the former

Sunderland Jewish Community

Sunderland, Tyne & Wear





From Kretinga to Sunderland


Chapter 5

The struggle for recognition and independence


This chapter concerns the conflicts and disharmony which arose between the establishment and the newcomers, or, more graphically, since it underlines the respective attitudes of the protagonists, Der Englishe Chayers and Der Greeners. The period involved is between 1890 and 1904.  The underlying differences extend before and after those dates, but the events described are limited to those years.  The items in dispute are Shechita as hereafter described; the struggle to form a new synagogue with its own Rabbi and officials, and to obtain full recognition from the Chief Rabbi; and the right for their Synagogue and Rabbi to perform marriage ceremonies.

The background and history of the newcomers, which inevitably affected their actions, reactions and attitude is described, the better to understand the shaping of events.

The Litvaks, who came from small communities in Lithuania, were not accustomed to regulatory control, whether by the Chief Rabbi or others. They conducted their religious practises according to ritual law and set great store by their traditional ways. They were individuals who habitually expressed their opinions freely.89. They were closely bound by language, culture and family connections. They had all suffered to some degree for their faith, and were in poor financial circumstances compared to the settled and relatively prosperous Israelite congregation - better known as the ‘Sunderland Hebrew Congregation.’ Above all their traditional orthodox ways were not compatible with the form of worship of that Congregation at Moor Street, Sunderland, where they both worshipped.90.

One of the earliest internal groups of the Litvaks was the Chevra Thillim, a society dedicated to the chanting of Psalms. Early on the second evening of the Jewish New Year in 1890, the Leader of that group, one Bere Nosen Franks, without prior permission, mounted the Bimme, or elevated platform, from which the Law was read, and started reciting the Psalms in Hebrew, word by word, line by line, receiving a fervent vocal response from other Thillim members. This was their custom, which was certainly not shared by the older congregation.

The scandalised Senior Warden ordered Mr. Franks to cease at once. This was greatly resented by many members. One of them, Wolfe Jacobson, invited the members of this group to his home, not only for Thillim, but if they so wished, to hold regular services.  The permission of the senior group of Litvaks, the Chevra Gemara, (the society for the study of the Talmud) having been obtained, they commenced independent worship under the title of the Chevra Torah, (or society for the study of the Law).91.

Eventually the fledgling congregation moved to Zion Street and later in 1895 to Villiers Street North, in Sunderland.  Following an appeal for funds in 189792. the newly built Beth Hamedrash, (House of Worship or Prayer) by which the Litvak Congregation was henceforth to be known, was opened in Villiers Street South on November 26th 1899. According to the Second Minutes of the Congregation dated 28th July 1899 (the early Minutes of the Chevra Torah being unavailable) the sum of £1,078 8s 7d was spent on the Beth Hamedrash (House of Prayer), Cheder (teaching classes) and Mikvah (Ritual Bath House).93. There was seating for 200 men and 70 women as well as a purpose-built Mikvah and Cheder. The early Presidents were Charles Cohen (Reb. Chatze) and Charles Gillis. The latter’s son, David Gillis, proved to be a wholly exceptional secretary, as will appear in the description of the involved, complex and occasionally acerbic correspondence with the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation and the Office of the Chief Rabbi

In less than two years the Villiers Street Premises proved to be inadequate. On 2nd October 1901 a General Meeting was held in the Villiers Street Synagogue to consider purchasing new premises for the Talmud Torah. Charles Cohen, the Chairman presided and spoke of the need for new premises. A sub-committee was appointed to raise funds - donations for £60 were promised, and an appeal for more was authorised.94. In July 1903 the new building was opened by Councillor Richardson, a respected member of the congregation, in Meaburn Street, Sunderland.95.

At the Annual General Meeting of the Beth Hamedrash held on 10th January 1904, a resolution was passed to place the Beth Hamedrash under the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbi.96. This was to prove far more difficult to achieve than anticipated.

Problems concerning Shechitah97. and authorized Shochet98.

As early as 26th October 1901, the Minutes of a Special trustee meeting recorded that as Rabbi Bloch had accepted a post in Birmingham, the Trustees had met to consider a union with the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation of Moor Street. The main purpose was to unite with the latter in sending their Shochet, Mr. Kaplan to London to receive the sanction of the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Adler. This was agreed unanimously and three delegates were appointed to meet the Council of the Moor Street Synagogue.

