15 February 2023

Stepney honours Max Levitas,
the Dublin-born hero of
the Battle of Cable Street

Levitas House in Stepney is a fitting tribute to Max Levitas, the Dublin-born hero of the Battle of Cable Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

In my stroll around the East End last week, searching for synagogues and churches, I was pleasantly surprised to come upon Levitas House on Jubilee Street, new flats in Stepney Green that are a fitting memory and tribute to Max Levitas, the Dublin-born hero of the Battle of Cable Street and a veteran political activist.

Levitas House opened in 2020 and is close to the playground in Jubilee Gardens and to the Synagogue of the Congregation of Jacob on Commercial Road, one of the last surviving, working synagogues in what was once the heart of the Jewish East End.

Levitas House was built on the site of an old car park that once been a hub for anti-social activity. The site was turned into a new housing scheme, and when it opened in 2020 it was named in honour of Max Levitas (1915-2018), a veteran anti-fascist campaigner and a hero in the Battle of Cable Street who helped beat off Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in 1936. His brother Maurice (‘Morry’) Levitas (1917-2001) was a veteran of the Connolly Column in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

Max and Morry Levitas were the sons of Harry Levitas from the shtetl of Akmeyan in Lithuania and Leah Rick from Riga in Latvia, who both fled in 1913 to escape antisemitic pogroms in Tsarist Russia. They met in Dublin and were married in the Camden Street Synagogue in August 1914. However, on the other side of Europe, Harry’s sister Sara was burnt to death along with fellow-villagers in the synagogue of Akmeyan, and Leah’s sister Rachel was killed with her family by the Nazis in Riga.

Harry Levitas was a prominent activist in the Amalgamated Jewish Tailors’, Machinists’ and Pressers’ Union, then known in Dublin as ‘the Jewish Union,’ which had its offices in a building shared with the Camden Street Synagogue.

The family lived in Longwood Avenue and Warren Street in Portobello, a part of Dublin known to generations as ‘Little Jerusalem.’ The Camden Street Synagogue closed in 1916, and the Levitas family attended Lennox Street synagogue, just around the corner from their home on Warren Street.

One Saturday in the mid-1920s, the synagogue almost went up in smoke. It was not, however, attempted arson. Four playmates had been anxious to bring the Sabbath to a speedy conclusion in order to resume playing on the street. So they came back into the synagogue to hastily say the final prayers, and accidentally knocked over a candle that set a cloth alight, fortunately quickly extinguished. The ‘culprits’ were three brothers – Max, Maurice and Sol Levitas – and Chaim Herzog, a future President of Israel and son of Yitzhak Herzog, the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland.

Max Samuel Levitas (Motl Shmuel ben Hillel) was born at 15 Longwood Avenue in June 1915. When Harry was blacklisted by employers, the family was forced to move to Glasgow in 1927.

The family later moved to Whitechapel in the East End in London, where Max took part in the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936. He was an active 19-year-old member of the Young Communists growing up in Whitechapel when Oswald Mosley tried marching through a largely Jewish East End in 1936 with his blackshirts.

The Battle of Cable Street … fought 80 years ago and commemorated in a mural on the side of on the side of Saint George’s Town Hall in Cable Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Max remained a political and social activist all his life, and was a Communist councillor in Stepney for 15 years until the 1970s.

The building shared by the Camden Street Synagogue and the union became part of the headquarters of Concern International, and in 2002 Max Levitas was invited to unveil a plaque on the building celebrating its links with both Dublin’s Jewish community and the trade union movement.

Max relived his memories of the Battle of Cable Street in an address at the 70th anniversary commemorations in Toynbee Hall in 2006, when he estimated 200,000 East Enders had prevented the blackshirts getting through. He delivered his last public speech at the age of 101 at the 80th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Cable Street in October 2016. He died at the age of 103 on 2 November 2018 after a life of political activism fighting for housing for the poor and social justice. He was buried in Rainham Jewish Cemetery.

His brother, Maurice (‘Morry’) Levitas (1917-2001) was born at 8 Warren Street. He was a veteran of the Connolly Column in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. He took part in the commemoration of the Connolly Column in Liberty Hall, Dublin, in 1991, when he was chosen to read out the list of members. He also attended a ceremony hosted by the Lord Mayor of Dublin in the Mansion House in 1997 to honour the surviving Irish members of the International Brigade. He died in London in 2001.

The development in Jubilee Street in memory of Max Levitas is the first of three sites completed in 2020 with 77 new council homes altogether, managed by Tower Hamlets Homes.

‘These new properties are a fitting tribute to the memory of Max Levitas,’ the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, said at the opening of Levitas House in 2020. ‘Levitas House will provide much needed housing in Stepney to people on our waiting list, part of our programme for 2,000 new council homes to help those bearing the brunt of the housing crisis.’

Levitas House is modelled as three sliced volumes faced in a variegated London stock brick, the two outer slices cut and carved out for balconies and set-backs. These take their cue from nearby 1930s balcony-access flats.

The five-, six- and seven-storey building provides 24 new council homes with affordable rents. The larger flats are for bigger families, each with its own outdoor space. Two of the flats are designed for families with disabilities with wider hallways with space for wheelchairs and showers with safety equipment.

Levitas House has a large playground with a climbing frame, swings and trampolines for its tenants and for other families on the Cliche Estate. A quarter of the new homes have been given to families from the estate who were on the local authority’s register in need of more suitable housing.

