06 March 2023

The Hambro’ Synagogue,
rival London synagogues
and two rival chief rabbis

The Hambro’ Synagogue was in Church Passage, a narrow passage close to Fenchurch Street railway station, from 1707 to 1893 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Purim this year begins this evening (6 March 2023) and ends tomorrow evening (7 March 2023). Purim recalls the story of Esther and the near-destruction of the Jewish people during the reign King Ahasuerus of Persia. The hero of the piece is Haman the a courtier, and the heroes in the story are Mordecai and his orphaned cousin, Queen Esther.

As Purim begins, I thought it interesting to tell the story of another Mordecai – Marcus or Mordecai Moses, also known as Marcus Hamburger – and the story of rivalries within the Jewish community in London 300 years ago, involving rival synagogues and rival chief rabbis, a story that revolves the foundation of the Hambro’ synagogue in the early 18th century.

During my recent walks around the East End, In recent postings, I have described my walks around the East End and my visits to a number of synagogues and former synagogues, including the Spital Square Poltava Synagogue at 2 Heneage Street, the former Artillery Lane Synagogue, near Liverpool Street Station, the former Gun Street Synagogue, near Spitalfields, the East London Central Synagogue, also known as Nelson Street Synagogue, and the many synagogues on Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane.

The Hambro’ Synagogue was one of the first three Ashkenazi synagogues founded in London following the readmission of the Jews to England in 1656, and it served a growing community of central and eastern European Jews. It was one of the founding synagogues of the United Synagogue, which is still the largest British Jewish religious movement.

The Hambro’ Synagogue was a breakaway from the Great Synagogue, and was founded by a wealthy gem dealer, Marcus (or Mordecai) Moses, also known as Marcus Hamburger.

Marcus Moses wished to establish a small house of study and prayer (a beth hamedrash) in a house in Saint Mary Axe. The move was bitterly opposed by the Great Synagogue, and with the support of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, the Great Synagogue obtained an injunction from the Court of the Aldermen of the City of London against the erection of an alternative place of worship.

A dispute later developed regarding a divorce, in which Marcus Moses publicly criticised the Jewish authorities. This lead to his excommunication by the then Chief Rabbi of the Great Synagogue.

Marcus Moses established a congregation that met in his home in Magpie Alley – also known as Church Row or Church Passage – off Fenchurch Street in 1707. This was the first attempt at an independent synagogue in London. His family tutor from Hamburg, Jochanan Höllischau, was engaged as its rabbi and he set aside the decree of excommunication. At the same time, the congregation acquired a separate burial ground in Hoxton.

The authorities in the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities combined to obtain an injunction against a place of public Jewish worship opening in Saint Mary Axe, so near to both Duke’s Place and Bevis Marks. But for about 20 years, the congregation continued to meet at the home of Marcus Moses.

Defying the injunction and against the objections of other synagogues, Marcus Moses built a regular synagogue in the garden beside his house in Magpie Alley in 1725. The foundation stone had the Hebrew date as 3 Sivan 5485 (15 May 1725). It was laid by Rabbi Zeeb Wolf, son of Isaac Bimas of Bomsal, Prague, who became known as Wolf Prager.

This synagogue continued until 1893 at Magpie Alley, later Church Passage, Fenchurch Street. Because the new synagogue at first conformed to the Hamburg minhag or customs, it became known as ‘The Hambro’.’ It was also known, at different times as ‘Mordecai Hamburger’s Synagogue,’ the ‘Wolf Prager’s Synagogue’ and ‘Henry Isaac’s Synagogue’ – after the son of Wolf Prager.

Jochanan Höllischau’s successor as rabbi was Rabbi Meshullam Solomon (1723-1794) or Zalman. Meanwhile, Rabbi Hirschel Levin (1721-1800), also known as Hart Lyon and Hirshel Löbel, was effectively appointed as the chief rabbi of both the Hambro’ and the Great Synagogue in 1757-1758. He was the father of Dr Solomon Herschell (1762-1842), a later chief rabbi (1802-1842).

After Chief Rabbi Hart Lyon left London in 1764, it was agreed that his successor should be appointed and maintained by the Great Synagogue and the Hambro’ Synagogue jointly. However, they could not agree on a single name. The Great Synagogue appointed their rabbi, Tevele Schiff, as Chief Rabbi, while the Hambro’ Synagogue appointed their Rabbi, Israel Meshullam Zalman, who was Schiff’s cousin, who became known in England as Meshullam Solomon.

