Middle Street Synagogue

Middle Street Synagogue is a jewel-like synagogue, at the heart of Brighton and its Jewish community for over 140 years. Its stained glass windows, floral column capitals, wrought iron details, and original pews transport a viewer into a nineteenth-century space of worship and contemplation. The synagogue was designed by Thomas Lainson, a gentile architect, who had worked for the prominent local Goldsmid family.

The synagogue can communicate the Jewish experience of Brighton and show how Jewish life, worship, and endeavour have changed and remained constant through the city’s history. The interior is largely untouched since 1915.

The minute books of the congregation’s leadership committee meetings, held in the old synagogue at Devonshire Place, first record discussion of a new, larger synagogue, in 1860, but serious plans were not put in place until Sunday 6 February 1870. The sub-committee formed demonstrated the walks of life in which the congregation engaged, from Sir Francis H Goldsmid, a local landowner and property developer to Mr B A Lewis, from a family of goldsmiths. The motions the committee passed in these meetings reveal how the need for a new synagogue ran parallel with the steady increase in immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia.

The majority of the congregation’s leaders were tradesmen, who, to judge from the synagogues marriage records, lived within walking distance of Middle Street, in the heart of Brighton’s  winding lanes – the nucleus of the original fishing village of Brighthelmstone.

As well as a steady trickle of Jews arriving in Brighton looking for a new life, there were the seasonal floods of tourists who needed a place to worship. It soon became obvious that a larger building was needed and the architect Thomas Lainson was chosen to design the building.

The foundation stone for the new synagogue was laid in 1874 and was widely reported in the local newspapers.

The Brighton Guardian, a secular newspaper founded by the Jewish printer and editor Levi Emanuel Cohen, and under the direction of his brother Nathan Cohen after 1860, described the consecration and the attendees, including the Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, Dr Artom the Haham (Sephardi Chief Rabbi) and J M Montefiore along with other celebrities who were not Jewish.

The Brighton Gazette correspondent noted the presence of nonJewish dignitaries, such as the Mayor of Brighton, and Alderman Webb, the site’s previous owner. The paper also devoted considerable attention to the subsequent festivities such as the banquet Lewis Lewis held in his house at Ship Street for the Chief Rabbi.

The consecration of the building, upon its completion in 1875 generated interest in a series of local, national, and international Jewish and secular newspapers. They all noted the same kind of connections between the new synagogue, its community, the wider networks of Anglo-Jewry it tapped into, and the biblical past. The seven-course feast served in the banqueting room of the Royal Pavilion held in honour of the occasion was also described.

The synagogue has been furnished by a number of donations from prominent members of the local community.

The Ner Tamid, (the everlasting light), was donated by Mr Benjamin Lewis in 1876, just before his death. Benjamin Lewis features prominently in the minute books of the congregation up until the early 1870s, and served as President of the congregation. The dedicatory inscription is recorded in the minute books as, “thus the good deeds of men survive them.” Service on the congregation’s Council, was, in the 19th century, an extremely prestigious position: the election in 1876 of council members – the first in the new building – was reported in the Jewish Chronicle.

His father, Hyam Lewis, gave the seven-branched candelabra on an Italian black stone base in 1845, which now stands between the bimah and the ark. This was moved from Devonshire Place for the synagogue’s opening, creating a point of familiarity for the old congregation in the first service of the new shul. Hyam Lewis himself emigrated from Prague in 1790, and rose to be elected as a town commissioner for Brighton in 1822, and become a prominent member of local society. His history and that of his family is a remarkably successful version of a story common to Brighton Jewry.

In addition to local histories, three of the great families of nineteenth and early 20th century British – and world – Jewish history devoted a great deal of time and attention to Brighton and to Middle Street: the Rothschilds, the Montefiores, and the Sassoons.

Brass candelabra stand either side of the synagogue’s ark, donated by Baroness Juliana Mayer de Rothschild and her daughter Hannah. According to the Jewish Chronicle, the Baroness provided £45 and Hannah £25, as gifts dedicated to Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild, MP for Hythe, who had died on 6 February 1874, the year Middle Street’s foundation stone was laid. This donation marks both a connection to the Rothschilds, one of the great aristocratic banking families of Europe, and to the changing fortunes of Jews in England. Mayer Amschel de Rothschild was one to the first Jewish MPs able to take his seat in Parliament, after the oath of allegiance was altered for Lionel Rothschild in 1858.

