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Portsmouth Jewry - 1730's   to 1980's
Divisions Within the Congregation
Dr Aubrey Weinberg (1985)


Writing in 1967, Reverend Meisels regarded the schism that divided the community for 213 years as having its origins ‘still shrouded in mystery’. [213] When Roth took op the issue in 1936 his wider historical grasp enabled him to link the schism locally to the sharp contention that existed between London’s ‘Great’ and ‘Hambros’ synagogues over their rival claims for rabbinical recognition. Rabbi Hart Lyon who had retired from the Great Synagogue in 17613 had, until then, maintained his authority over all three London Ashkenazi synagogues as well as over Portsmouth and other provincial congregations in all matters pertaining to Jewish law. Seeking a replacement for Rabbi Hart Lyon, the Great Synagogue sent a call to Rabbi David Tebele Schiff of Frankfurt but, at the same time, the Hambro Synagogue decided to invite its own nominee, Rabbi Meshuliam Zalman. With the third London synagogue supporting Rabbi Zalman, the voice of the provinces was to prove decisive in resolving the disputed leadership, and Portsmouth, as the most influential of provincial congregations, was to play a central role.[24]

Roth recorded how Portsmouth congregation divided over the question of affiliation to rabbinical leadership from London with a majority of sixteen members supporting Zalman and eight of the ‘oldest’ members favouring Schiff. One night in February 1766 the majority group seized the scrolls of lam and other synagogue appurtenances and removed them to a house in Daniel’s Row where they set up their new synagogue. The house belonged to Mordecai Moses, one of the group’s two ‘old’ members, already referred to in other contexts.[25] Roth referred to Mordecal Moses as the secessionists’ ‘leader and inspirer’, attributing the eventual collapse of the schism to his probable fate at the hands of British justice in 17B6.[26] The secessionists returned to White’s Row synagogue in 17B9. By that time the ‘old congregation’s’ new synagogue had been constructed, and those involved with the secessionists’ synagogue must have felt envious indeed when looking out upon the new edifice and its joyous congregants from their own primitive place of worship across the road. Roth emphasised the importance of the eventual triumph of Portsmouth’s Schiff supporters, for their actions and loyalty confirmed the Rabbi of the Great Synagogue of London as Rabbi of the Hebrew congregations of Great Britain. In Roth’s vies, the eminence of the national and international role of Britain’s Chief Rabbis can be attributed to the outcome of Portsmouth Jewry's ‘Great Secession’.[27]

Lucien Wolf's limited translation of the Portsmouth Pinches drew attention to the letters of commendation and amity enriching the leather bound and substantial minute book, newly acquired by a group of the ‘old’ congregation who had gone to London to negotiate their allegiance to Rabbi Schiff.[28] The first rule of the congregation, on page one of the Pinches, required all those called to read from the Torah to make a blessing to Chief Rabbi Terle (Schiff), a rule sustained in the revised laws following the end of the schism. The authority of Rabbi Schiff was confirmed at each celebration of marriage by a fee exacted for the Chief Rabbi. Roth’s comment on the paucity of Wolf’s publication has some justification as the bare translation of letters and rules are, by themselves, hardly understandable without some knowledge of the social context surrounding them.[29]

Rabbi Newman’s translation of the Circumcision Register in 1951 added to Roth’s account as well as providing contrasting explanation. Newman focussed upon the clear records provided by Reb Leib Aleph, the author of the Register, who had become mohel to the Portsmouth congregation in 1762. In 1764 Reb Leib Aleph was elected Co-Treasurer of Charity and Newman related how he invested monies from the synagogue building fund in stocks registered in his own name. He failed to provide balance sheets in the years 1764 and 1765 and according to Newman, he most probably applied the monies to fitting up his ‘new synagogue’ having already embarked upon a course of splitting the congregation. If Reb Leib Aleph’s integrity is thus called into question, his association with Mordecai Moses as the two senior members of the secessionists providing perhaps a rather unsavoury leadership, his reputation as a mohel remained unblemished. Of 112 circumcisions performed over 45 years of service, 104 took place in Portsmouth, the others taking Reb Lieb to Brighton, Winchester, the Isle of Wight and Poole. Boys were brought from as far as Essex and Bath for ritual circumcision in Portsmouth. It was Reb Leib whom Newman identifies as the guiding spirit behind the letter of acknowledgement sent to the Hambro Synagogue’s rabbi. He appeared to have a strong personal commitment to the ‘new synagogue’ which he referred to as ‘my synagogue’, [30] and when that building ceased to function in 1789, it was Reb Leib who eventually surrendered the lease. Under the terms of reconciliation Reb Leib was compensated by the ‘old synagogue for debts incurred in handing over items from the ‘new synagogue’, including sets of silver finials for the scrolls of law and it was his name which became appended to an agreement with the wardens of the ‘old synagogue’ relinquishing all claims made upon them.[31]

