the former

Sunderland Jewish Community

Sunderland, Tyne & Wear






From Kretinga to Sunderland


Chapter 7

Achievement and Assessment


Rabbi Dr. Salis Daiches153. stated in 1914 that the Sunderland communal institutions included the following:

‘Hebrew Board of Guardians, Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Society, Hebrew Benefit Society, Chevra Kadishah (Holy Brotherhood - concerned with Jewish burial rites and consolation to the mourners), Hashnosath Orchim (Hospitality to Strangers), Chevra Tehillim (Society for the Study of the Psalms), Gemilloth Chassodim (Loan Society ), Ladies’ Guild, Jewish Social and Literary Club, Hebrew Literary and Debating Society, Jewish Women’s League, Hebrew Order of Druids, Zionist Association, and (the writer’s italics) the grandiloquently named Mount Pisgah Beacon of the Order of Ancient Maccabaeans.’

Inevitably there have been changes since 1914, as well as some duplication of activities. The obvious sources available for study are the Minutes deposited at Tyne and Wear Archives, mentioned in the Introduction to this paper, and Levy’s History. It is proposed to divide the various activities under the broad headings of standards of religious observance and Education and Literary and Social events. An attempt will be made to analyse the factors that made Sunderland Jewry different and exceptional.

The writer, by a coincidence described in the note below, has obtained copies of The Unit Magazine, from 1929 to Winter 1934. This magazine, published quarterly, was the organ of Northern Literary Societies including Manchester, Liverpool, Harrogate, Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland.  The magazines gave news of each Society as well as details of inter-city meetings. The ‘Announcements’ showed a high number of marriages and engagements, an obvious way for young  people to meet, and many marriages of  Sunderland members followed as a result. They also give a unique insight into the scope, frequency and quality of their social and literary activities during that period.

Literary and social activities in the thirties

The Unit Magazine of Spring 1933 reported the farewell given to Miss Dorrie Behrman (a well-known Kreingan surname), who had been an ardent worker from the time the Sunderland Jewish Literary Society had only thirty members until then when there were more than 130 members.

The March 1934 edition reported two Sunderland engagements, and one marriage, - to known Kretingan surnames mentioned in the Behr Tree, - Toby Brewer to a lady from Leeds, Arnold Brewer to a lady from Glasgow, as well as the marriage of Harold Olswang to Rhoda Davis.

The Winter 1934 edition reports the gaining of the degrees of M.P.S. to Miss Grace Marks, and the degree of B.Comm. to Miss Minnie Pearlman. Joseph Pearlman, her father, came to Sunderland at the turn of the century from Kretinga; was a leading member of the Beth Hamedrash; a Past President and Treasurer; and, in 1938, in recognition of his services to the Beth Hamedrash, would be honoured as one of the two openers of its new building (the other being Samuel Cohen). The Pearlman family were and are noted for the many Charitable gifts they made and make

We read of several lectures, numerous inter-city visits, the Society’s own concert party, the Annual Ball, the Lit. Ball and numerous dances. Chaim Pearlman, Joseph Pearlman’s youngest son, recalls there was always a virtual hundred per cent turn out for the social events, but no less numbers attended the serious talks and lectures.

Levy refers to ‘The Jewish Literary Circle’ being formed in 1911 with 30 members and rising to the 150 mark by 1936.154. This was the precursor of the Society. Both bodies (the same save as to name) encouraged ‘public speaking, dramatic presentation, concert work, essay writing………’.155.

Religious Observance and Education

The Kretingan migrants and many of their descendants had one principle from which they would never deviate, namely that their traditions of religious observance and religious education were sacrosanct. Their Minhag, or set custom, concerning liturgical forms of worship and education were not negotiable. They were as valid in Sunderland in the 1930s as they ever were in Kratinga in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. Their fight for recognition and independence, previously described, illustrates this steadfastness (or intransigence, depending on the viewpoint).

Reb Chatze
Yechezkiel (Charles) Cohen


The Beth Hamedrash were extremely fortunate in that not only did they have dedicated and able lay leaders, extremely learned in Hebrew subjects and steeped in the Minhag of their homeland, but their Rabbonim (Rabbis) were extremely sensitive to the importance of these traditions. Many of them originated from Lithuania. Rabbi Hurwitz was particularly influential.156.

Reb Chatze Cohen who migrated to Sunderland from Kretinga in 1888, was an extremely learned and pious man who realised that unless the next generation of migrants were educated in the ways of their fathers in the Kretingan tradition, then that tradition would die. He always wore a silk hat, frock coat and carried an umbrella, and had a stately and aristocratic look, according to Levy.157. There was only one synagogue, the Congregation, in existence when he first came to Sunderland, and it only provided Friday night, Saturday and High Festival services. There were no weekday services or a meeting place for adults, where men of learning could meet, learn and discuss the holy works.