Hannah Rothschild, the couple’s only child (born 27 July 1851), went on to marry Philip Archibald Primrose, Earl of Rosebery and later Prime Minister. Her death is commemorated at Middle Street by two stained glass windows in the ladies gallery, presented by her maternal aunts Anna Louisa and Lucy Cohen.

These two sisters were long-time members of the Brighton congregation, after their sister, Juliana Rothschild (née Cohen) moved to Brighton in 1865 for her health. They were granddaughters of Levi Barent Cohen, a long-time partner of the Rothschild House. Lucy Cohen is recorded in the minute books as donating the funds to buy the pews for Middle Street from the Great Portland Street congregation in the early 1870s. The two sisters together donated windows to the right of the ark in September 1882, which formed part of a donation in memory of their parents and uncle.

Lucy also commemorated her sister’s death on 20 October 1902 with two further stained glass windows in 1904.

The Montefiore connection to Brighton stemmed in part from the marriage of Emma Goldsmid, heiress to the Goldsmid Brighton Estate, to Dr Nathaniel Mayer Montefiore, and to their son, Claude Goldsmid Montefiore, a founding figure of Liberal Judaism. Thomas Lainson, the Middle Street architect, had surveyed for the Goldsmid Estate – a fact he mentioned proudly on his application to join the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Jacob Montefiore’s close connection with the building of the synagogue likely spurred further Montefiore interest. One of the earliest donations to the new building was Sir Moses Montefiore’s gift of a Sefer Torah, written by Rabbi Sebi Hirsch of Wilna, on the eve of the synagogue opening. It was given in honour of his seventh and final trip to the Holy Land in 1875.

In 1887, the synagogue’s brass lectern was donated by Albert Sassoon Bart on the marriage of his son Edward Albert Sassoon to Aline Caroline Rothschild, in Paris. They were married on 14 October 1887 in the Grand Synagogue de Paris, and the couple settled in Kensington Gore in London.

Meyer Elias Sassoon donated the brass decoration of the bimah in honour of his marriage to Miss Mozelle Gubbay in Paris on 7 June 1892.

In due course, Albert Sassoon was in turn memorialised by his son at Middle Street. To the left of the ark is a plaque “presented by Sir Edward Sassoon in loving memory of his father, the late Sir Albert Sassoon Bart, CSI who died October 25, 1896, Heshvan 18th 5657 and his end was peace,” commemorating the donation of two stained glass windows.

Albert Sassoon was born on the 25 July 1818 in Baghdad. He moved to India in 1832 with the family, and became head of the family firm in 1864. He was a major donor to Bombay (Mumbai), and his business success and philanthropy allowed him to rise up the social circle of the British Empire and international elites: he was made a Companion of Order of the Bath in 1867, made a member of the Bombay legislative council in 1868, a Knight of the Bath 1872 and a baronet in 1890. The Shah of Persia awarded him the Order of the Lion and the Sun in 1871. On a visit to London in 1873, he was given the freedom of the city, and settled there in the 1870s. He moved to Brighton – 1 Eastern Terrace – in 1876, He died there in 1896, and was buried in the Sassoon family mausoleum.

The Sassoon family’s presence in Brighton is reflected in the series of donations they made to the synagogue. In 1887, the zodiac/calendar rose window along with the Luhot window and an upper section of the apse window with floral Sassoon theme were donated by Reuben, Arthur and Aaron Sassoon in memory of their mother, Flora David Sassoon. The Sassoon family also donated £144.12.0d (£144.60) to convert the synagogue to electric light in circa 1892 – very likely the first synagogue to be lit electrically.

Plaques in the vestibule record the ongoing history of the family: electroliers were donated by Reuben Sassoon and his wife Catherine Sassoon in memory of their daughter Mozelle who died in 1896; the couple were in turn memorialised by their children, David Reuben Sassoon and his sisters in 1915, with new sanctuary gates and a Sefer Torah. Arthur Sassoon was memorialised by his family, Mozelle Hyeem, Rachel Marot, Lana Gubbay, Flora Raphael Sassoon and Louise Judith Sassoon in 1912, with two stained glass windows at the west end of the synagogue. His widow, Louise, donated two stained glass windows at the west end of the ladies’ gallery.

Richard Teverson

The World Monument Fund Britain 2015 Yale Scholar researching the history of Middle Street Synagogue and the Brighton & Hove Jewish community.

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