Downton Abbey fans around the world are rejoicing at the release of the long-awaited Downton Abbey movie, a historical drama set in 1927 in England. What was this historical period like for the Jewish population of Britain? We asked Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton, Senior Rabbi of The Great Synagogue, Sydney, to share an overview of the political and social make up of British Jewry at the time of Downton Abbey.
Anglo-Jewry in the 1920s
The ten years after the end of the First World War was a high point for the Jewish community in Britain. Across all expressions of Judaism there was strength and growth.
The United Synagogue was the most important synagogue organisation. It was led by the charismatic Chief Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz, who brought out his famous Chumash in the late 1920s. The United Synagogue was expanding, establishing new congregation and filling the Jewish suburbs with places of worship. At its emotional core was still the Great Synagogue, in the East End of London, the mother Ashkenazi congregation of Britain and the British Empire. It had been functioning since 1690, and in the same building since 1790. It was eventually destroyed as a result of German bombing in 1941. Although the Rothschilds remained the Wardens of the Great, the wealthy Jews largely worshipped in the elite West End congregations: Central, New West End, Bayswater, with a sprinkling of intellectuals at Hampstead.
The Chief Rabbi managed to embrace not only the United Synagogue, but also the Federation of Synagogues, composed of more traditional, immigrant synagogues, organised and put into good order by the Anglo-Jewish establishment.
To the left of the Chief Rabbinate, the Liberal Jewish movement under Clause Montefiore, Israel Abrahams and Lily Montagu presented a modern vision of Progressive Judaism, reviving that section of the religious spectrum which had rather atrophied under the leadership of the highly-establishment and staid West London Synagogue. To the United Synagogue’s right was the Adath Yisroel, with its Rav, Avigdor Schonfeld, a product of German Neo-Orthodoxy inspired by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.
There was a battle going on in the community over Zionism, but the Zionists, with their champions Chief Rabbi Hertz and Haham Moses Gaster of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, increasingly had the upper hand.
In other activities, Yiddish theatre and music flourished, Jews’ College employed and trained serious scholars, there were Jews in Parliament and Government.
It was a brief and happy period before British Jewry had to confront the tragedy of Nazism and the Second World War.
About the author
Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton is the Chief Minister and Senior Rabbi of The Great Synagogue, Sydney. He holds an MA in History from Cambridge University and a PhD in Jewish History from London University, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of London.
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