In his observations on the ‘split’ Roth speculated with the notion of a ‘lost cemetery’, somewhere in Portsmouth, which might have belonged to the ‘new synagogue’.[32] Newman dissolved such a prospect in drawing attention to the degree of co-operation contrived between the two congregations in spite of their rival places of worship and their separately maintained butcher shops. A closer examination of the Pinches had revealed that two treasurers from each congregation were, in fact, appointed to maintain the one existing cemetery in common and to share the cost of its repair.[33] Not only the cemetery but also the use of the Mikveh and provision of watchers over the dead as well as doctor and medicine for the poor became a joint responsibility. The ‘great split’ appeared to be essentially concerned with the politics of religion rather than its ritual practice. Nevertheless, there were altercations over the two congregations’ joint responsibilities and Newman refers to a deterioration in relationships after 1771. He suggested a falling off in membership of the ‘new synagogue’ accompanied by financial difficulties during the 1770's and when, in 1780, the Hambro Synagogue rabbi left London altogether, the whole raison d'Ítre of the secessionists became undermined. The magnificent occasion of the opening of White’s Row synagogue, attended by the major London rabbinical leaders must have been a humbling experience for the dissidents. It was to Reb Leib’s credit that after rejoining the ‘old’ congregation, he took an active part in its affairs and made another mark in Portsmouth’s Jewish history when his daughter Hannah became one of the ancestors of the Emanuel family who were to make such distinctive marks upon the political affairs of the boroughs of Portsmouth and Southampton.

The schism that so divided the Portsmouth community in its early days did not prove to be its last. Almost a century after the commencement of the first schism there developed another, albeit shorter lived than its predecessor, lasting from 1855 to 1860, and less fully documented. It had become apparent in 1853 that there was severe disagreement over who should be appointed to represent Portsmouth on the Jewish Board of Deputies, the national forum for Jewish affairs. The legality of the meetings held to confirm the appointment was disputed over the following two years and obviously damaged relationships. The Chief Rabbi, Dr. Adler, visited Portsmouth expressly to try and achieve the restoration of ‘unanimity and good feeling among us all’. A report on the 1855 annual general meeting of the Portsmouth Jewish Benevolent Institution referred to ‘divisions in the Hebrew congregation and the politics of the synagogue that threatened the continuation of the Institution’.[34] Another apparently significant factor associated with the split occurred in February 1855 when a breakaway group became involved in controversy over the burial of a child. Although no reference can be found in any of the congregation’s minutes, the Register of Births for that year shows an undated entry for an unnamed child whose father was H.M. Emanuel. The Register of Deaths, indicates that the child ass John Emanuel, subsequently reburied on 17th June 1879. A letter in the Correspondence Book named the members of the breakaway group who had applied to the Chief Rabbi’s office for approval of the appointment of a shochet for their alternative butcher shop.[35] When the management of White’s Roe synagogue resisted that request to what amounted to recognition of the breakaway congregation the Chief Rabbi refused at first to intervene further in a matter which he thought should be reconciled by the parties involved. His refusal persisted through 1856, but in 1857 he approved the appointment of a Reverend Elkin as minister/shochet to the breakaway group who, with Moses Solomon as president, had established themselves as the ‘Hebrew New Congregation’, meeting in a room of the Mitre Tavern in Kent Street. Revd Elkin’s appointment was to he initially for six months pending reconciliation, the meat supplied through him not to be sold to members of the ‘old’ congregation. David Levey, a member of the breakaway group was strongly censured in 1856 for creating a disturbance in the White’s Row synagogue on the solemn occasion of Kol Neidre prayers. The issue surrounding the burial of John Emanuel was to be of consequence for the future burial provision of the community. Under protest from the main congregation the New Hebrew Congregation was allowed to purchase a burial ground from the local authority for the interment of the dead child and in June 1858 the Portsea Burial Board agreed to the building of a house of prayer on the new site at Kingston Cemetery.

