For nearly a century and a half, the history of the Brighton (later the Brighton & Hove) Hebrew Congregation was that of Brighton & Hove Jewry itself.
Although the first recorded Jewish resident in 1766 was Israel Samuel (Cohen), the founder of the congregation was Emanuel Hyam Cohen who moved to Brighton in 1782. He had come to Brighton from Neiderwerrn near Munich in Bavaria and married a local girl, Hannah Benjamin. She bore him, probably, twelve children of whom ten boys and girls survived. Emanuel Hyam Cohen was a very learned man and ran a school originally at 37 Ship Street, but later moved to Artillery Place, roughly between the Grand Hotel and the Brighton Centre today, until about 1816.
Of his children the eldest was Levi Emanuel Cohen, distinguished journalist, and two of his daughters married respectively Henry Solomon, famed as Brighton’s first Chief Constable, murdered in his office in 1844, and Hyam Lewis from Prague, who after naturalisation was the first professing Jew to hold public office in this country, as a Brighton town commissioner.
The Congregation waxed and waned according to the numbers living locally, but by 1789 a regular place of worship had been established. This was a room or rooms in a house in Jew Street, so named apparently because Jewish tinkers plied their trade thereabouts. The exact location of this place of worship cannot be identified with any degree of accuracy as there is no reliable documentary evidence available.
However a map of 1808 shows precisely the location of the next place of worship. Again this was in rooms, but at 59a Poune’s Court, a house occupied by Isaac Levi. Poune’s Court was a narrow lane at the southern end of West Street on the eastern side. The ‘Synagogue’ is shown at the end of the lane. Throughout this early period numbers appear to be far from consistent, and services were conducted by such congregants who were able to do so. However, from Trade Directories, Land Tax Assessments and other such documentation we can identify a range of people certainly with Jewish sounding names – Abraham Benjamin, Moses Cohen, Solomon Myers, Samuel Goodman, Hyman Lewis, Daniel Wolff and others, and with a variety of mainly trades, but with some professions.
It was in 1824 that the Congregation was formally established. The President was Solomon Nathan Berncastle, originally a watchmaker from Lewes, the Secretary, Levi Emanuel Cohen, the proprietor of the Brighton Gazette, and the Elders David Wolff, Saul Charles Aaron, Hyam Lewis, Henry Solomon and Jacob Michael Silverston. There is reference to work being done at the two properties in Devonshire Place in 1824 and 1825, with £350 having been raised in 1824 to purchase the site. By then there was a synagogue on this site holding 50 people and with a ladies’ gallery. New laws were adopted on 1 May 1825.
In 1826, the Congregation was given a plot of land outside the Borough boundary at Florence Place by Thomas Read Kemp for use as a cemetery. Before then Brighton’s Jewish dead had been interred in London. The ohel (Prayer House) was built to the designs of David Mocatta, later to be architect to the London and Brighton Railway Company, and a tax of two shillings per member per week for a year being imposed to pay for this building and for enclosing the ground.
A major step was taken in 1836 when David Mocatta was appointed to design a purpose-built synagogue in Devonshire Place. This was opened in 1838 and was the first such building in Brighton. During this period much financial and technical advice and support was given to the Congregation by Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, Bart. Devonshire Place Synagogue, much of which remains, has a classical facade, seating with a ladies’ gallery for 75 worshippers, and with the pediment reading ‘Jews Synagogue AM 5598’ (ie Anno Mundi – in the year of the world). In front was a minister’s house and down an alleyway on the right hand side classrooms and workshop.
Partially as a result of day trippers from London coming to Brighton on the new London and Brighton Railway, there was established in 1846 the Brighton Hebrew Philanthropic Society, ‘the Only Local Jewish Charity’, to provide financial relief to the needy.
In a National Census of Religious Worship on Sunday 30 March 1851, Jewish worshippers in Brighton are shown as 40 at the morning service, 16 at the afternoon and 40 at the evening. It is probable that the figures refer to the previous Friday evening and Saturday morning and afternoon services. Also at some stage a mikvah (religious bath) was provided at Brill’s Baths in Pool Valley, which had been established in 1811. Throughout its early history the Congregation were often in financial difficulties, help being provided from various sources including the Rothschild Bank, Moses Mocatta and Isaac Lyon Goldsmid.
