Leicester Hebrew Congregation
The Leicester Hebrew Congregation was founded in the nineteenth century, expanded as a result of the immigration of Eastern European Jews before the first World War, and grew considerably as the result of the second World War. The years after 1945 saw it becoming steady at its present size, although its detailed shape and structure has changed greatly through the movement of individual families into and out of the area over the past thirty years.
There are traces of a Jewish community in Leicester during the middle ages, but by the early thirteenth century there was no longer any community, and the ‘Jewry Wall’ refers not to Jews but to the ‘Jurats’ [aldermen] of the borough. In more modern times, the eighteenth century saw some itinerant Jewish peddlers in the county, but it is in 1849 that the first residents who can be identified as Jews are to be found. Many of them were shopkeepers, often associated with various clothing or tailoring manufacturing trades, but they were also to be found retailing, not least of all in the long-established Leicester market.
The Nineteenth Century
It was after the foundation of a partnership between Israel Hart of Canterbury and Joseph Levy of Leicester to form what became the nationally known firm of Hart and Levy that the community began to take formal shape. There is a local report in 1861 of the appearance of a small community of Jews in the Borough, and it was about this time that Israel Hart moved to Leicester and bought for himself a big house in the suburbs.
Details of the early community are scarce. There is no information of the earliest ministers to the Congregation but by 1870 Rev Israel Leventon was minister to the Leicester Congregation, one of a series of ministers that has remained unbroken since then. A silver ritual pointer in the possession of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation records that it was presented ‘to the Holy Congregation of Leicester’ in 1871, and an early Directory of Anglo-Jewry published in late 1873 includes a brief entry for Leicester. It was at about the same time, in 1874, that there begins to be some mention of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation in the Jewish Chronicle. In 1875 the Congregation was licensed for weddings by the Board of Deputies and thus received its final recognition.
For many years Israel Hart was the most prominent member and almost perpetual President of the Congregation; he was also very prominent in the life of Leicester itself and marks of his munificence are still to be seen in the city. One of the most prominent is the magnificent fountain in Town Hall Square. He was four times Mayor of Leicester, and began a tradition of links between the congregation and municipal life. There have so far been three Jewish Mayors or Lord Mayors of Leicester – Israel (later Sir Israel) Hart, Cecil Harris, and Sir Mark Henig – and for many years the annual Civic Service in the synagogue continued to mark these long-standing connections.
But there were other individuals who contributed greatly to the early years of the congregation, and there are still some individuals in Leicester, like the Jacobs or May families, descended from some of these nineteenth century pioneers. At the end of the nineteenth century ten families were sent to Leicester at the invitation of ‘a leading tailoring firm’ (probably Hart and Levy) bringing the community to some sixty seat holders, and at the same time the rented buildings which had been used as a synagogue became both inadequate and virtually beyond repair. As a consequence it was decided to build a new synagogue which was formally opened in 1898, one of the few provincial buildings designed specifically for that purpose. A notice in the Jewish Chronicle reported that the majority of the congregation was ‘of the working class’.
The Twentieth Century
As the community grew in size over the following years it remained very tightly knit and cohesive, but at its centre was always its minister. It is indeed very significant that in the first hundred years of the community, 1874 till 1974, two ministers between them, Revd Newman and Revd Susman, served the community for over fifty years, but all the ministers were important in maintaining standards of religious life and education. Equally important were the laymen of the community, for both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. The Lord Mayors have been mentioned, but there were also men like Mac Goldsmith whose names were widely known both inside the community and on a national level.
Like many other communities it had a proud record in both World Wars. Tablets in the vestibule of the Synagogue record the names of forty-nine men associated with the Community who served in the First World War; given the size of the community at that stage it is a remarkable record while equally remarkably only three were killed. The equivalent tablet for the Second World War records the three members in the armed forces who were killed.
The Second World War saw a significant if temporary growth in the size of the community. Rationalisation of the garment industry during the War led to a number of small tailoring firms leaving London and being relocated in Leicester, and though many of these evacuees returned to London after the end of the War a number stayed to become stalwarts of the community.
The Twenty-first Century
Leicester remains typical of many of the provincial communities of Great Britain. Its demography has changed greatly, while its membership reflects much more than ever before the ways in which Anglo-Jewry has been changing. An appreciable number of its members are connected with the University, while many of the children of the community go out of town to University and are thus attracted away. But it still retains a solid core of members, and the centre of its activities remains the synagogue.
Aubrey Newman, Leicester Hebrew Congregation: A Centenary Record
Aubrey Newman and Pat Lidiker, Portrait of a Community: a history of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation
Rosalind Adam, Jewish Voices: memories of Leicester in the 1940s and 1950s