Extract from “The Jewish Communities of North East England” by Lewis Olsover, published by Ashley Mark Publishing Co, 1980.
Middlesbrough is a well-known shipping port that lies at the mouth of the River Tees about 10 miles south of Hartlepool. In 1832 it was a new town consisting of a single farm house. The prosperity of this area of coal and iron developed with the growth of the Industrial Revolution. Its proximity to the sea complete with the growth of giant steel works enabled it to sell its products in worldwide markets. Middlesbrough became an extremely busy centre for imported goods from the continent in exchange for its coal and steel shipments. Many Jews who emigrated from the Baltic and German ports got their first sight of England on entering the port of Middlesbrough. Within 30 years Jews lived there in sufficient numbers to hold improvised services first in a room over a stable and later in a larger room over a boot and shoe warehouse, not far from the docks.
In 1862 the first Jew, Mr Maurice Levy, is reported to have arrived in Middlesbrough, and to him has been accredited the distinction of founding the first Hebrew congregation. Mr Maurice Levy was referred to in a sermon delivered by Rev H P Levy at the opening of the first Jewish cemetery in 1885 when he declared: “About 23 years ago when Mr Maurice Levy settled in this town there were no Jews”. Twelve months later he was followed by his son-in-law Isaac Alston. The Middlesbrough Weekly News and Cleveland Advertiser of 6 October 1865 records the early Jewish settlement in the following words: “Arrangements have just been completed and premises secured in Lower East Street for the holding of worship according to the Mosaic ritual to meet the needs of a large number of Jews in the town.”
Mr Isaac Alston was destined to play an important part in the affairs of the community. He became the leader of the community and was the first Jewish member of the Middlesbrough Town Council. At a later stage he moved to Stockton where he became prime mover in the organisation of that congregation. In 1905 the family emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, and one of his sons Mr Barnett Alston became Sheriff. Another son Michael was a well known exhibitor at the Royal Academy.
The Newcastle Chronicle of 26 May 1870 stated: “On Saturday a synagogue was opened at Hill Street, Middlesbrough. About seven years ago (1863) Mr Levy and his family came to live at Middlesbrough and shortly after that Mr I Alston went to reside in that town”. A few weeks later more Jewish families from Poland and Russia came to Middlesbrough and they worshipped in the house of Messrs. Levy and his son-in-law Alston. Struggling on they at last felt that they could afford to rent premises for the purpose of a synagogue and they celebrated the opening on Saturday. For this result the congregation is indebted to Mr Alston and Mr Nathan.
Services commenced at 8.30 am and after the first part of the prayers the 30th Psalm was chanted by the whole congregation of about 50 people. A kiddush (reception) was held after the services at the house of Mr M Alston in Sussex Street. Mr Alston presided and Mr Nathan occupied the Vice-Chair.
New immigrants continued to arrive and additional accommodation was necessary for worship in order to meet the needs of the growing community. A site was purchased in Brentnall Street for £370 for the construction of a larger permanent synagogue. The minister was the Rev. N Davis. He conducted the children’s classes which consisted of 50 children—30 boys and 20 girls. The first Jewish wedding took place in Middlesbrough on 31 August 1871 between Louis Dyialoszynski and Elizabeth Sammuelson of Suffolk Street. The ceremony was conducted by Rev Lazarus, Mr I. Alston and Mr S. Gordon acting as witnesses.
There were lengthy reports in the local press of the laying of the foundation stone. TheMiddlesbrough Exchange of 22 August 1873 gives a detailed account of the ceremony and devoted its leading article to the event. The stone was laid on 21 August 1873 by the Rev A A Green of the Hampstead Gardens Synagogue London. (He had just taken up his post after leaving Sunderland.) The wardens were Isaac Alston and Abraham Nathan. The committee members were Jacob Wilkes, Asher Michaelson, Levy Kaufman, Louis Smith, Isaac Smollan, Naphtali Laski and Moses Getz. Rev Marks was the Reader and Samuel Goldstein Hon Secretary. Many of these families moved to Stockton in later years when that community was established.
