Jewish people have been living in Brighton since at least 1770. As the community grew over the years, it occupied three successive synagogues culminating in the Middle Street Synagogue built in 1875. This was the main synagogue in Sussex at the time of the First World War, with 124 seat-holders. As well as local people, the congregation attracted summer visitors and support from wealthy families such as the Rothschilds, Sassoons, and the Barnatos.
During the First World War, the threat of bombing and invasion encouraged people to move to the Sussex coast for safety. Among these was Aaron Samuels who brought his young family to Hove, including his new-born son Norman Samuels. As it was too far for some people to walk to the Middle Street synagogue, Aaron established a Minyan in his house during the war.
The World War 1 years also saw the establishment of the Hove Jewish Centre in Third Avenue Hove, which held services from December 1917. This contributed to the westward expansion of the Jewish community from the commercial centre of Brighton towards Hove, which continued during the 1920s and 30s.
In Hastings and St Leonards, a small Jewish community had been present from the 1850s. Services for High Holy Days had been held since 1881 and in 1921, a ‘Hastings, St Leonards, and Bexhill Congregation’ was established at 2 Robertson Terrace, Hastings. The post-war period saw congregations established elsewhere in Sussex including Eastbourne (1918), Worthing (1940s), Bognor Regis (1940s), Crawley (c.1958), Mid-Sussex (East Grinsted) (1978).
Over 50,000 Jewish servicemen took part in the First World War. To help them continue to practice their faith, more than twenty rabbis (then known as Reverends) were recruited to serve as chaplains. One of these was the Rev BB Lieberman who was appointed to the Middle Street Synagogue in the summer of 1915. He took over from the long-serving Rev Abraham Jacobs and continued his predecessor’s work to help Jewish refugees and visit the wounded.
In December 1916, Major Lionel de Rothschild wrote to the synagogue’s committee ‘asking them to release their minister so that he could act as chaplain in France to the Jewish forces’ and stating that Rev Lieberman was ‘the most suitable man available’. The council members agreed, raising Rev Lieberman’s salary to £200 a year for the duration of his time in the military. His service lasted until the end of the war, after which he returned to the congregation in Brighton.
While Rev Lieberman was away, his duties were carried out by Rev Weinrow. The congregation continued to be active in helping raise funds for Jewish refugees from Belgium and elsewhere. The tides of social change also encouraged the Middle Street congregation to be one of the first to give women seat-holders a vote in 1917.
For those on the home front, a long-running concern was the supply of kosher food. The Congregation’s minutes record several instances of intervening with the local butcher over the price and supply of kosher meat. The later war years saw the introduction of food rationing, with Brighton’s system making allowance for the needs of a thousand Orthodox Jews.
Religious services for soldiers
While on active service, many Jewish soldiers built ‘succot, don tefillin and observed the High Holy days. Services would be held in villages several miles from the trenches which they would attend straight after’. The picture below shows a note from Rev Michael Adler explaining that Passover services would be held in the field.
Jewish religious services were carried out on both sides of the conflict. The first photo below shows the Jewish Legion at the Imperial Recruit Depot in Egypt at Yom Kippur. The second, shows German Jewish soldiers with a menorah in 1916.
Excerpt from a draft letter addressed to the Secretary of the War Office, re Jewish Chaplain for the East, on 8th October 1915, from the Visitation Committee. The letter states the necessity for the appointment of a Jewish Chaplain to H.M. Forces in Eastern Europe.
“The number of Jews serving is believed to be very large, although reliable figures are hard to ascertain. Many Jewish soldiers have died and not received burial according to the custom of their faith”.
It cites an example of a Jewish Officer being buried in a small cemetery by an Army Chaplain and his grave marked with a cross. “It would be a great consolation to the relatives and friends of the dead if the burial service could be conducted by a Jewish Chaplain and graves marked with a Jewish symbol as is now the practice in France and Flanders. They write to ask the authority of the War Office for the appointment of a Jewish Chaplain for H.M. Forces in the East of Europe.”©Jewish Museum/ London/Jewish Military Museum. Pg.2. Draft letter addressed to the Secretary of the War Office, re Jewish Chaplain for the East, on 8th October 1915, from the Visitation Committee.
The Brighton & Hove Hebrew Congregation WW1 Tablet at the Middle Street synagogue commemorates people directly connected to the synagogue who fought in the First World War. There are 125 names on the memorial, of which six names are marked with a star to indicate that they died during the war. In fact, the overall death toll was higher at around 20 to 30 Jewish men with connections to Sussex dying during the war, either on active service or due to ill-health.
The bodies of soldiers who were killed in battle overseas were not repatriated. Instead they were buried in graveyards or commemorated on communal memorials in military cemeteries abroad. In some cases, additional memorials were erected to them in Britain. For example, Joshua Cansino is commemorated on the Thiepval memorial in France (completed in 1932), on Worthing Borough memorial and at his university and synagogue in his hometown of Manchester.
Soldiers’ families could specify a dedication on overseas graves and were able to mark their Jewish religion, as was the case for Jacob de Meza.
In contrast, some of the military personnel who died in Britain were buried in Brighton’s Jewish cemeteries. For example, 2nd Lieut Arthur Sampson Marks, who died of pneumonia during the war, is buried with his family at Florence Place, Brighton. The map of the cemetery can be seen at the East Sussex Record Office. Others are buried at Meadow View, Brighton.
Several of the wealthier people we have researched were buried in London, for example, Jack Barnato and Bernhard Baron were interred at the Jewish Cemetery at Willesden.
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