On 4th November 1901 a letter from their Secretary, Mr. Lionel Wolfe, was read to the next meeting of the Beth Hamedrash Council, agreeing to all points providing the Beth Hamedrash would abide fully by Dr. Adler’s decision. In the Minutes of 2nd February 1902 it was reported that Dr. Adler had written advising Mr. Kaplan to proceed to London so that his suitability as a Shochet could be examined. Since the Beth Hamedrash did not at that time formally recognise or was formally recognised by the Chief Rabbi, all correspondence with him was conducted through the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation, acting as intermediaries. According to their Minutes dated 9th February 1902, the following letter was sent to the latter body:-

'It was unanimously decided by the Trustees and Committee to beg of you to consent to our sending Mr Kaplan (our Shochet) to London to be examined by Dr. Adler on his competence as a Shochet. In view of your intimation that Dr. Adler would receive Mr. Kaplan, we would abide by Dr. Adler’s decision to the hilt if this would lead to a Union of Shechitah.'

The reply was both unexpected and unwelcome:99.

'I beg to inform you that my Council will assent to his (Mr. Kaplan) receiving the authorisation of the Chief Rabbi on the following terms, viz., that your Committee agree on behalf of your members to leave the appointment of all butchers in the hands of the Congregation, your committee undertaking not to appoint any. The commission to be fixed and collected by the Congregation, who will pay over to your funds quarterly one-fifth of the income actually received from this source. Further Mr. Kaplan in regards to Shechitah to be under the authority of the Congregation, who will fix his duties in accordance therewith. I shall be glad to hear of your Committee’s consent to these conditions, so that an agreement embodying them may be drawn up, and upon its signature, intimation of consent will be sent to the Chief Rabbi.
                                                             Lionel  Wolfe.   Hon. Secretary.'

It was obvious that the Beth Hamedrash neither could nor would agree to their Shochet being under the supervision of any other body, and regarded that letter not only as being wholly unacceptable but patronising and insulting in the extreme. This was made very clear in a reply which was drafted at that very meeting of the 2nd March 1902, and dispatched on the 4th March, the lucidity and clarity of which illustrates the quality of David Gillis, their Secretary:-

'I am instructed to inform you that we are of the opinion that you do not comprehend our motive in approaching you in this matter, and we again wish to put it clearly before you that our sole aim and objective in these negotiations are to establish peace and harmony in our midst, and as you are aware that the Shechitah question is the main obstacle to this desirable change, we are agreeable to remove same. But your reply and conditions seem to imply that we are in a helpless plight and appealing to you to extricate us from same. If these are the facts, then I am instructed to refute same, and to inform you that our Beth Hamedrash has never been, as it is now, in so good a position, both in finance and unity, and we have unanimously decided that we are agreeable to establish one Shechitah on the condition that a Board of Shechitah shall be formed which shall consist of five representatives from your Congregation and two from ours; and this Board have full control of all matters relating to Shechitah, and the Beth Hamedrash to receive one fourth of the income from Shechitah.
D. Gillis.   Hon. Secretary.'

The income referred to was a Shechitah charge to be imposed on the whole community on each purchase of meat, lamb and mutton and permitted fowls, usually intended to cover the cost of the wages of the Shochet, plus administrative costs, plus a small profit.  The reply from the Congregation100. was more emollient in tone, at least in part. Part of the reply (printed in the writer’s italics below) was not so moderate in tone, or as acceptable.

'I am directed to say that they (the Council) are disposed to give the scheme of a Board of Shechitah as suggested… a trial, providing satisfactory details can be arranged, and for this purpose they have appointed a sub-committee of four to meet two representatives of yours to draw up a constitution and rules. I should therefore feel obliged if you would furnish me with the names of your representatives so that a conference can be arranged I am further directed to say that, as this scheme is in the nature of an experiment, my Council would like an assurance from your Committee that in the event of the Board not working satisfactorily, and being dissolved, they will leave the appointment and control of all butchers in the hands of the Congregation, who will pay you the proportion of commission now agreed upon.
Lionel Wolfe, Hon. Secretary.'

The two delegates, Charles Gillis and Herman Cohen, President and Past-President, were duly appointed, the trustees and committee of the Beth Hamedrash feeling that their wishes had been met, apart from ‘the assurance’ sought, and at the next meeting,101. the two delegates reported that ‘if the Congregation agreed to the points and rules drawn up, it would be found very satisfactory.’ No mention was made of the ‘the assurance’, which it may be assumed was either shelved or tacitly disregarded.

