Liberal Judaism in Brighton and Hove. Part 1: The Early Years – Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – SJN 02.16

This year we are celebrating the 250th anniversary of Brighton Jewry. Liberal Judaism in Britain began in 1902, with the establishment of the Jewish Religious Union (JRU). The story of Liberal/Progressive Jewish life in Brighton and Hove started in 1929. I would like to share with you the account of the congregation’s beginnings that is included in Liberal Judaism. The First Hundred Years (London, 2004, pp.93-4) by Rabbi Lawrence Rigal, z”l, who ministered to the Settlement Synagogue in the East End for many years, and Rosita Rosenberg, Executive Director of what was then called the Union of Liberal Progressive Synagogues from 1989 to 1997 (I have added supplementary information in square brackets).

“In 1929 Miss [Lily] Montagu and Dr [Israel] Mattuck [two of the three founders of Liberal Judaism, together with Dr Claude Montefiore] met with some Brighton residents who wanted occasional Saturday afternoon services, but they had reluctantly decided that until there was strong support, they should not proceed. It was not until 1935 that sufficient people had gathered together to make a viable start. On this occasion the meeting took place at the home of Mrs Woolf. Miss Gertrude Heilbron agreed to be secretary. That autumn High Holy Day services were organised in the Hove Town Hall, and were conducted by Rev Marcus Goldberg, a graduate of Jews’ College, who for a time had been minister to an Orthodox congregation. The JRU provided the prayer books and agreed to pay any deficit. Miss Montagu borrowed a scroll from the Orthodox synagogue in Manette Street (later in Dean Street).

“Following these services, which had attendances of 80 –120, they agreed to form a congregation. John de Lange became the first Chairman. The JRU gave them a grant of £350 for the first year to enable them to engage Rev. Goldberg as their minister, and in March 1936 the congregation was officially founded [as the Brighton and Hove Liberal Synagogue]. Regular services were begun in a loaned house in New Church Road [belonging to the Coleman-Cohen family: No. 29 – now part of the premises of Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation]. As the building was not wired for electricity, these early services were lit by gas light. Later, in 1937, they bought the Royal Gymnasium in Lansdowne Road and converted it into a synagogue. The building was consecrated on 18 September 1938. The congregation obtained a portion of the municipal cemetery [on the North side of Old Shoreham Road] for its burials.”

Sadly, the founder members of the synagogue have long since passed away. I was honoured to meet Joan Coleman-Cohen, the last survivor, and fortunately, one of our members, Betty Skolnick, recorded her recollections of the early days of the congregation before she died. We are blessed with a handful of members, whose memories go back to the immediate post-war period, including, Anne Carr, who will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of becoming part of the Shul with a Mi Shebeirach and special Kiddush on February 27. I will write about them, and the Youth Group they founded in the next instalment.