Reb. Chatze formed the Chevra Gemara (Society for the study of the Talmud). These are Rabbinic commentaries on the early part of the Talmud - compiled circa 120 C.E. [Christian Era].158. He was the Honorary Lecturer and was loaned a room by Charles Gillis in his home for that purpose. This room, Levy asserts ‘gave birth to the Sunderland Beth Hamedrash which we know today.’159.

Realising the importance of educating the children so they had a high standard of Hebrew knowledge, he was instrumental in founding the Talmud Torah (Religious classes) and seeing that the Gemara lessons extended to the classroom as well as to adults. The English language was rarely used. Instead Hebrew and Yiddish was the norm.

At the end of Levy’s History,160. he invited the Rav of the Beth Hamedrash in 1955, Rabbi Babad, among other office holders and Rabbonim (Rabbis) to talk of his ministry. His overview of the Beth Hamedrash at that time, obviously included the traditions and conditions which had originated in Kretinga and evolved since the inception of the Litvak migration. Rabbi Babad, a well respected, dignified and erudite man, stressed that unlike many other Anglo–Jewish Communities, Sunderland was true to its traditions, and its name was a by-word in Anglo-Jewry for excellence in all spheres of Jewish religion and learning. Apart from Gateshead with its specialist Yeshivot and centres of advanced learning, the proportion of educated laymen in Sunderland with a good knowledge of Torah was higher than at any other place in the country.

The two Hebrew classes for children, one from each congregation, were among the best ‘in the country.’ Attendance on weekdays was higher than anywhere else ‘in the country.’ In the Beth Hamedrash it was a hundred per cent. The Sabbath synagogue attendances of adults and children alike was ‘no less encouraging’; again almost a hundred per cent of its membership attended regularly. Attendances on ordinary Sabbaths were virtually the same as on the High Festivals. As Rabbi Babad puts it dryly, with telling understatement, ‘a feature rather uncommon in Anglo-Jewry.’

In the field of charity, he goes on to say, ‘Sunderland is indeed wonderland. Each emissary from a Torah institution in Israel, seeking funds, endeavoured to make Sunderland his first stop. He was treated with honour and allowed the right to speak from the pulpit on Sabbath mornings. Each of the numerous visitors of this type, would be accompanied by a respected member of the community to meet potential donors. ‘Donations are both generous and given wholeheartedly’, the Rabbi added.

Rabbi Babad then commented on the outstanding feature of the Beth Hamedrash, the direct and end result of the Kretingan tradition and heritage, namely the emergence of an educated laity. The great majority of the respected heads of households, or the Baalei Battim, were British born and bred and aged between thirty and forty, which meant they were educated in Hebrew subjects between 1925 and 1935, taking the age of ten years as a starting point.  Many of them, both men and women, were of at least of Grammar School standard in their English studies.

It must have been quite a sight on any Sabbath morning to see the Synagogue full of lawyers, doctors, school teachers and other professional men. Even more unusual was the presence of many of them during the daily Gemara Shiur, or study session and discussion of a section of the Talmud. (At the time of the Article in 1955, according to two retired doctors, Dr. Victor Gillis and Dr. Jack Frankenthal, there were over twenty Jewish medical doctors practising in the Sunderland area, rising a few years later to a peak of over thirty. (The article in Haaretz on February 9th 2001, referred to herein, confirms the number of doctors by the 1950s as being more than thirty.)

The Sunderland men and women whom attended the religious classes of the Beth Hamedrash had learned in a hard school, where the language of tuition was Yiddish, and the teachers were of the old fashioned type, not averse to using the cane. The end result, however, was what distinguished Sunderland from other communities. Even today, in Newcastle, a person with a Beth Hamedrash Hebrew education stands out, not only for his knowledge, but for the well-taught attention to charitable calls which would be made in later life.

Both Levy ‘s History and his Behr Tree contain several examples of the high regard with which eminent Rabbis regarded Sunderland and particularly the Beth Hamedrash. To give but one example he mentions the eminent Rabbi Sorotzkin of Jerusalem, and head of a famous Yeshiva there, as exclaiming ‘Sunderland is wonderful.’

Both Levy‘s History and his Behr Tree contain several examples of the high regard with which eminent Rabbis regarded Sunderland and particularly the Beth Hamedrash. To give but one example he mentions the eminent Rabbi Sorotzkin of Jerusalem, and head of a famous Yeshiva there, as exclaiming ‘Sunderland is wonderful.’

