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Portsmouth Jewry - 1730's to 1980's
Aria College
Dr Aubrey Weinberg (1985)

Portsmouth was eminently located as a strategic departure point for adventurous emigrants seeking to exploit the opportunities offered by British colonial development during the nineteenth century. The British navy’s strong connection with the West Indies undoubtedly led to Jamaica becoming an outpost for some of Portsmouth’s emigratory Jews. When the building of a synagogue was first mooted in Kingston, a request came to Portsmouth for plans of the White’s Roe synagogue, and a replica of the old’ synagogue was, in fact, constructed. One of the Jewish migrants to Jamaica was Lewis Aria, who became a quite wealthy merchant and never forgot his Portsmouth origins. On his death, in 1858, he left the residue of his estate, estimated at 25,888, to establish and maintain a college at Portsmouth, ‘Aria College’.

‘for the training and maintenance of young men, natives of the county of Hampshire, as Jewish divines, on orthodox principles’ .

A lam suit brought by the family contesting the Portsmouth legacy was rejected by the High Courts in June 1859 although the establishment of the college had to wait upon the death of Mrs. Aria, in 1873.

A committee ass established to explore the founding of a local college according to the wishes of its benefactor. Aria College ass eventually opened in 5t.Ceorge’s Square, Portsmouth, in 1874, being administered by a set of trustees including the Chief Rabbi and representatives from London and Portsmouth Jewry. The Reverend I.S. Meisels was appointed its first principal and the college opening event was celebrated by Portsmouth Jewry wiith a banquet in the synagogue vestry. The establishment of a centre at Jewish scholarship in Portsmouth was recognised by the local congregation as an important development in its history. It changed the nature of local Hebrew education and reinforced religious orthodoxy.

Although influential, the college was always small in numbers with the initial intake constituting only four students. Every candidate, of at least fourteen years of age, had to furnish evidence of good character, freedom from offensive or infectious disease, possess a knowledge of English and Hebrew, sign a declaration stating clear intention to enter the Jewish ministry, and give ‘expositions and discourses’, in public, each year. Formidable qualifications indeed. In return, students gained not only a Hebrew education but also a place at the Portsmouth Grammar School which secured the continuance of their secular education. Provision was made by the trustees for those educated at Aria College to the age of seventeen years to continue their education at Jew’s College, London, under grant support from the trust. Records of British and overseas Jewish congregations pay warm testimony to the high degree of ministerial competence emanating from the College. The presence of the College principal, and his students, on the Sabbath, not only ensured lively services but provided a well disciplined and reverent enclave which must have raised the decorum of congregational members.

As the twentieth century advanced, and with the founding of more important seminaries elsewhere in England, the College found it increasingly difficult to recruit students and became obliged to relax its entry requirements. Proposals had earlier been made for the amalgamation of Aria College with Jew’s College, but a mass meeting of local Jewry in 1902 rejected such a threat to its second major establishment. Reference has already been made to the dispute that arose in 1924 between the congregation’s Reverend Olivestone and Dr. Fox, principal of Aria College, which had led to the setting up, by the College, of its own synagogue. Students of the College were forbidden to attend the Queen Street synagogue and the dispute dragged on into 1928. It was about that time when College applicants began to be accepted from outside the county, and many of the local pupils, prior to World War II, pursued their studies with no intention to enter the ministry. They enjoyed an unusual opportunity to combine a sound Hebrew education with that of an English Grammar School. Evacuated during the war to Winchester, where students attended Peter Symonds College, and having to vacate their premises in St. George’s Square for accommodation in Victoria Road North, the College attempted to carry on with steadily falling numbers until 1957 when all hope of viability departed. A decision was then made to close the College.

The local trustees, J.V. Forman, L.H. Filer and N. Phillips sold off the property and used the monies obtained to establish a trust fund for those wishing to undertake studies at Jew’s College. The Aria College Trust, as it is now named, with the Chief Rabbi as its chairman, thus continues to sustain the original intentions of its founder, ‘the training and maintenance of young men as Jewish Divines on orthodox Jewish principles’. These ideals will presumably persist as long as a Jewish ministry is maintained. The trustees of Aria College made a permanent loan of college scrolls and religious appurtenances to the Thicket synagogue, thus continuing the tradition established by previous dissolving synagogues in the City. [47]