At this time the growing understanding between the two congregations was shattered by what was to become known as ‘the Mikvah Libel.’ At the next trustee and committee meeting of the Beth Hamedrash,102.  held on 6th April 1902 it was reported that ‘the Congregation had issued a report and balance sheet which contained a serious libel against our Mikvah.’ (i.e. ritual bath house). The libel was that the Mikvah was unsanitary, draughty, and dangerous to health.103. Accordingly, the Secretary was instructed to write to the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation in strong terms. The letter dated 4th March 1902 is set out below:-

'I am directed by the President and Council of our Beth Hamedrash to especially draw your attention to a very serious libel which has been printed and widely published with a report and balance sheet of your building fund by the Treasurer of your Congregation, and whereas this abusive libel has been published after you have built a Mikvah in opposition to ours, it is clear that the only motive for this defamatory libel is to cause us to suffer both morally and financially, and whereas there is no other Mikvah equal to ours which we have recently built with the approval of the Corporation and Sanitary Authorities, both to sanitation and convenience, and whereas we consider that we will suffer through this scandalous libel both morally and financially, we have decided to take steps to avert same. Therefore, I am directed to request of you to retract and remedy this libel to our satisfaction. The libel referred to is that the report states that our Mikvah is unsanitary, and that several wives of our members took ill through same, and that it is unfit for a human being to enter during the summer.  We require that you shall repudiate this unfounded charge as widely as you published it.
                                                                D. Gillis.   Hon. Secretary.'

At the next meeting of the Beth Hamedrash Committee,104. a letter was read from the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation to the effect that their Hon. Secretary had sent out a circular immediately the libel was published which stated that the report was published by A. Jackson (the Treasurer) without the consent or authority of their President, and disclaimed any responsibility on behalf of the Congregation for its publication. There was no apology given or indeed any actual intimation given to the recipients of the circular that the ‘libel’ was untrue.

Not surprisingly, the Beth Hamedrash Committee decided ‘that the reply was very unsatisfactory, and a letter should be sent stating same,’ and adding, ‘also to inform them that in regard to the Shechitah that it was intended to advertise for a second shochet if the Shechitah Board was not agreed to without delay.’ Their secretary, David Gillis, wrote to the Hebrew Congregation accordingly; his letter, which formed part of the Minutes, which were dated 28th April 1902 being drafted on the spot. He included in that letter the words ‘whereas we have not received any communication from you in regard to the Shechitah Board Scheme, we assume your Council cannot agree to same.’105.

At the next Meeting of the Beth Hamedrash Committee106. the Secretary read the eleven rules being ‘the Constitution and Regulations of the (proposed) Sunderland Board of Shechitah’, which had been drafted and submitted by the Hebrew Congregation. These were complex but it is unnecessary to detail them in this paper. Suffice it to say that after considerable discussion it was agreed to approve them. The Shochet, the Rev. Mr. Kaplan, was thereupon sent to London to be examined by and obtain the certificate of the Chief Rabbi.107. The 19th May 1902 Minutes record that Mr. Kaplan had written to his wife confirming he had obtained due authorisation by the Chief Rabbi, which was sent to the Hebrew Congregation as the intermediary body. In the meantime both synagogue bodies elected their members for the Shechita Board, as agreed four and two respectively.

The Beth Hamedrash, realising that Rev. Mr. Kaplan was not authorised as a Shochet to perform a marriage ceremony in a dual capacity as Shochet/Minister, decided at a Committee meeting108. to apply to the Chief Rabbi for ‘a Register Book for Conducting Marriages’ and for the appropriate certificate be given to Rev. Kaplan, enabling him to conduct Chuppa-Kedushin, the ceremony of Holy Marriage. The Chief Rabbi replied by letter dated 1st July 1902109. that this was not a simple matter; many important steps had to be taken; and for ‘many and weighty reasons’ he did not consider it advisable for marriages to be registered by the Beth Hamedrash and any marriage at that synagogue should be sent to the President of the Hebrew Congregation, who would grant every facility, you being a Chevra (in this context a subsidiary brotherhood) of the Congregation. At the Committee Meeting held on 5th July 1902 it was decided nothing further should be done concerning marriage registration until after the Shechitah question was settled.

In the event, at the next Committee meeting110. they decided not to sign the Shechitah Rules and Regulations. The Secretary informed the Congregation that whilst they, the Beth Hamedrash, were satisfied with and agreed the terms of the Rules and Regulations, they understood the reason they were asked to sign the agreement was in the event of some future dispute concerning the terms, and they declined to sign the same, because:-

1)  This was contrary to the usual arrangements between two congregations.