All these praiseworthy elements; the learning, the determination to stick to principles, the influence of a common background, the enjoyment of both social activities and intellectual pursuits, the strict orthodox tradition and regular synagogue attendance; all these do not quite capture the essence of the Kretingan influence. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

It was the before quoted article of 9th February 2001 in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, which supplies the answer.  In mourning the loss of Dr. Shmuel Gillis, a senior hematologist who had been shot dead in Israel, one of the mourners was reported to have said, ‘It’s a legacy of Sunderland. It doesn’t matter if you went to somebody’s house for tea every day, or you only saw them once a year. We’re like one big family and we feel this tight connection to each other, especially at a time of tragedy.’ It is a fact that some of the larger families - the Cohens, the Pearlmans, the Gillises, the Refsons - had intermarried, so few people from the community lack a large extended family.’161. The town of Sunderland had been described as ‘the home to the western European Jewish Community that most resembles a shtetl.’162. This is typified by a story told to the author by Chaim Pearlman concerning the late Chaim Bermant, author and famed columnist of The Jewish Chronicle, himself from Eastern Europe with a Yeshiva background, ‘I love davvening (praving) at the Sunderland Beth Hamedrash, he said, because it’s the only place which reminds me of my youth.’

The abiding legacy of the Kretinga Jewish migrants was to bring to an English town, the closeness and warmth of a Lithuanian shtetl, together with all its religious zeal and traditions. This spirit still exists today among the scattered community which has left Sunderland, as witness the strength of Sunderland Jewish Community Online.

It might have been expected that the Kretingan newcomers, especially the most orthodox with their distinctive dress, foreign accents and strange customs, might cause anti-Semitism to arise in the wider Sunderland community. While there is evidence of considerable conflict within the Jewish Community, there is no evidence that the writer has found to show conflict between Jew and Gentile. There might well be individual instances of prejudice and anti-Semitism, but no group based or organised demonstrations are known to have occurred in Sunderland between 1850 and 1939. Former Sunderland Jews now resident in Newcastle have confirmed this is so, to the best of their knowledge.

However, it was decided to sample the local Sunderland Echo, during 1919, a year of strikes, industrial unrest and economic hardship, to see if these factors caused any instances of anti-Semitism. One would expect that year, if any, to bring out any latent prejudice. Taking an article by Jacqueline Jenkinson as a guide,163. there were riots in February 1919 in nearby South Shields. The riots concerned Arab or coloured seamen whose wages undercut those of the English sailors, and were not anti-Semitic. Nevertheless if there was to be an overspill affecting Jews in Sunderland, or indeed South Shields, this surely would be the likely occasion.  The Echo only reported the events very briefly, despite there being shots fired and a bayonet charge by armed naval men. Other editions in 1919 described briefly riots in Glasgow and Liverpool as well as the East End of London, and smaller incidents in the North East, but not in Sunderland.

At no time was there mention of any anti-Semitic incidents in Sunderland. In the same work, there is an article concerning Black Shirt disturbances in the 1930s.164. There is no mention of any disturbances, other than in the East End of London. That does not imply there was none such, but the only reference the writer has found concerning overt racial prejudice in Sunderland was to later anti-Italian riots in 1940.165.

Reference has been made to the generally friendly attitude of the Press to the Sunderland Jewish community. Certainly the Press did not report any organised anti-Semitism. It is impossible to give reasons for this. There is a possibility that the public spirit shown by the Community may have been a factor, but no more than that. If the Community, however, had avoided acts of hostility by reason of their behaviour as good citizens - which cannot be proved, it is fair to say that this would have been largely due to the Kretingan influence.


Footnotes    (returns to main text)

  1. Daiches, op. cit., p.81.

  2. Levy, History, pp.263-6.

  3. Levy, idem, quoting Simon Light in the 1936 Souvenir Magazine to mark the Circle's 25th anniversary.

  4. Levy, History, pp.223-224.

  5. Levy, The Behr Tree, pp.94-95.

  6. Vide Levy, History, pp.318-9 - Glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms.

  7. Levy, Ibid, p.218.

  8. Levy, Ibid, pp.237-239.

  9. Haaretz, Shtetl on the River Wear, Op. Cit., p.1.

  10. Defined by Rostyn, The Joys of Yiddish, pp.377-8, published London (1970), as ' a small Jewish town or village in Eastern Europe', with a connotation of beingg enclosed, closely-knit and self-sufficient.

  11. Jacqueline Jackson, The 1919 Riots in Racial Violence in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, ed. by Panikos Panayi, Leicester University Press (199) pp.92-111.

  12. Ibid., Richard Thurlow Blaming the Blackshirts: the Authorities and the Anti-Jewish Disturbances in the 1930s, pp.112-130.

  13. Ibid., Lucia Sponza The Anti-Italian Riots 1940.



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