< Back

Reviews: A Beacon of Light: The History of the West London Synagogue (2013), Philippa Bernard

Bryan Diamond

<plain_text><page sequence="1">A Beacon of Light: The History o/the West London Synagogue, Philippa Bernard (London: West London Synagogue, 2013), isbn 978-0- 9576672-0-4, pp. x+ 229, £25 In 2012 there was a review of Pam Fox's centenary history of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, A Place to Call My Jewish Home, in Transactions, vol. 44 (p. 235). Now the other leading Progressive British congregation has a history published, 163 years after its foundation in 1840. The new volume, by a historian who in 2003 wrote a history of the (independent) Westminster Synagogue, is a useful account of the earliest British Progressive congregation. This complements the 1995 history of the Reform movement, Tradition and Change: A History 0/ Re/orm Judaism in Britain 1840-1995, by Anne Kershen and Rabbi Jonathan Romain (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1995), which has numerous mentions of the West London Synagogue (wls). So now there are histories of both movements and of their leading congregations. Bernard describes the building and people, including the ministers, of whom there have been only seven senior ones, from Rev. Marks to the current Rabbi Julia Neuberger (illustrated in the plate of portraits). There are several references to Liberals, Claude Montefiore, and others connected to the Liberal movement. However, a review in the Jewish Chronicle of 6 June 2014 (p. 33), by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild (of Wimbledon), criticized Bernard for not "looking at the relationships of the personalities" or the current state of the Reform community.</page><page sequence="2">174 REVIEWS The Jewish Religious Union (jru) is mentioned (p. 70) regarding the WLS proposal in 1903 to host the Liberal services on Shabbat afternoons, under jru control, with modern prayers, men and women seated apart; the WLS Council were "none too happy and refused to allow Rev. Joseph to be on the jru's committee." Fuller accounts of this episode may be read in Rabbi Lawrence Rigal and Rosita Rosenberg's Liberal Judaism: The First Hundred Years (London: Liberal Judaism, 2004, pp. 25-6) and in Kershen and Romain (pp. 105-6). Another passage of interest to Liberals concerns the motion in 1936 for closer cooperation of Reform congregations with the Liberals (p. 117); talks took place but a year later broke down due to differences in organization of the two movements; this is also more fully described by Rigal and Rosenberg (pp. 95-6). Bernard comments that "many at wl felt they might have had a lucky escape!" while Rigal referred to "opposition by two Reform delegates". Later discussions are described on pages 186-7, concluding that a merger was not then practicable. (Again, discussed in Rigal and Rosenberg, pp. 211-14; the issues as seen by the Liberals were presented in three talks in 1984 by Rabbi Rayner [To Merge or not to Merge, London: Liberal Jewish Synagogue, 15 pages], who thought that though a merger was possible it was uncertain if it were desirable, and Rabbi Goldberg, who considered it advantageous.) Chapter 2 deals with the delay in getting a marriage registrar appointed and with the School, founded in 1845 but closed in 1897 after numbers declined. A landmark for feminism was the introduction of a Confirmation ceremony for girls as well as boys in i860. Yet, women were not allowed to read the Haftarah until 1939 and then only if they were members of the Armed Forces. They were also confined to the gallery on High Holy Days until 1983. The contentious issues of Confirmation (a group ceremony for boys and girls) and bar/batmitzvah (traditionally for boys only) are mentioned: initially, a group of boys and girls were involved without any of them reading from a scroll; then in 1929 Rabbi Reinhart favoured dropping bar/batmitzvah in favour of Confirmation at fifteen or sixteen years old. The details as to who did what I did not find easy to follow. For the jhse, interest will also lie in the description of relations with other institutions. Chapter 4 describes the struggle for acceptance by the Board of Deputies, the wls finally being admitted in 1883. The withdrawal from the Board in 1949 over the Marriage Secretary issue is discussed later. After mediation, the wls rejoined the Board, but Kershen and Romain (p.</page><page sequence="3">A Beacon of Light, Philippa Bernard 175 211) write that this decision caused some resentment among other Reform congregations. Zionism has a few mentions; for instance, in Chapter 6, Bernard describes the role of Claude Montefiore as "almost virulently anti-Zionist" (p. 83): after Herzl's visit in 1896, he and others from the wls wanted "no part in the nationalism of Palestine". In 1909 Montefiore and other members of the wls were signatories of a letter to the Jewish Chronicle about their patriotism as Englishmen. Then in 1949 the proposed inclusion of a Prayer for Israel was opposed by the Council but approved by the congregation, yet was not read until 1953 . This shows some of the tensions over support for Israel in that congregation. Chapter 8 mentions the help provided to refugees from Germany in the 1930s, including providing hospitality; Chapter 10 covers the help given to refugees after the war. In sum, this is a welcome addition to Anglo-Jewish history. Bryan Diamond</page></plain_text>