2)  The only possible reason for the Congregation to seek their signatures, was that they believed in advance of signature the agreement would not prove satisfactory, which was the more reason for the Beth Hamedrash not to sign.

3)  They believed it would be more productive if neither party was bound to it, because this would engender more will to make it work, and should one side be forced to obey the lines laid down by the other, then, legal agreement or not, the Board would soon in consequence be dissolved.

4)  There was never any promise or agreement during the negotiations to sign an agreement, and their insistence now showed a lack of confidence, particularly as the proposed scheme was experimental only, and with the stated aim of peace and harmony. They for their part would still make every effort to make the scheme a success for both congregations.

The reply was read at the next meeting.111. It was sharp and clear. If the Beth Hamedrash did not sign the Shechitah Agreement within seven days, ‘the Congregation would return Mr. Kaplan’s Kabala (ie. authorisation) to the Chief Rabbi, and the scheme would be to an end.’

The Beth Hamedrash indeed refused to sign the agreement. At one meeting112. the advisability of advertising for a second Shochet was discussed; soon after it was decided to write to the Chief Rabbi ‘to acquaint him with the position in regard to the Shechitah Board.’113. Being an ultra-orthodox congregation it is very possible that the underlying reason for the appointment of a second Shochet was not because of increasing numbers, but to ensure that their stricter rules regarding Shechita were fully implemented.114.

Appointment and recognition of new Rabbi

Rabbi Hirsh Hurwitz


At the Meeting on 20th August 1902, called expressly to consider whether ‘the Beth Hamedrash was in a position at present of electing a Rav,’ (Rabbi), it was unanimously agreed they were unable to do so ‘at the present time.’ Yet, surprisingly, at the very next Meeting,115. it was unanimously agreed that an advertisement be inserted in the Jewish Chronicle for a Rav and a salary offered of £2 per week. They received numerous applications for the post, and at a later Meeting,116. the Chairman reported that he had submitted the list of candidates to two eminent Rabbis in Lithuania and asked for their advice. They had both strongly recommended Rabbi H. Hurwitz of Casadora in Lithuania. Everybody agreed he was the most suitable candidate, and, the responsibility being great, it was decided to call a Public Meeting for everybody to give their opinion and to vote. This was a magnanimous gesture as a Public Meeting included not only their own members but those of the Hebrew Congregation.117.

The Public Meeting was held at The Beth Hamedrash on 30th November 1902, and it was unanimously resolved that Rabbi H. Hurwitz be invited as a candidate. Later that evening the Trustees and Committee unanimously agreed to invite Rabbi Hurwitz and to send him £5 for his expenses. £2 per week was a vast sum for the Beth Hamedrash to find at that time with their other commitments of maintaining the Building, a Talmud Torah (School) a Mikvah (ritual bath house) and a Shochet. Economic conditions were very poor, and the members of the Beth Hamedrash, mostly credit drapers, were not in a position, however willing, to keep up their seat rentals and membership dues.

The Minutes of that time consistently reported on membership arrears and every Sunday morning the Committee sat to meet members to discuss arrears and make settlements. The statement of David Gillis, in his letter of 4th March 1902, to the Hebrew Congregation that ‘we have never been in so good a position’ was not accurate. The Beth Hamedrash was not in a position to meet the Rav’s salary of £2 per week.118.

Rabbi Hurwitz’s appointment was, in these circumstances, a giant leap of faith. A further Public Meeting took place on 2nd February 1903. The Chairman, Mr. Herman119. Cohen, after saying how fortunate they were to attract a candidate of Rabbi Hurwitz’s calibre, asked the Secretary to read a statement that had been made at a different meeting earlier that day, namely ‘that the Zionist Committee are prepared to be the medium in order to augment the stipend of the Rav, providing his election is ratified by Dr. Adler, the Chief Rabbi.’ The Chairman reported that he had been present at such meeting and had made it quite clear that he would oppose the ratification by the Chief Rabbi if it meant the Beth Hamedrash had to forfeit the right of solemnising marriages or even if it meant it had to apply to the Congregation to perform a marriage ceremony. He asked the meeting to leave this matter in the hands of the Beth Hamedrash.

