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Portsmouth Jewry - 1730's to 1980's
Portsmouth Jewish Societies
Dr Aubrey Weinberg (1985)

Active maintenance of the Jewish way of life involves most conforming Jews in the voluntary work of religious organisation. Membership of a religious community also becomes manifest through a range of voluntary endeavour associated with the political, social, cultural and recreational. A keen sense of political and social awareness has been characteristic of Jews within the European diaspora. In Portsmouth, the creation of voluntary societies coincided with the evolution of the community. Women are relegated to participant observer role in synagogue services and in accordance with strict Hebrew orthodoxy the ladies’ gallery of the early White’s Row synagogue was screened off from men’s eyes by a lattice. The lattice was removed during one of the nineteenth century renovations. Such physical exclusion from religious services has never stood in the way of women’s commitment to the upkeep and decor of the synagogue, and, over the years, much of the initiative for fund raising has been in the hands of women.

Meisel’s paper extracts some of the recorded endeavours of the early congregants and notes the existence of a Ladies Society as far back as 1769.[51] The money raising activities of the Ladies Society, which set the pattern for the following two hundred years, led to the donation to the synagogue of a Sefer Torah, a set of candlesticks and various scroll mantles. The formal institution of a Ladies Benevolent Society was confirmed in 1770, and with occasional change in purpose and constitution, its activities have continued up to the present time. The objects of the current Portsmouth Jewish Ladies Benevolent Society, indicating the widened conception of their voluntary work, are set out in the rules of the society, most recently amended in 1979. They cover the relief of local distressed and needy Jews, support for Jewish hospitals and Jewish charitable institutions in Great Britain and Israel, visiting the sick and needy, making of shrouds and, where possible, performance of Tahara, help for poor Jews passing through the City, and support for any approved local hospital or charitable civic appeal regardless of race or creed. If some of these objects sustain the traditional Jewish concern over the vicissitudes of poverty, health and migration they also indicate the affinity of Jewish women with local non—Jewish civic and other charitable activity. The most recent development within the activities of the Ladies Society has been the creation of an Afternoon Club to which less mobile and elderly congregants are transported for Wednesday gatherings and ‘extra-mural’ pursuits.

Financial provision by male congregants has been pursued through a range of societies. The Jewish Benevolent Institution was founded in 1B04, changing its name to Portsmouth & Portsea Hebrew Benevolent Institution in 1834. It provided food, clothing and fuel, as well as money, to ‘necessitous Jews resident in the town as well as relieving the wants of ‘Foreigners’ arriving in the port and forwarding them to their destinations if such should be required’.[52] The Institution’s rule book of 1837 had expressly forbidden the provision of relief to itinerants but the desperate position of European Jewry later in the century was too pressing to ignore. The Institution was widely respected and among its patrons were Sir Moses Montefiore and the Chief Rabbi Dr. Adler, who came to dine with members and their guests at the annual dinner of 1850. The Chief Rabbi had to receive special permission to visit the dockyard and H.M.S. Victory during that visit to Portsmouth as he carried the status of foreigner as far as his civic position was concerned. At that time the Institution’s funds stood at £806, testimony both to good husbandry, generous support, and limited demands on its resources. The annual dinners of the Institution were, indeed, grand affairs, meriting long and detailed reports in both the local press and the national Jewish press. In 1854, reference is made to tables ‘crowded with elegant silver candelabra and plateaux of the richest designs, while the viands were served up in silver plate of massive and costly character’.[53] Not that the silver belonged to the Institution as it came, on loan, from local silversmiths and various hotels. Among those providing the plate were Messrs E & E Emanuel, ‘Silversmiths to Her Majesty’. Local civic dignitaries, including Mayors, foreign consuls and senior police officials, regularly graced the occasion so that, in 1863, it was noted that of 90 men present, ‘only 19 were Hebrews’. [54] By 1864, the Institution’s assets stood at over £1,000, including £720 on loan as a mortgage to the synagogue. The accumulating capacity of the Institution continued to outstretch its obligations, and when the time came for its dissolution, in 1976, £3,000 were transferred to the synagogue funds . [55]

Of more transient nature was the Portsmouth Hebrew Mendicity Society, founded in 1859 in response to the Galantz outrages which drove ‘thousands of unfortunate Israelites from the realms of despotism to seek shelter in this country’.[56] Subscriptions were forthcoming from Jew and non-Jew alike and by 1861 the society was able to report that some 203 homeless and poor Jews had been given relief from the funds. In the twentieth century the Portsmouth Melchett Dividend Friendly & Sick Benefit Society was established by several enterprising local Jews in 1919, just ahead of Lloyd George’s Unemployment Insurance Act. Committed to provide benefit for members in need, it survived the developing Welfare State and continued to supplement state insurance provision until its eventual demise in 1974, when its remaining funds were distributed to those few members still contributing.

Jews have always been attracted to Friendly Society activity. The Jacob Friedeberg Lodge No. 41 was established in 1913 as a local branch of the Grand Order of Israel Friendly Society, and if attempts were later made to withdraw the lodge from the Order these would seem in keeping with the predilection of the local Jewish community for autonomous, if schismatic, development. The Saul Henry Lone Lodge No. 73 was formed under the Order of Achei Brith & Shield of Abraham, and, in 1921, a Ladies Section was created in the Esther Phillips Lodge No. 85. Neither of these Societies have survived into the contemporary period.

