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The nineteenth-century constitution of the Sunderland congregation

Bernard Susser

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 40, 2005 The nineteenth-century constitution of the Sunderland congregation* BERNARD SÜSSER By around the year 1825 some 6000 to 8000 Jews had settled in English provincial towns. Liverpool and Birmingham was home to perhaps the bulk of them, while the rest were to be found mostly in small communities of up to 250 souls in sea ports. The majority of such communities included considerable well-anglicized native-born elements. British-born Jews had, in the main, forsaken lowly occupations such as old-clothes dealing and peddling for the more middle-class occupations of shopkeeping, small-scale manufacturing, doctoring and dentistry. In dress and speech they were indistinguishable from the general public, and to an increasing extent they participated in the social, political and even, in the case of the substantial number who converted, religious life of the country.1 Our knowledge of one of these communities, that of Sunderland, in the early 1820s, has been enlarged by the discovery of a manuscript book of Regulations relating to the Congregation of Adath Jeshurun, a poetical name for Israel (Deuteronomy 32:15). The designation was not unique. Bristol congregation founded in about 1750 was similarly named, as was one in Cologne.2 The book measures 9% inches by 7'A inches and contains 216 pages of which 190 are blank. At the Hebrew end of the book, reading from right to left, are the Regulations written in a blend of Germanic Yiddish and Hebrew, in square Hebrew characters. These take up twenty-four leaves written on the left-hand side of each two-page spread only. The title page is in Hebrew and is dated 1823 (although Regulation 30 refers to founder members in 1821). The book was used again in 1845 and 1846 when deci sions of'the old established Congregation of Israelites' were recorded in English at the back, using both sides of two leaves. It was probably at this time that the outside cover was adorned with tooled gold lettering which reads 'Rules and Regulations of the Sunderland Synagogue'. * This paper, written in 1969, is here published for the first time. 1 For an overview see Cecil Roth, History of the Jem in England (Oxford 1949) 239. 2 The Regulations were found among the effects of the late Abraham Merskey and given to the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation by his family.</page><page sequence="2">Bernard Süsser Sunderland's two Jewish congregations There were two Jewish congregations in Sunderland in the nineteenth century. The senior was called the 'Polish' and was founded towards the end of the eighteenth century. George Garbutt, writing in 1819, referred to this congregation when he said that 'the Jews of Sunderland and neigh bourhood meet for public worship in a house at the bottom of Vine Street. It is difficult of access and in no way remarkable for its interior decora tions.'3 The congregation still met there in 1830 when James Burnett wrote 'The Jews have a synagogue in Vine Street'.4 By the middle of the 1850s it had become extinct, there being only twelve worshippers on the Sabbath morning of the 1851 census. The other congregation, the 'Israelite', as it eventually became known, appears to have been founded on 13 July 1821.5 The official name of the congregation at its foundation was Adath Jeshurun; in the course of time this appellation was dropped and, from being referred to as a Congregation of the Israelites, became the Israelite Congregation. Evidence of this change is provided by the minutes of deci sions taken at 'a meeting of the members of the old established Congregation of Israelites' at the home of Jacob Joseph on 15 May 1845, copied in English at the left-hand end of the manuscript volume containing the Regulations. The use of the same book for both the Adath Jeshurun and Israelite congregations, coupled with Jacob Joseph's continuity of member ship and service - he was a founder member of Adath Jeshurun and presi dent of the Israelites - indicates that the two congregations were one and the same. A further alteration in the congregation's official name was made when the Israelites built their first synagogue in Moor Street, opened in 1862. It was then styled 'The Sunderland Hebrew Congregation', the name by which is it still officially known. The present account is intended to correct Levy's somewhat confused history, which he would no doubt have amended had he known of the Regulations and lived to see his book published. The use of the adjectives 'Israelite' and 'Hebrew' instead of the now more obvious 'Jewish' requires explanation. They were used because in the eighteenth, nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, at least until after the great martyrdom of European Jewry, 'Jew' and 'Jewish' had unpleasant 3 G. Garbutt, A Historical View of Sunderland (Sunderland 1819) 258. 4 J. Burnett, The History of the Town and Port of Sunderland (Sunderland 1830) 83. 