It was agreed the meeting be adjourned for a fortnight to enable negotiations to take place with the Congregation and to receive their moral support at the very least in the election of the Rav. The meeting further agreed that the ratification of the Chief Rabbi be sought both of the Beth Hamedrash as a separate body and of Rabbi Hurwitz as its Rav to enable him to solemnise marriages. As regards Shechita, the Beth Hamedrash was prepared to sign the agreement for the trial period of one year. All, however, was subject to the Beth Hamedrash not forfeiting any of its rights.

Accordingly, the Secretary David Gillis on the 3rd February 1903 wrote a carefully worded letter to the Congregation, pointing out the importance to the whole community of filling the post of Rav; that the election had been sanctioned unanimously at a Public Meeting open to the whole community; and respectfully in the interests of that whole community and of ‘harmony, tranquillity and moral welfare’ asked for their co-operation or at least their moral support. This would strengthen peace and goodwill between the two separate congregations. He stressed that the Beth Hamedrash fully recognised the authority and jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbi.120.

At the next meeting,121. the following brief reply from the Congregation was read:-

‘Re your letter of the 3rd inst., which was considered at this afternoon’s Council meeting, the following resolution was carried, viz., ‘that this Council are not prepared to co­operate in the election of a Rav.'
                                           (Signed) D.R. Morris, Secretary.’

It was realised further negotiations were not possible and at an adjourned Public Meeting,122. Rabbi Hurwitz was unanimously elected the Rav of the Beth Hamedrash. His dynamic personality and progressive leadership immediately gained status and credibility for the Beth Hamedrash, although he and his congregation still lacked recognition by the Chief Rabbinate.123. At the next Committee Meeting,124. it was resolved ‘to devote all offerings on the morning of Simchat Torah (the forthcoming Festival of Rejoicing of the Giving of the Law) to the Zionist National Fund,’ doubtless in thanks for their financial backing. The next Minutes125. record that a letter had been received from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who in response to a request for a register book for marriages asked for a Certificate from the Chief Rabbi recognising the Beth Hamedrash as a Synagogue or Congregation. It was resolved to apply for the same.

On the same day the Secretary, David Gillis, wrote to the Chief Rabbi requesting such certificate, and his letter goes on to say:-

'…Our Congregation has now existed for the past 12 years and is continually increasing. We have at present 100 members of whom about 80 are registered members and I can furnish you with all the signatures and addresses to this application if necessary. Our Rav, Rabbi Hurwitz who has come to us with the highest recommendations from the most prominent Russian Rabbis will be pleased to work under your most valuable guidance. Our Chazan Shochet, (Reader/RitualSlaughterer) has Kabala (a Certificate of Authorization) from you and we have and support all the officials essential for a Congregation and as we wish to be in conformity with all other congregations and it is our desire not to have our marriages performed in the local Registrar’s Office previous to solemnising same in our Place of Worship, we again beg of you to accept us under your valuable jurisdiction which we can assure you will maintain the peace and  harmony existing in the Sunderland Hebrew Community.'126.

At the Meeting held on 24th October 1903, no reply having been received from the Chief Rabbi, the Secretary was requested to write again. In that letter of the same date he urgently appealed to the Chief Rabbi to grant the Certificate of Recognition as soon as possible, pointing out that otherwise ‘we are reluctantly compelled to take other steps to obtain a Register for Marriages as we do not wish to continue to have our Marriages performed in the Registrar’s Office’ prior to their own Marriage Service. Reminding the Chief Rabbi that ‘we are large and increasing in comparison with other Congregations who have obtained this privilege’, he again requested a favourable reply.

At a later Meeting,127. a letter dated128. 29th October 1903 was read from the Chief Rabbi, refusing the application because firstly the Congregation had never refused to solemnise ‘our’ marriages without a fee and secondly that more than one Secretary was unnecessary for the Sunderland Hebrew marriages, and that he considered a Beth Hamedrash a laudable Institution, but that to solemnise marriages therein was unnecessary. In effect Dr. Adler was again treating the Beth Hamedrash as a mere adjunct to the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation.

As regards the first reason given for rejection, David Gillis wrote as follows:-

'…We beg to state we have not performed our marriages in the office of the Sup. Registrar on account of the Congregation not performing same without a fee, as how could it possibly be expected that a person who is a member of an established Congregation should apply to another Congregation which is not in his opinion in many respects equal to the one which he belongs to grant him their Place of Worship which he does not attend and be compelled to accept the services of their officials and ignore the officials of his own Congregation of which he is a member and supports all we also wish to bring to your notice that our Beth Hamedrash was not only built for the study of our Holy Law but also as a Place of Worship for which it is legally registered as such, and it is much better attended than any other Place of Worship in our Town.'