The rise and fall of voluntary organisations emerging in response to particular exigencies of a given moment of history, or responding to the energies and enthusiasms of social innovators characterises the nature of democracy. In Portsmouth, Jews were able to participate freely in the town’s cultural and social activities as well as to pursue their own congregational and communal interests. The town’s Literary & Philosophical Society, founded in 1815, had acquired five Jewish members by 1831.[57] A local branch of the Anglo-Jewish society, formed in 1878, testified to the continuing integration of Jews within the wider local community.[58] A Jewish Young Men’s Literary & Debating Society was inaugurated under the chairmanship of A.L. Emanuel, in 1878. Papers presented to that society included such titles as ‘The Anti-Semitic Agitation', ‘Customs & Superstitions of the Chinese’, and ‘Influence of Judaism on Islam’. The annual dinner of the Society attracted 60 people in 1888.

Encouraged by the opening of Aria College in 1874, the Portsmouth & Portsea Hebrew Literary Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge was established at a meeting held in the College which appointed A.L. Emanuel as its first president. he Institution was essentially concerned with the study of Hebrew literature and it must have been encouraged by the establishment of a library at Aria College. There had been an earlier Jewish Literary Society, formed in 1850, which involved Saturday afternoon lectures on Hebrew literature. It had been inaugurated with the strident injunction for ‘Brethren to rouse themselves - wash off the stigma cast on you, that you are nothing but pedlars, hawkers, usurers and old-clothesmen’. Such derogatory stereotypes were no doubt common at a time when Jews were still experiencing political and civic disabilities and when their public image was tainted by such traditional occupations which met the public eye. The Literary Society was governed by a constitution of such descriptive merit that the leading Jewish weekly devoted the whole of its front page, and more, to offering it up as a guide to other communities wishing to establish similar societies.[59]

In a lighter vein, the Portsmouth Jewish Social Quadrille had its inaugural dance in the synagogue vestry in November 1890, the first of regular Sunday dances to be held during the winter months. The Quadrille was rather short lived, being wound up after the April Ball in 1891. Some members of the existing community recall that in the early years of the twentieth century more modern dances were regularly held on Sunday evenings, and concerts were given by local Jewish musicians.

Other twentieth century enterprises were represented by the Portsmouth Young Israel Society, formed in 1933, the 5696 (1936) Fellowship Club, the Jewish Truth Society, organised to combat British Fascism in 1936, a local branch of the Zionist Society, and the Jewish Hospitality Committee, a Second World War creation serving the needs of Jewish servicemen stationed in the area. Soon after the war a local branch of the Jewish Ex-Servicemen & Women s Organisation (AJEX) was established. Drama has always attracted the Jewish temperament arid the Hebrew Amateur Dramatic Society was reporting performances as long ago as 1865. Various other dramatic groups have operated since then, in particular in association with the Portsmouth & Southsea Jewish Club, established in 1944. The Jewish Club supported teams in the various sporting leagues and participated in a range of inter-club exchanges.

In the nineteen eighties the voluntary tradition continues. The Ladies Benevolent Society makes donations to a variety of charities, continuing its long established tradition. Since the creation of the State of Israel the local branch of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation (WIZO) has been actively gathering funds to support social welfare work in Israel. Given the fillip of the Portsmouth-Haifa Link, inaugurated in 1963, the WIZO branch was proud to have its substantial contribution to Portsmouth House, Haifa, recognised with the dedication of one of its rooms to Maisie Robins, a tribute to the indomitable local organiser.[60] A small group of women launched a younger offshoot of Zionist women called AVIV. South Lodge Community Centre was established in the early nineteen seventies to provide a range of social, cultural and recreational activities. It also published the community bulletin, ‘Centre Points’. In 1978 when the Centre moved out of South Lodge it adopted the title Portsmouth & Southsea Jewish Social Club and continues its varied programme. South Lodge had originally been formed to sustain the activities of young people and its Youth Club flourished and declined with the fluctuating numbers of local Jewish youth. The search for involvement within a wider community of Jewish youth led to the establishment of a local branch of the B’nai Brith Youth Organisation (BBYO).

Having in mind the total size of Portsmouth’s Jewish population, long stabilised around some 400 adults but now seriously declining, to sustain the activities of six communal organisations in addition to maintaining the synagogue commands the energies of most of the active members of the community.

Mention must be made of the special connection formed between the Jewish community in Portsmouth and the Israeli navy. With the establishment of the State of Israel, Portsmouth dockyard assumed some importance in equipping and training part of the incipient Israeli navy. The first official congregational welcome to Israeli naval personnel based in Portsmouth took place in 1959. In 1965, the Israeli embassy asked the local congregation for the use of its communal hall as a club centre for Israeli personnel. It was reported that Lieutenant Commander Arrad asked for the setting up of a full-time office and unrestricted use of synagogue premises for social involvement's. The synagogue hall was subsequently offered to Commander J. Labso for two evenings a week and the local Jewish community became involved in a range of social exchanges with Israeli sailors and their families who had come to join them. In the Autumn of 1967, the synagogue Warden, A. Levison, made a presentation to the Israeli naval headquarters at Haifa on behalf of the Portsmouth congregation. This took the form of an original engraving of Portsmouth Dockyard in 1754. A special relationship was enjoyed with the ill fated crew of the Submarine Dakar who had shared up to three years shore life with the local community. The ship’s maiden voyage from Portsmouth was the occasion of much celebration, ship’s visiting, and exchange of grits. The crew were presented with an inscribed kiddush cup and the synagogue received a plague of the submarine. The whole community was benumbed at the loss of the submarine during that maiden voyage. Although the Israeli-Portsmouth connection subsequently declined, visiting Israeli naval personnel continue to receive a warm welcome from Portsmouth Jewry. A similar welcome awaits other Jewish sailors arriving at the port of Portsmouth.