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Book Notes: The United Synagogue 1870-1970, Aubrey Newman

Stephen Sharon

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The United Synagogue The United Synagogue 1870-19 70, Aubrey New? man, Routlege &amp; Kegan Paul, London, 1977, xv + 239 pp. 8 plates. ?5.50 net. Histories of organizations commissioned by the organizations themselves have rarely been of much worth. Often in the hands of amateurs, they have combined a string of unanalysed events with the praises of various leaders. Even where a profes? sional historian has been involved, the standard of work has not been high. Aubrey Newman's The United Synagogue is far superior to most efforts in the field: it is a thorough piece of research, the facts are fitted into a number of themes, leaders are criticized as well as praised, and an attempt has been made to place the organization within the wider framework of Anglo-Jewish history. However, I believe the work is less interesting than it might have been, and that its limitations stem, in part at least, from the fact that it was commissioned. It is possible to study the United Synagogue in at least two ways. One approach is to treat it strictly as</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes 169 a formal organization and to concentrate on its structure and problems. Another approach is to view it not only as an organization, but also as a union of congregations with particular religious and social characteristics which have undergone considerable change since 1870. Newman does not entirely neglect the second approach, but the focus is very much on the first. This limits the interest because the formal organization of the United Synagogue has always focused on financial mat? ters, and it is difficult to generate great interest in treasurers' reports, surpluses and deficits, payment of salaries, interest rates and capital repayments. Salmond S. Levin writes, in his foreword to the book, that no conditions were laid down to limit the scope of the book and, in his introduction, Dr Newman notes that the officers did not attempt to influence the work. I have no reason to doubt these statements, but since the book was commissioned Dr Newman presumably felt that the organizational focus was the one that was appropriate. Thus, after a description of the events leading up to the Union and the institutionalization of procedures in the first years, the author enters into the financial structure of the organization, and although this is by no means the only theme in the book, it is the dominant one. One subject which is conspicuously missing is religion which, to say the least, is somewhat strange in a book on a religious organization. Given the narrow organizational focus it may be said that this is a legitimate omission since religious issues have rarely been discussed in the Council, Execu? tive and committee meetings of the United Syna? gogue. Newman quotes Israel Zangwill's compari? son of the United Synagogue to a joint-stock company run Tor the sake of a dividend', but Newman argues that it is unfair to criticize the United Synagogue 'for being unduly concerned with balance sheets and finances without recogniz? ing the impossibility of its taking any of its other activities far without a sound financial basis.' The same may be said for most religious organizations, and one has to recognize that, if the United Synagogue is a religious organization, it is a most unusual one in so far as finance rather than religion has always been on the agenda. A wider perspec? tive, with a congregational rather than organiza? tional focus, would include a discussion of the nature of United Synagogue Judaism and the changes that have occurred within it. My feeling is that the author has depended too heavily on the archives of the United Synagogue and not made sufficient use of other sources such as the Jewish Chronicle, whose reports of United Synagogue Council meetings used to be far richer than those of the official minutes. On those occasions when Dr Newman makes use of private diaries and com? munications it becomes clear that the archives only offer the official picture and tell us little about how decisions were made and by whom. One of the strengths of Newman's work is that he relates the financial problems of the organization to changes in the wider London Jewish community, and in particular to its residential mobility. The United Synagogue has continually had to face the problems of the financial decline of those syna? gogues in areas being abandoned by Jews as well as the finance of new synagogues and enlargements in areas of Jewish influx. Those who remain in declining areas have not always been willing to cooperate in the rationalization of the provision of synagogue accommodation, and this has given rise to conflicts between the local boards and the central organization over closures, rebuildings and transfers. From the beginning the decision of the leaders of the United Synagogue on its contribution to the setting up of a new synagogue was dictated by financial concerns: the new synagogue had to have a financial surplus from the start. In the past the wealthier 'surplus' synagogues in the new suburbs supported the 'deficit' synagogues in the older areas. After the Second World War many of the new suburban Jewish congregations were not wealthy and, in general, there were fewer syna? gogues with sufficient surpluses to make substan? tial contributions to deficit synagogues. The United Synagogue found that its capital resources were inadequate and, since it had to borrow money, it became burdened with capital repayments. Syna? gogue provision has not been the only goal of the United Synagogue. It also took upon itself a number of communal responsibilities, such as education and welfare, without substantial financial assist? ance from other bodies. As Newman shows, it has always been the financial aspects which have dominated the discussion in the United Synagogue on the provision of education and welfare.