(Apparently the Hon. Secretary’s high state of indignation had led him, atypically, to forsake his usual calm approach for an emotional outburst, quite contrary to his usual style.) He goes on to say:-

'Not only have we all the necessary officials essential for a Congregation but we also have a Mikvah of our own and we have a Talmud Torah which is attended by over 100 children and 4 competent men teaching in same. Therefore how could it be assumed that a person who belongs to this Congregation should consider his Congregation of less importance than the other Congregation that he should apply to them for facilities for his marriage ceremony.'

With regards to the Chief Rabbi’s second reason for refusal, he went on to say that if Dr. Adler considered one Secretary was sufficient for registration of Hebrew Marriages then the Beth Hamedrash would agree ‘ providing the present Secretary be instructed to attend our marriages performed by our officials at the request of our President for the time being.’ He added pertinently:-

'…We do not understand your objection to marriages being performed in our Place of Worship as the large proportion of the Moor Street Congregation marriages are performed in private houses or in public halls. I am also directed to inform you that our members have unanimously decided that in the event of our not being successful which we do not think likely we will continue to have our marriages performed as formerly. In anticipation of a favourable reply.'129.

It appears that there was opposition from the Council of the Hebrew Congregation to the Chief Rabbi granting a separate Register Book for Marriages because the 30th November 1903 Minutes of the Beth Hamedrash report that their sub-committee dealing with the application, had met their counterparts from the Hebrew Congregation, who to ‘their utmost satisfaction’ had agreed unanimously to recommend to their Council to ‘remove all objections and opposition to’ such application. Finally130. a letter from the Chief Rabbi was read stating that before a Certificate could be granted the following four resolutions would need to be adopted by all the Members of the Beth Hamedrash:-

1)  All forms of Worship and religious services and religious administration shall be under the control of the Chief Rabbi.

2)  No person should be appointed preacher or reader, nor any person conduct religious services or preach without the sanction and permission of the Chief Rabbi.

3)  No marriage should be solemnised at or in connection with the Synagogue without the sanction of the Chief Rabbi.

4)  No person shall solemnise any marriage at or in connection with this Synagogue without the permission of the Chief Rabbi.

The Chief Rabbi was obviously determined to uphold the jurisdiction and authority of his Office.

The resolutions were agreed unanimously and the Chief Rabbi so informed, on the understanding that Rabbi Hurwitz, a man of standing, be afforded ‘All such rights and powers which are necessary to uphold his office with the honour and reverence due to his position’. They added, ‘he will be pleased to work under your valuable guidance’.

Eventually the Chief Rabbi’s Certificate dated 14th January was forwarded to the Secretary of the Board of Deputies. It stated,

‘I hereby beg to testify that the worshippers of the Villiers Street Synagogue and Beth Hamedrash, Villiers Street, Sunderland, constitute a Jewish Synagogue. I remain, Yours very truly,’

This was reported at the trustee and committee meeting of the 17th January 1904, where a letter from the Chief Rabbi granting a certificate enabling the Beth Hamedrash to obtain the services of a Marriage Secretary was read, and where, in obvious gratitude for the ending of the long saga concerning recognition, ‘it was unanimously resolved to subscribe £3.3s.Od per annum to the Chief Rabbi’s fund of the United Synagogue’. Shortly afterwards the formality of Rabbi Hurwitz’s recognition was concluded.131.

In February 1904, Rabbi Hurwitz informed the Committee that he considered it essential to have Shechita matters under his authority, which was lacking under existing arrangements. Eventually, after agreeing a delay recommended by Mr. Simon Olswang, who was on the committee of both synagogues,132. and in the hope of a less hostile committee of the Hebrew Congregation being elected, a letter was sent to that Congregation on 29th January 1905. It stated that the Beth Hamedrash wished to appoint a second butcher to attend to their kosher meat requirements, and, on Rabbi Hurwitz’s advice, before taking further action they sought their co-operation in forming a Board of Shechita (obviously with members from both congregations) which would be to their mutual benefit. At the next committee meeting133. the reply from the Congregation was read:-

…‘I am instructed to inform you that at a Council Meeting held this day, your letter re forming a Board of Shechita was discussed and it was decided by Resolution’ that it is inopportune at present to entertain your wishes.’ I am,
                                                  Yours faithfully,   W.R. Morris, Secretary.