Although Revd Elkin’s appointment sam subsequently extended, the schism did not continue for much longer. A press report in 1860 briefly indicated a reconciliation of the two congregations.[136] The burial ground at Kingston became the property of White’s Row synagogue and continued to provide a source of controversy. In September 1870 Messrs H.H. Emanuel and A.L. Emanuel were severely admonished by White’s Row management committee for burying a deceased convict there (Eli Fermi was subsequently reinterred with John Emanuel at Fawcett Road burial ground, 17 June 1879). The Kingston site was sold back to the Corporation in 1879 when the two remains buried there were transferred. So concluded the second breakaway episode, more shrouded in the mists of uncertainty than the earlier one.

The episodic nature of Portsmouth’s congregational divisions concluded with yet another, third schism, of more damaging import to the reputation of Portsmouth Jewry. Only sketchy detail remains of its origins. In 1892 a letter in the Correspondence Hook, addressed to the Chief Rabbi, refers to an application from a new group of dissidents seeking a kosher meat provision, a certain indicator of some severe division within the standing community. Permission from London was subsequently granted and a shochet duly appointed. Dissent appears to have centred upon the involvement of a number of members of the congregation in what the White’s Row management committee describes as a ‘secret society to remove the congregation’s rulers and radically alter all its laws’.[37] A series of requests made to the society, represented by N. Hart president, and P. Tobias secretary, to attend the management committee meeting to explain their intentions was ignored and rejecting accusations of membership of a secret society the society members resigned From White’s Row in July 1892. Matters had come to a head by the passing of a new congregational rule in April 1892, rescinded November 18913, depriving membership from those who associated themselves mith ‘any society, secret or otherwise, inimical to the lass of the congregation’. The name of the society was recorded only in Hebrew script which translated gave a title something like Association Concerned with Justice in the Community and although its secretary declared that its rules and constitution were freely available to anyone concerned to see them no version of them can be traced. P. Tobias claimed that the sole desire of the proscribed organisation was to strengthen the congregation and to promote ‘general harmony and good sill’.

In January 1895 a letter to the Chief Rabbi set out the dissidents’ conditions for returning to the fold. These were that the notice of motion of 13 March 1892 should be abolished, arrears would be paid up on rejoining, seniority at time of leaving the congregation would he retained, abolition of the butcher’s contribution in fee paying, and abolition of present system of synagogue offerings with fixed rentals being applied to all seats according to their position in the synagogue. The dissident group adopted the title ‘Portsmouth New Hebrew Congregation’, forming their own synagogue in July 1891. A press report of the time referring to the consecration of the new synagogue named the president, Douglas Samuels and the vice-president, Isaac Goldman. 1381 Twenty months later, both congregations had settled down to their calendars of ritual activity with reports on Purim parties being held in both synsgogues.[39]

In Sunday 9th April 1893 the dissidents forced their say into the burial ground at Fawcett Road to inter the dead child of Mrs Feldman, daughter of the dissidents’ shochet, rejecting the ‘old’ synagogue’s decision that burial charges be paid prior to any interment, as the dead child belonged to members of another congregation. The White’s Row management committee wrote to the Chief Rabbi remonstrating with him for the apparent support being given to the dissidents, and informing him that legal proceedings were to be taken against the dissidents for their action. The letter was followed by a delegation visit asking the Chief Rabbi to attempt a reconciliation before the law suit was pursued. The Chief Rabbi’s suggested fine of £15 was dismissed and matters proceeded towards the inevitable court appearance. Millie Feldman alleged she was too poor to pay the sum of three guineas to secure the plot of ground for her dead child as sell as one pound five shillings expenses, claiming that although the Chief Rabbi had urged that the burial should take place the synagogue committee remained obdurate in first requiring payment of dues.[40] The White’s Row warden insisted that, given the income of Mrs Feldman’s father the burial fee was reasonable [4l]

Reports of what was commonly referred to in both local and national press as the ‘burial Scandal at Portsmouth’ appeared at length following the court hearing in May 1893. It is of interest here to note that in 1876 the Jewish Chronicle had used its columns to censure the Portsmouth congregation on the harmful publicity resulting from a previous court action between David Levey, one of the subsequent secessionists, and the warden of the synagogue, on account of a fine imposed under the rules for Levey’s refusal to accept the honour of Chasan Torah. Levey paid the fine but only to be able to bury his dead son Emanuel. The court case followed when he sued the congregation for a refund of the paid fine. Elaborating on the burial dispute, a letter from the White’s Row management committee explained that Mrs Feldman had been confined in the home of the dissident shochet and had been attended by the Poor Law doctor as well as being supplied with food by the parish. The letter attested to the ‘odium’ such a situation had brought upon the Jewish community who had always prided themselves on their commitment and ability to look after their own. The management also wrote to the local Board of Guardians asking to be notified of all Jewish cases that might come before them claiming ‘we never permit (if deserving) any of our faith being a burden on the rates’.