Solomon was born in Altona, near Hamburg, and was one of two rival Chief Rabbis and the rabbi of the Hambro’ Synagogue. Rabbi Solomon claimed authority as Chief Rabbi from 1765 to 1780, while Rabbi Tevele Schiff claimed the same authority from 1765 to 1791.

Rabbi Solomon was the son of Jacob Emden, the grandson of the Chacham Tzvi, and a great-great-great grandson of Elijah Ba’al Shem of Chelm. After being rabbi at Podhajce, he was appointed rabbi of the Hamburger Hambro' Synagogue in London in 1764. The Hambro’ Synagogue managed to bring his salary up to £150 and granted him £50 for travelling expenses and £120 to set up house in London.

Each rival Chief Rabbi tried to claim authority, causing a split in the London Rabbinate. The Jews of the provinces were confused as to which Chief Rabbi they should follow.

Solomon was sure of his supremacy, as he had been legitimately appointed Chief Rabbi and two synagogues followed him in London, as against only one that accepted Schiff – even if it was the larger and the wealthier synagogue. Solomon saw Schiff as an impostor and had no hesitation in signing himself as ‘Rabbi of London and the provinces,’ declaring himself Rabbi of the Ashkenazi communities.

In 1777, Solomon published a translation of a sermon he preached the previous year for the success of the British Army during the American War of Independence. This was the earliest address delivered in an Ashkenazi synagogue in England made available in print to the general public.

When in 1774 he invalidated a get or divorce document brought from Amsterdam in 1768, he was publicly criticised by a Sephardi scholar, Shalom Buzaglo. His own matrimonial troubles attracted attention in the press in 1778, when it was reported that the ‘Jew Priest’ of the Hambro’ Synagogue had divorced his ‘Priestess.’ His relations with his congregation become embittered, while the income of the Hambro’ Synagogue fell to such a degree that it was unable to continue paying the salary of its own rabbi.

The problem was resolved after a split within the Jewish community in Portsmouth. When a dissident group in Portsmouth established a rival synagogue recognising the authority of Solomon, the main community formally accepted the authority of Schiff, who in 1766 began to be known as the ‘Chief Rabbi’. Meshullam Solomon left London in 1780 for a post in Russia.

Once Solomon left England, the dispute that began quickly came to an end. From then on, the Rabbinate of the Great Synagogue was recognised without question by all Jewish communities in the provincial towns, and all of whom accepted Tevele Schiff’s authority. Meshullam Solomon died in Hamburg in 1794.

A narrow street between Fenchurch Street Station and Crutched Friars … Magpie Alley or Church Passage was once located in this area (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Meanwhile, the freehold of the site in Magpie Alley off Fenchurch Street was bequeathed to the congregation in 1805 by Eleazar Philip Salamons.

Fenchurch Street was once one of the principal streets of the City of London, and extends about two-fifths of a mile west from Aldgate to Gracechurch Street. Magpie Alley, later known as Church Passage, was a narrow passage close to Fenchurch Street railway station, and ran south towards Crutched Friars, just to the east of present day Fenchurch Place.

The Hambro’ Synagogue was one of the original five synagogues that formed the United Synagogue in 1870.

The Hambro’ Synagogue moved in 1899 to Union Street, off Commercial Road, in Whitechapel, now Adler Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The synagogue was pulled down in 1892-1893 to make room for improvements in the City of London. Services were then held in the vestry room or hall of the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Street, now Duke’s Place, from 1893 until a new Hambro’ Synagogue was opened in Union Street, off Commercial Road, in Whitechapel in the heart of London’s East End, in 1899. The new synagogue was consecrated by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Hermann Adler (1839-1911), on 27 August 1899.

Union Street was later renamed Adler Street after the former Chief Rabbi. It runs south, some 700 ft from Whitechapel High Road to Commercial Road, about 1,000 east of Gardiners Corner.

However, this Hambro’ Synagogue closed in 1936, when the congregations was merged with the Great Synagogue, after almost 230 years of independence. The Great Synagogue on Duke’s Place was destroyed in September 1941 during World War II.

Chag Purim Sameach!

A plaque marks the site of the Great Synagogue on Duke’s Place, destroyed in 1941 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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