It is a sad commentary on the relationship between the two congregations, and the attitude of the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation in particular, that the negotiations concerning a Shechita Board, begun in 1902, were not finalised until February 1935.134. On the other hand, surprisingly, on Dr. Davis’s authority as a past Officer of the Beth Hamedrash, - and he is quite definite about this,- despite the foregoing mentioned struggle to obtain the then Chief Rabbi’s recognition, in recent years, the Synagogue did not accept the Chief Rabbi’s formal authority. He recalls about 1992, Chief Rabbi Jacobowitz requesting that the Synagogue did accept his authority formally, and this was declined by the Council, who, he states, did so because they valued their independence.135. To complete the congregation’s early struggles for recognition, after some misunderstanding concerning the separate recognition given by the Chief Rabbi, on 1st November 1904, consent was given by the Board of Deputies to the congregation electing and sending a Deputy to its meetings.

The times were difficult for the Beth Hamedrash in the following years. There is a gap in the Minutes from September 1911 to June 1922 and, as Levy indicates,136. during that gap period the Jewish Chronicle is the only source of information. Economic conditions in the country and especially locally were poor.  The Minutes of meetings up to 1911 constantly refer to discussions concerning financial shortfalls in seat rents and of membership fees of the Talmud Torah, and of a significant reduction of donations. Many of the congregants were credit drapers, as already mentioned, and they were directly affected by their customers’ pressing economic difficulties.

When Rabbi Hurwitz accepted a ‘call’ to Leeds, a larger community, in 1911,137. this was a great blow to his congregation, but in another sense it was fortunate because the Beth Hamedrash was hard pressed to pay his salary at that time. Fortunately Rev. Mr. Warrentz, the chazzan (Cantor)-shochet–Mohel (qualified to circumcise male children) was also a fully certified Rabbi, and performed all those duties until 13thSeptember 1913, when according to the Jewish Chronicle,138. Rabbi Rabbinowitz (from London) was appointed as the new Rabbi. Because the existing premises at Villiers Street were too small for the needs of the Beth Hamedrash, at the Annual General Meeting held in November 1916, it was decided to ‘purchase the adjoining land for the purpose of building a new Beth Hamedrash.139.

At the Annual General Meeting on 6th July 1919 it was decided to proceed immediately to erect the premises ‘on the ground recently purchased.140. A meeting to augment funds for the ‘erection of a new place of worship’ was duly reported on 17th October 1919 and a foundation stone was duly laid’.141. A Minute of the Hebrew Congregation refers to an invitation to the opening of the New Beth Hamedrash.142. The cost of the Building was an estimated £5,000.143.

The 1926 coal strike caused great hardship to the north-east coast and especially to Sunderland.  Many of the Beth Hamedrash members were credit drapers, who as already mentioned were among the first to suffer at a time of economic downturn. To tide them over a difficult period a fund of up to £1000 was arranged with Lloyd’s Bank Sunderland; strict rules of repayment were imposed; no loan could be less than £25 or more than £100; and the fund, known as the Emergency Loan Fund, was only open to Beth Hamedrash members or their wives. Levy reported that he was informed by one of the administrators or one of the trustees of the fund that no loan was outstanding when the fund closed in 1928.144.

By 1933 the neighbourhood of Villiers Street and Meaburn Street where the Talmud Torah was situated had greatly deteriorated and it became necessary to the south west of the town, where most of the members of the Beth Hamedrash now resided. Elias Cohen, son of Reb Chatze, together with two of his sons, Julius and Sebag Cohen, very generously purchased from the estate of the late Sir William Allen M.P. a most desirable residence and grounds at the corner of Mowbray Road and The Oaks in the south-west part of Sunderland. The new Talmud Torah building was opened officially on 23rd July 1933, and named Beth Yecheskel Hacohen (the House of Reb Chatze Cohen), in honour of that distinguished and much loved Hebrew scholar.

A new building was erected in the grounds, adjacent to the Talmud Torah and the new Mikvah. It was consecrated on 6th February 1938. Next day The Sunderland Echo published ‘a photograph’ and ‘about nine and a half column inches, describing the opening’ in great detail, and mentioning that the Mayor was present at the commemoration dinner that followed the opening.145. This was to be the new spiritual home of the orthodox Kretingan migrants and their descendants for over 50 years, for as long as they could   provide a viable number of congregants to sustain their House of Prayer.