In court twelve members of the Portsmouth New Hebrew Congregation appeared as defendants and although the presiding judge attempted a final reconciliation by recommending a settlement out of court, the case was pressed to trial by jury. The White’s Row management sought damages of £3D but the jury, although finding for them, awarded them only £2 damages. The fact that the New Hebrew

Synagogue had no burial ground of their own at that time, and the child having been dead for five days prior to interment, undoubtedly influenced their decision. A barrister cousin of A. L. Emanuel who represented the dissidents, accepted no fees for his court appearance whereas the ‘old’ synagogue was involved with a fee of fifteen guineas.[42]

Serious concern was expressed in all quarters over this unusual spectacle of Jewish dirty washing being publicly exhibited and the Jewish Board of Deputies was led to denounce both the publicity and the circumstances leading up to it, although offering their own good offices in an attempt to heal the breach in Portsmouth’s Jewish community. Although this gesture was acceptable to the ‘new’ synagogue, it was rejected by the ‘old’ synagogue smarting under what they must have regarded as the harsh injustice of the court decision. One of the trustees of the Fawcett Road burial ground who had appeared as one of the defendants was removed from office at a special meeting of White’s Row congregation. In October 1893 the Chief Rabbi again visited Portsmouth with a vies to healing ‘the unhappy circumstances’. The ‘old’ committee met a deputation from the dissidents and offered them £100 as reimbursement of the sum paid by the ‘new’ synagogue for the memorial house erected on the plot of ground acquired by them in August from the Burial Board of Portsea. A further set of conditions was laid down in November asking for the three scrolls and other appurtenances belonging to the ‘new’ synagogue to be handed over to White’s Row. All back membership accounts were to be paid up and no changes to the existing rule of the congregation were to be made for at least two years. However, nothing emerged from these peace overtures and each congregation continued its round of activities. The split among the adults also divided up the younger generation who attended separate children’s parties.[43]

The split lasted until August 1897 when a sub-committee set up by an extraordinary meeting of White’s Row congregation agreed to the final terms of reconciliation. Prior to this, several members of the dissident group had been permitted to resume membership of the ‘old’ synagogue and the scene was set by the White’s Row warden who was instrumental in sinning final reconciliation. The dissidents eventually agreed to the terms of return; they would retain all previous rights and privileges of membership and would receive £25 towards expenses incurred in dissolving their congregation. The scrolls and other moveable property from the ‘new’ synagogue would be presented to White’s Row, and all the dissidents agreed to abide by the existing code of laws. The dissidents became seatholders again on 24th August 1097 and so came to an end, after six years of bitterness and acrimony, the last major schism to divide Portsmouth’s Jewish community.

One final word must be added as a postscript to the ‘schismatic cycle’. Staff and students of Aria College had augmented the congregation of White’s Row for many years. In 1924 a minor dispute erupted between the leaders of the synagogue and Aria College which resulted in the College setting up its own synagogue. The dispute lasted four years during which time a complex set of rules was established to govern the relationship between the two synagogues. It is interesting to note that when Aria College was eventually closed in 1957, the scrolls and appurtenances of its small synagogue also accrued to the congregational synagogue.

It could therefore be alleged that although each successive division of Portsmouth’s Jewish community was accompanied by bitter strife and contention, each occasion brought the main synagogue some accretion of property and no doubt some element of progressiveness that can only have given strength to the overall structure of the community. With Jewish life centering around the synagogue and the express needs for kosher meat and religiously controlled interment, strong social forces have operated both to support the various dissident groups and to cement their ultimate reconciliation. The congregation’s laws had, from the outset, sought to contain disputes within the boundaries of congregational organisation, but the schisms had demonstrated the brittleness of such rules. However, religious politics, whether externally or internally stimulated, had riven Portsmouth’s Jewish community in a very particular fashion. Unlike other areas of Jewish settlement where dissidence led to the establishment of patterns of Reform of Liberal worship, Portsmouth adhered strictly to its orthodox origins. Congregational conflict provided a necessary outlet for dissent and activism and an antidote against community decay. Resolution of the religious conflicts challenging Jewry in Portsmouth led to a strengthening rather than a weakening of congregational structure. It may be recorded that the establishment of a Reform Synagogue meeting in Eastleigh and providing a centre for Jews from Southampton, Winchester and other areas of Hampshire has recently attracted a small number of members from Portsmouth. It is unlikely that the structure of the orthodox congregation will be much affected by that development.