The name of Levitas House in Stepney keeps alive the memory of Max Levitas, the Dublin-born hero of the Battle of Cable Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Praying in Ordinary Time
with USPG: 15 February 2023

The Revd Thomas Bray (1658-1730) … founder of SPG (now USPG) and SPCK, died on 15 February 1730

Patrick Comerford

These weeks, between the end of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, are known as Ordinary Time. We are in a time of preparation for Lent, which in turn is a preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

Before today becomes a busy day, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

In these days of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday next week (22 February), I am reflecting in these ways each morning:

1, reflecting on a saint or interesting person in the life of the Church;

2, one of the lectionary readings of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today commemorates both Sigfrid, Bishop, Apostle of Sweden (1045), and Thomas Bray, Priest, founder of the SPCK and the SPG (1730).

The Revd Dr Thomas Bray (1658-1730), an Anglican priest who spent time in Maryland as a missionary, was the founder of both the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG, now the United Society or Us) and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK). He is commemorated on this date [15 February] in several Churches in the Anglican Communion, including the Church of England and the Episcopal Church.

Thomas Bray was born into a humble Shropshire family in 1658 in Marton, near Chirbury, the son of Richard and Mary Bray. The house on Martin Crest is now known as Bray’s Tenement.

The local bishop took notice of young Thomas and felt that with his bright mind he should receive a good education. The bishop sponsored him and paid for his education. Thomas Bray He was educated at Oswestry School, matriculated at All Souls’ College, Oxford, as a ‘poor boy’ on 12 March 1675, and graduated BA in 1678. He later received the degrees MA at Hart Hall (now Hertford College) in 1693, and BD and DD at Magdalene College, Oxford, in 1696.

Thomas Bray was ordained priest in 1682, and he was curate at Bridgnorth before becoming a private chaplain and then Vicar of Over Whitacre and from 1690-1695 Rector of Saint Giles, Sheldon, in Warwickshire, in the Diocese of Lichfield. There he wrote his Catechetical Lectures, which was dedicated to William Lloyd, Bishop of Lichfield. While he was in Warwickshire, he married is first wife, Eleanor.

He appears to have been widowed by 1695, when the Bishop of London, Henry Compton, appointed him as his commissary to organise the struggling Anglican presence in the colony of Maryland.

But his visit to Maryland was long delayed by legal complications, and during that delay, the widowed Thomas Bray married Agnes Sayers of Saint Martin’s-in-the-Fields in Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, Holborn in 1698.

Thomas Bray eventually set sail for America in 1699 for his first and only visit. Although he spent only ten weeks in Maryland, Bray was deeply concerned about the neglected state of the Church in America and the great need for the education of the clergy, the laity people and children.

He radically reorganised and renewed the Church in Maryland, providing for the instruction of children and the systematic examination of candidates for pastoral positions. He also took a great interest in colonial missions, especially among the Native Americans.

At a general visitation of the clergy in Annapolis before his return to England, he emphasised the need for the instruction of children and insisted that no clergyman be given a charge unless he had a good report from the ship he came over in, ‘whether … he gave no matter of scandal, and whether he did constantly read prayers twice a day and catechise and preach on Sundays, which, notwithstanding the common excuses, I know can be done by a minister of any zeal for religion.’

As a result of his visit to Maryland, he proposed a successful scheme for establishing parish libraries in England and America. Bray’s vision was for a library in each parish in America, funded by booksellers and stocked with books donated by authors. These libraries were to encourage the spread of the Anglicanism in the colonies, and were primarily composed of theological works. It was a major endeavour, as at the time the only other public libraries in the American colonies were at a small number of universities.

Back in England, he raised money for missionary work and influenced young Anglican priests to go to America. But his efforts to secure the consecration of a bishop for America were unsuccessful.

In England, he also wrote and preached in defence of the rights of enslaved Africans, and of Indians deprived of their land. He also worked for the reform of prison conditions, and for the establishment of preaching missions to prisoners. He persuaded General James Oglethorpe to found a colony in Georgia for the settlement of debtors as an alternative to debtors’ prison.

In response to his experiences, Thomas Bray was instrumental in establishing both SPCK in 1699 and SPG in 1701.

From 1706 until his death in 1730 he was Vicar of Saint Botolph Without, Aldgate, London, where he continued his philanthropic and literary pursuits. He served the parish with energy and devotion, while continuing his efforts on behalf of African slaves in America and in founding parish libraries.

By the time he died on 15 February 1730 at the age of 74, Bray had succeeded in establishing 80 libraries in England and Wales and 39 in America.

Thomas Bray’s most widely circulated work is his four-volume A Course of Lectures upon the Church Catechism, published in 1696.

Thomas Bray was Vicar of Saint Botolph Without, Aldgate, London, from 1706 until his death in 1730 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 8: 22-26 (NRSVA):

22 They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ 24 And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village.’

All Souls’ College, Oxford … Thomas Bray matriculated as a ‘poor boy’ in 1675 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Bray Day.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Jo Sadgrove, USPG’s Research and Learning Advisor, who shared the challenges of uncovering USPG’s archives.

The USPG Prayer Diary today invites us to pray in these words:

We pray for all who live with the shadow of the slave trade. May we work tirelessly to understand and dismantle its legacy.

Additional Prayer:

O God of compassion, who opened the eyes of your servant Thomas Bray to see the needs of the Church in the New World, and led him to found societies to meet those needs: Make the Church in this land diligent at all times to propagate the Gospel among those who have not received it, and to promote the spread of Christian knowledge; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever..

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org