Footnotes    (returns to main text)

  1. Levy, History, p.159.

  2. Eds. Geoffrey M. Milburn and Stuart T. Miller Sunderland, River, Town and People, p.109.

  3. Levy, History, p.160.

  4. Ibid., p.164.

  5. Levy, Ibid. The Minutes of 18th December 1899 refers to Donations of Chandeliers, ritual covers, etc., the value of which, presumably, were taken into account.

  6. Jewish Chronicle, 11th October 1901.

  7. Jewish Chronicle, 7th July 1903.

  8. Jewish Chronicle, 15th January 1904.

  9. Ritual Slaughter.

  10. Official authorised and certified to effect the ritual slaughter.

  11. Minutes of Committee of Beth Hamedrash dated 2nd March 1902.

  12. Hebrew Congregation Minutes dated 16th March 1902.

  13. Minutes of 30th March 1902.

  14. Levy, History, p.171.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Minutes of 28th April 1902.

  17. Levy, History, p.172.

  18. Minutes of 7th May 1902 (Levy, ibid., p.174).

  19. Levy, idem.

  20. Minutes of 22nd June 1902 (Levy, ibid., p.175).

  21. Levy, ibid., p.176.

  22. Minutes of 25th July 1902 (Levy, ibid., p.177).

  23. 25th July 1902 (Levy, idem).

  24. 28th July 1902 (Levy, idem).

  25. 10th August 1902 (Levy, idem). In effect they were asking him to mediate on an unjust situation. The Chief Rabbi in fact had heavily supported the establishment, treating the Beth Hamedrash as a mere adjunct to the Congregation.

  26. In Gateshead today, for example, a very orthodox community, their standards are Glatt Kosher (Ultra strict interpretation of the Law) as opposed to the more usual Kosher standards of Newcastle, which community is orthodox, but not ultra-orthodox.

  27. Minutes of 6th September 1902 (Levy, History, p.178). This volte face appears to indicate that the arguments for the appointment of a Rav, essential for the future viability of the Congregation, had prevailed over the financial considerations. Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence about this change of attitude.

  28. Minutes of 16th November 1902 (Levy, ibid., p.178).

  29. There is no direct evidence as to why the whole community was invited. The possibilities are the wish to stress the importance to all of this major appointment; an attempt to thwart future opposition; a public relation exercise; or simply a gesture of goodwill to members of the Congregation; or a mixture of some or all of these factors.

  30. Levy, ibid., p.179.

  31. A respected leader of the Community, later robbed and murdered on 8th March 1909, as described in the Sunderland Echo, in an article dated 10th May 1989..

  32. Levy, History, p.182.

  33. Levy, idem, Meeting held on 8th February 1903.

  34. Levy, idem, Meeting held on 15th February 1903.

  35. Levy, idem.

  36. Levy, idem.

  37. Meeting held on 5th October 1903, Levy, idem.

  38. Levy, ibid., p.183.

  39. Meeting held on 1st November 1903.

  40. Levy, History, p.184.

  41. Levy, ibid., pp.184-5.

  42. Letter dated 5th January 1904, read at the Annual General Meeting 10th January 1904.

  43. This was of critical importance to the Beth Hamedrash. they could not be free of the Congregation and have true and full independence without the recognition, both of their synagogue and their Rabbi, by and with the authority of the Chief Rabbi.

  44. The group antagonism did not always apply to individuals. Simon Olswang of Kretingen descent could worship without difficulties at both synagogues (Levy, History, pp.214-5). As second and especially third generations of Kretingan descent became more anglicised, some of them would turn naturally to the English tradition of the Congregation.

  45. Levy, History, p.192. Letter dated 26th February 1904.

  46. Levy, ibid., p.213.

  47. The difference was that in 1904 the Chief Rabbi's consent was essential to obtain independence, but in 1992 independence had been long established and the wishes of the Chief Rabbi were no longer paramount.

  48. Levy, History, p.198.

  49. His son, Alter Hurwitz Q.C. became Recorder of Leeds. His grandson, Vivyan Hurwitz Q.C. became circuit Judge.

  50. Dated 13th September 1913.

  51. Jewish Chronicle, 14th November 1916.

  52. Ibid., 11th July 1919.

  53. Ibid., 27th February 1920.

  54. Date of Meeting 8th December 1920.

  55. Levy, History, p.200.

  56. Levy, ibid., p.204.

  57. Levy, ibid., pp.204-206.


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