In 1849 Philip Salomons, brother of Sir David Salomons, first Jewish Lord Mayor of the City of London and father of Sir David Lionel Salomons, the second Baronet and inventor and scientist, was admitted as a member of the congregation. By 1855 he had been elected President, but there was much acrimony between him and the congregation because of his private synagogue above his house at 26 Brunswick Terrace, Hove.
By 1860 it was apparent that the Devonshire Place Synagogue was too small and a committee was formed to consider the problem. However, it was not until 19 November 1874 that the foundation stone was laid for the next synagogue.
By 1875 the building was complete, and Middle Street Synagogue was dedicated by the Chief Rabbi, Nathan Adler, on 23 September 1875. There was a minister’s house behind the Synagogue, in which there was a mikvah (religious bath). The building was designed by Thomas Lainson, a non-Jewish architect, who was architect to the Goldsmid Estates.
Originally the interior was fairly plain, but between the opening and about 1914, donations by the Rothschilds and Sassoons in particular, and others, created one of the most spectacular interiors in Brighton. In 1893, the prayer house at the cemetery was rebuilt again to the designs of Thomas Lainson. With many of the congregation moving west into Hove, it was decided in 1918 to rename the congregation the Brighton & Hove Hebrew Congregation, and by 1921 as the original cemetery became fuller, a new site was leased at Bear Road (now Meadow View) which has been extended twice.
In 1930, the (then) Rev Isaac Fabricant was appointed the minister and his tenure of office covered the most successful period of the congregation and the whole community. From 1941 to 1945 he served as a Chaplain to the Forces with the rank of Major. In 1960 he received semichah (ordination) and has been properly referred to as Rabbi ever since. In 1950 Rev Berel Braunstein was appointed as chazan at Middle Street, and with the opening of New Church Road Synagogue Rev Michael Kahan was appointed to conduct services there.
Overflow services were held at various venues especially during the High Holy Days, such as at the Royal Pavilion, Ship Hotel, Marlborough House, Robertson Hall, the Metropole Hotel and Hove Town Hall. However, the main venue came to be the YMCA Hall, Marmion Road, Hove, and generally regular services were held there for some years. The increasing numbers of members in Hove led to the need for a permanent presence in that part of town, so 29 and 31 New Church Road, two adjacent houses and the land attaching, were acquired in the early 1950s. The foundation stone of a new single storey purpose-built Synagogue was laid by the family of the late Maurice Freedman on 14 December 1958, and it was opened on 9 July 1961, being consecrated by the Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie.
A highly successful period in the history of the congregation followed with large attendances at both synagogues, sometimes with the need for overflows, and with Hebrew classes, a ladies guild, and many other religious, social, intellectual and leisure activities. Rabbi Fabricant retired in 1973 and was succeeded by Rabbi Julius Unsdorfer, whose tenure was cut all too short by his premature death in 1978. Thus Rabbi Fabricant returned for a few years until Rabbi Leonard Book was appointed the religious leader. There were other short term incumbents until Rabbi Pesach Efune took up the reigns. When he resigned the current Rav, Rabbi Hershel Rader, was appointed.
However, like most provincial communities, numbers declined and by the 1990s it became obvious that continuing to run two synagogues was no longer viable. As the larger congregation was by now attending New Church Road reflecting the demographic geography of the membership, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the jewel in our crown, Middle Street Synagogue. Despite very strong opposition from many quarters, the Board was forced to decide as from December 2004 that regular services could no longer be held there. However it is still a place of Jewish worship. Several weddings have been held there, it is open on a regular basis for educational and other visits, and many efforts have been made to raise the funds necessary for its complete restoration, some of which have been successful. The building behind is now being used by Hillel as a Jewish student centre.
As the community celebrates its 250th anniversary and the Brighton & Hove Hebrew Congregation nears the 200th anniversary of its official founding, there are plans afoot for a bright new future. It is intended to completely redevelop the New Church Road site, with a new synagogue more suited to current and future needs. There will also be a function hall and kitchens, classrooms, a mikvah, accommodation for permanent and visiting clergy, offices and possibly even a shop and cafe. With a long and distinguished history, the Brighton & Hove Hebrew Congregation has indeed also a bright future.
This is from the Brighton Jewry 250 anthology