History & Culture

A Century since WWI: Reverend Michael Adler (1868-1944)
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Monday 11th August 2014

The centenary of the start of the First World War is an appropriate if sombre time to recall Rev. Michael Adler, Chaplain to the British Armed Forces and one of the most accomplished ministers of his time.

The first minister to serve as Chaplain was Francis Lyon Cohen (1862-1934), minister of the Borough Synagogue, who held this position from 1892 to 1904. He received semicha (Rabbinic ordination) and moved to Sydney, Australia, where he served as head of the Beth Din, at which point Michael Adler, minister of the Central Synagogue (and former minister of Hammersmith Synagogue) succeeded him.

Initially, the responsibilities were part-time and included an annual Chanukah military service, which Rabbi Cohen had pioneered. By 1915, with many young Jews volunteering for the services ahead of conscription, Michael Adler realised that chaplaincy had to become full-time and that he should be based in France. The Chaplain General, John Taylor Smith (1860-1938) suggested that instead of the usual Christian chaplain’s badge, Rev Adler should wear a Magen David. It was not long before Michael Adler decided that the Magen David would be the symbol on the graves of Jewish soldiers who died in action.

Initially working as the lone Jewish Chaplain on the Western Front, he enlisted the support of Jewish communities in Paris, Havre, Rouen, Versailles and Boulogne. With financial support from Anglo-Jewry, he arranged that the suppliers of matzah for French Jewish soldiers should also supply 1,200 British Jewish soldiers. It did not happen, and three months after Pesach 1915, he received a letter asking what was to be done with the special food that was awaiting distribution!
In the first month of the War, Michael Adler wrote a Soldiers’ Prayer Book, which Chief Rabbi Hertz (who visited France in June 1915) later enlarged.

As the conflict continued, more chaplains were required, and Rev. Vivian Simmons of West London (Reform) Synagogue and Rev. Arthur Barnett (d. 1961), later minister of the independent Orthodox Western Synagogue were called up. About a dozen others, both ministers and chazanim, followed. The most famous of them was the future Chief Chaplain and Chief Rabbi, Israel Brodie. Mark Gollop exchanged his pulpit in Southend & Westcliff for the Gallipoli Campaign, later becoming Rabbi of Hampstead, a Dayan at the London Beth Din and Chief Chaplain to the Forces. One of the chaplains attached to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was my great-uncle-in-law, Yitzchak Frankenthal. In July 1918, Michael Adler returned home unwell, his place as senior chaplain in France being taken by Arthur Barnett.

In 1922, Michael Adler edited the British Jewry Book of Honour, which recorded the names and regiments of the approximately 50,000 Jews who served in the British and other armies of the Empire and Dominions, as well as containing a number of articles. He also wrote on the Jews of Medieval England.

Rev Adler’s chaplaincy article in the British Jewry Book of Honour and US Living & Learning’s booklet commemorating the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One are available at www.theus.org.uk/100yearsago.