</page><page sequence="3">170 Book Notes The financial focus overlaps with the subject of leadership. The leaders of the United Synagogue have been successful businessmen who sought to apply the rational economic methods and proce? dures with which they were familiar in their occupations to the religious organization. However, the discussion of leadership goes beyond the finan? cial theme. Of great significance was the fact that, for most of its history, the leadership was provided by the 'Cousinhood', the close-knit, highly angli? cized Anglo-Jewish aristocracy. The 'Grand Dukes of Anglo-Jewry' were rarely rigorous in their religious practice, but they remained nominally 'orthodox' and felt that it was their duty and right to follow their parents in the governing of the major communal organizations. They were not great believers in democracy and they governed the organization in an autocratic fashion; the Council was little more than a rubber stamp for the decisions of the honorary officers. Newman gives particular attention to two leaders: Lionel Louis Cohen, who played a significant role in the setting up and early period of the organization, and Robert Waley-Cohen, who has been called the 'last of the Grand Dukes'. The change in the social composition of the leadership was gradual and the 'Cousinhood' monopolized the top leadership positions long after the lower positions of authority were taken by members of east European descent. In the post Second World War period, with the social advance and greater assertion of the children of east Euro? pean immigrants, there was increased opposition to undemocratic leadership, especially over the issue of the election of honorary officers. The book includes sections on the lay staff, whose importance has increased in the recent period, and the 'clergy', whose complaints over salary, low status and lack of authority have changed little over the century. There is little, however, on the chang? ing roles and self-images of the clergy, from the English 'Reverend' to the more traditional Rabbi. More attention is given to the Chief Rabbinate and its relations with the lay leaders, especially the disputes between Waley-Cohen and Rabbi Dr Hertz. Newman argues that their acrimonious relation? ship was a result of several factors: their strong personalities, the division in the United Synagogue between 'spiritual' and 'temporal' authority with? out a clear definition of the two terms, different philosophies regarding Judaism and the appro? priate ways to encourage interest in it. The Feder? ation of Synagogues is discussed, mainly with regard to its disputes with the United Synagogue over the election of the Chief Rabbis, but almost no mention is made of Reform and Liberal Judaism. The support given by some United Synagogue lay leaders and ministers to the Liberal movement at its formative stage is entirely ignored. Dr Newman emphasizes the success of the United Synagogue in incorporating the east European immigrants and their children once they moved out from the East End. He compares the unity repre? sented by the United Synagogue with the failure of the New York Kehillah (1908-22) which, in response to anti-semitism, attempted to unify all the Jewish organizations in New York, religious and secular. This comparison is suspect since the pur? poses and scope of the Kehillah were very different from those of the United Synagogue. A more appropriate comparison could have been made with the synagogue unions in the United States, especially the United Synagogue of America, the union of Conservative synagogues. Newman argues that the children of immigrants in London maintained their orthodoxy within the United Synagogue, while in the United States the children of immigrants 'turned eventually towards a reform type Judaism'. This is an overstatement. In the first place, the majority of United Synagogue members are only orthodox on the two or three occasions each year when they attend orthodox synagogue services. In the second place, the majority of those of the second generation who joined a synagogue in the United States joined Conservative synagogues, and it is misleading to refer to Conservative Judaism as 'reform-type'. Indeed, until about the Second World War, the type of Judaism found in the majority of American Conservative synagogues was quite close to that of the London United Synagogue. Since the War, American Conservative Judaism has become more Americanized while the London United Synagogue has become less Angli? cized, and it is a pity that Dr Newman does not discuss the possible consequences of the post-war Orthodox trend within the United Synagogue. The decline in the number of marriages under the auspices of the United Synagogue in comparison with the increase in marriages under Reform and</page><page sequence="4">Book Notes 171 Liberal auspices suggests that the United Syna? gogue may have lost its capacity to adjust to its environment. My major criticism of Dr Newman's book con? cerns its omissions. Most of the subjects which Dr Newman discusses are discussed thoroughly and well, but I believe a wider approach would have resulted in a more interesting work. Stephen Sharot</page></plain_text>