United Synagogue 150th anniversary calendar of events
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Friday 26th July 2019

The United Synagogue is producing a series of events to mark the 150th celebration. For more information, please contact Miriam Marson, mmarson@theus.org.uk

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150 years of the United Synagogue

In this article, the historian Elkan Levy takes a look back at the rich history of the United Synagogue

The US was formed in 1870 by an Act of Parliament. Three major Ashkenazi synagogues in the City of London (The Great, The Hambro’, and The New), and two branch synagogues (the Central and Bayswater) united. The Jewish United Synagogues Act of 1870 was the result. The US is still the only Jewish religious body established by an act of secular legislature. The organisation grew rapidly, expanding to the suburbs as communities moved. The appointment of Rabbi J H Hertz as Chief Rabbi in 1913, and the outbreak of the First World War, produced both support and opposition for the emerging Zionist movement. Chaplaincy for the Armed Forces largely came from the Ministers of the United Synagogue. The development of suburbia led to the growth of important communities, and membership of the US was perceived as a step in the acculturation of those whose parents and grandparents had been part of the great immigration from Russia.

The Second World War saw evacuation from London and produced small wartime communities. Many ministers served as chaplains, and their place was taken temporarily by those who had escaped from Europe. In rapid post-war expansion 40 new congregations joined the United Synagogue in the 25 years from 1945. When J H Hertz died in 1946 he was succeeded by Rabbi Israel Brodie, only the second Chief Rabbi to have been born in England. Educated at Oxford, he acted as a chaplain in both World Wars, He was succeeded in due course by Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits and then Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who have raised the status of the Chief Rabbinate within British society and have made it into one of the Great Offices of State.

Today the United Synagogue remains one of the most influential religious bodies. Its structure has enabled new congregations to grow and old congregations to downsize gently with their assets used to support other communities. The Chief Rabbinate, today headed by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, developed from the rabbinate of the Great Synagogue has proved a unifying force, restraining internal argument and break up. The London Beth Din and its attendant Kashrut division has an international reach. The Burial Society has established standards of dignity and care at the most vulnerable stage of life. The Singer’s Prayer book (today in its most recent green-coloured edition) settled customs of prayer and the dignity of tefillot (services).

Improvements in the status and conditions of the Rabbinate have spread to other Jewish communities that look to the US for a lead in so many different fields. As the United Synagogue celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2020, we have so much to be proud of: vibrant communities led by dynamic Rabbinic teams and lay leaders, Tribe and Young US providing high quality young people’s programmes, support for our Jewish schools, high quality educational publications and hundreds of volunteers supporting vulnerable members and beyond. It is the people both behind the scenes and in the public eye, who have created a vigorous and innovative force raising the standards of Judaism for its members and for the whole community to help ensure that the US continues to be at the forefront of British Jewish Life.

Kol Hakavod!

Elkan D Levy was President of the United Synagogue from 1996 to 1999