedence and honours in the most important place of all, the synagogue. Small wonder then that Rev. Hart could refer to discontent and lack of harmony, and that the newcomers would see their own separate synagogue as their foremost aim.

Rabbi Susser pointed out what he saw as the three main causes of discontent and the bitter fighting that broke out from time to time. Firstly, personal animosity engendered by trading rivalry; secondly, in the earliest days at least, the absence of a strong and unifying rabbinic authority; and, thirdly, following that absence, as they settled down and began to trust English Law and English Justice, a propensity to seek redress in English Courts for such matters as assault and slander.  This was despite the Rules and Regulations making it very clear any dispute must be referred only to the local Rabbinical Court and not to the English Court. Susser cites the Jewish Chronicle of 26th September 1856 as stating widely spread practices of recourse to the English Courts in the nineteenth century had become ‘an open scandal’.

Susser, however, fails to cite local examples of this practice other than one minor civil case. Other than that one insignificant incident, there appears to be no evidence of any such local litigation. Nevertheless, the sense of grievance grew and soon led to a strong movement for separation. The path to that end proved tortuous and difficult. This might well be the context for Rev. Hart’s pointed sermon.

The three reasons given as causes of discontent appear to be symptomatic rather than the actual causes of unrest. Basically the underlying cause was the conflict between the old order and the new, as illustrated by the three unequal types of membership referred to by Rabbi Susser.

Footnotes    (returns to main text)

  1. Marsha Greenbaum, The Jews of Lithuania, pp.66-68.

  2. Graetz, History of the Jews, Vol. V, p.388, cited by Levy History, p.35.

  3. As cited by Levy, History, p.36. He failed to mention Roth's work and page reference.

  4. V. D. Lipman, Idem, (as cited by Levy ibid., p.29).

  5. Sunderland Times, 10th May 1862 and Jewish Chronicle, 16th May 1862.

  6. Levy, History, p.58.

  7. Levy, ibid., p.40.

  8. Levy, ibid., p.81.

  9. It is possible that the increased proficiency might partly be due to the greater Hebrew knowledge of the children of the early Kretingan migrants sponsored by Barnett Bernstein, the children of that community usually attending Yeshivot until the age of 14 at least as did the writer's father at the turn of the century.

  10. Minutes of the 28th March 1863 and Vide Levy, History, p.64.

  11. Rabbi Susser, now deceased, was the Minister of the Hebrew Congregation when he wrote the Article in 1989 being a translation and explanation of the recently discovered Rules and Regulations of 1823. [Rabbi Susser's Article had now been published in Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society, Vol. 40 (2005), pp.7-73. Webmaster's note.] His papers are contained in the Tyne and Wear Archives at Newcastle, and appear to be ready for publication. His archives is described as "Notes, Drafts and Correspondence, Rabbi Bernard Susser 1946-1989 and Access reference is C. Su 74/2/6. [The Susser Archive is now part of JCR-UK - Webmaster's note.]

  12. That is to say, fully paid up members with full voting rights and eligibility for executive office.

  13. That is to say, seatholders with no voting rights who were rarely consulted on financial and administrative matters.

  14. That is to say, non-seatholders who might well have been settled in the town for years, but could not afford the then high seat rents which were as much as 30 shillings per year.


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