5 Regulation (hereafter Reg.) 30. Cecil Roth, Rise of Provincial Jewry (London 1950) 102, says that it was founded in 1829, but gives no source for his statement. A. Levy, 'History of the Sunderland Jewish Community' (unpublished MS 1956) 29, mistakenly asserts that Burnett gave 1829 as the date of the foundation of the Israelite Congregation.</page><page sequence="3">The nineteenth-century constitution of the Sunderland congregation connotations6 and were used in a 'more or less opprobrious sense'.7 Graetz, the Jewish historian, speaks of'the scornful nick-name of the Jew' which was in general use throughout Europe.8 Sympathetic non-Jews who wished to avoid the unpleasant undertones of'Jew' therefore used the euphemistic terms 'Israelite' and 'Hebrew'. As the Voice of Jacob put it in 1844, 'proba bly because of the remains of ancient prejudice against the title "Jews", the Athenaeum calls us "Hebrews" '.9 In Britain 'Hebrews' was in general use and was adopted by Jews themselves, particularly in provincial towns, to designate their communities, hence the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation. In France, Israélite was preferred and was in general use until the emer gence of the State of Israel, which has led to ambiguity in the adjectival form (for instance, the Alliance Israélite Universelle). Jacob Joseph dominated the affairs of Sunderland's Jewry during the greater part of the nineteenth century.10 While in Amsterdam in 1790 he accepted an invitation from the Polish Congregation to become its shochet (ritual slaughterer) and hazan (cantor). Since the congregation was small and could not afford to pay a living wage, he augmented his salary by trad ing (not at all unusual in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: records of the business transactions of the Penzance shochet, B. A. Simmons, 1784-1860, are still extant). Commercial success led him to resign his post. The opportunity to do so came with the founding of Adath Jeshurun in 1821, when he exchanged his service status as a shochet for the higher social standing of a baal habayis. This term (pi. baalei batim) is used in the Regulations to describe a full Member with voting rights as distinct from a Seat-holder who had none, but is also used, depending on the context, to designate members in general, as distinct from paid officials. Relations between the two congregations were bad. Members of the Israelite Congregation had not only to refrain from supporting the Polish, but were not to worship there (Regulation 10). The cause of the split is not now known. Levy tentatively suggests that the Polish Congregation was principally composed of Hasidim, whereas the other catered for Misnagdim.11 This is unlikely because there is no evidence that Hasidic conventicles were anywhere established in Britain before the large-scale Russo-Polish immigration from i860 onwards (there are few references to Hasidism in the Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society). A more likely reason for the split is that the members of the Adath Jeshurun 6 H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modem English Usage (Oxford 1940) s.v. Hebrew. 7 Ibid. s.v. Jew. 8 H. Graetz, History of the Jews V (Philadelphia 1956) 293. 9 Voice of Jacob 16 February 1844. 10 A. Levy (see n. 5) 36-8. 11 Ibid. 30.</page><page sequence="4">Bernard Süsser Congregation were Jewishly more observant and less anglicized and assimi lated than their brothers in the Polish. Two considerations lend strength to this argument: first, the Regulations are written entirely in Hebrew and Yiddish without a single English loan word and, secondly, the detailed explanation of the reasons underlying some of the regulations (Regulations 4 and 11 and see below under 'Standards of Jewish Knowledge') suggests that the justifications for them were not fully comprehended by this congregation. The number of Jews in Sunderland in 1823 There were probably about 150 Jews - men, women and children - in Sunderland in the early 1820s. This number emerges only from a series of assumptions and guesses, albeit based on some known data. The only certainty in the chain of circumstantial reasoning is the number of Full Members in the Adath Jeshurun Congregation. Regulation 30 lists twelve Full Members, all of whom, to judge by their titles, were married men. The abbreviated prefix of the letter kaf suggests kevod, an honorific title usually reserved for married men, while the letters he bet represent ha bachur, usually placed before a bachelor's name. Seven of these can be identified, among whom the youngest was David Jonassohn and the oldest Jacob Joseph, respectively aged twenty-six and fifty-eight in 1821.12 Since, on average, each Full Member represented a family of four or five persons, there must have been some fifty or sixty individuals associated with Adath Jeshurun. In addition, an allowance must be made for a number of Seat holders and non-paying associates. In older-established communities Full Members formed a minority, but in newly organized congregations, such as Adath Jeshurun, it may be assumed that the Seat-holders were in the minority, particularly as they were encouraged to become Full Members (Regulation 28). Assuming