The building was completed in May and officially opened on 26 June 1874 by the Chief Rabbi Dr. Nathan M Adler supported by the Rev Furst, the newly-appointed Chazan, in the presence of a large congregation which included the Mayor and Civic dignitaries and many Christian clergymen. The Chief Rabbi was presented with an illuminated address by Mr I. Alston. The ladies of the congregation presented a velvet cover for the Ark and Baroness de Rothschild made a gift of two mantles for the Scrolls. The young men of the congregation presented coloured glass windows representing the Ten Commandments and two tablets of stone which were placed above the Ark. The proceedings were followed by a dinner in the Cleveland Hall when Mr Nathan, the President, was in the Chair. The following day the Mayor of Middlesbrough made a special visit to the railway station to pay his respects to the Chief Rabbi on his departure.
The total cost of the Brentnall Street Synagogue was £2000. In 1919 the building was further extended to include a communal hall and schoolrooms. It was to serve the congregation for more than 50 years for all the communal needs of the Middlesbrough congregation. There were 40 seatholders. The community now numbered 50/60 families representing 300 souls.
The minutes of the affairs of the congregation do not begin until late 1876. Some early extracts are very interesting.
On 31 December 1876 Mr W. Freidlender was fined one shilling for leaving the synagogue on Sabbath morning before ‘Oleynu’ (the concluding prayer). A special meeting was called on 23 June 1878 to consider a complaint that Messrs. I. and L. Phillips insulted Mr Wilson and created a disturbance in the synagogue. They were fined 7/6 each. At the same meeting Mr Alston was fined one shilling for non-attendance. On 28 August 1881 Mr Phillips proposed—“that Mr Alston be not allowed to officiate at the coming Holy days as he is not religious enough”.
Until 1885 Jewish funerals were extremely difficult undertakings. There was no Jewish cemetery in Middlesbrough and burials had to take place at Hartlepool the nearest Jewish cemetery. The Transporter Bridge across the River Tees had not yet been built and the funeral cortege consisting of coffin and horse drawn hearse and carriage had to be ferried across the River Tees to Port Clarence and then on to Hartlepool—sometimes in dangerous conditions—a distance of 15-20 miles.
This problem was resolved when the Middlesbrough Corporation set aside a piece of ground at Nursery Lane for a Jewish cemetery. It was consecrated by the delegate Chief Rabbi Dr. Hermann Adler on 27 July 1885. The first burial, that of Mr David A. Barnett, took place on 18 October 1885. (After nearly 50 years a new cemetery was opened in Ayresome Green Lane on 26 June 1932).
The community began to flourish. It had a Cheder consisting of 50 children (30 boys and 20 girls) and a Chevra Kadisha and organised Jewish societies became active. There were friendly societies, literary societies and a Beth Hamedrash. In addition to the older Chovevei Zion Movement already in existence (since 1873) a new Zionist society became very strong.
On 1 October 1897 Rev Silverstone was appointed headmaster and first reader at a salary of 35/- per week. He was a Talmudic scholar, and a pious and modest gentleman who served the community for 40 years until he retired. He was the composer of many liturgical pieces including a special setting of Hallel.
By 1914 the size of the community had grown to 600 people. Shortly after the First World War some local ardent Zionists formed a company called “Palestine Fishing Co. Ltd” to set up a fishing business. They bought a fishing boat in the early twenties and sailed it out of the Tees to Haifa. The fishing business did not succeed. because they had difficulties in landing the catches at Haifa owing to the absence of harbour facilities. This same fishing vessel was later engaged in the evacuation of Dunkirk.
During the First World War a large number of Jewish young men enlisted in the fighting forces and five of them lost their lives. Their names are inscribed on a memorial tablet which was erected in the Brentnall Street Synagogue and later transferred to the new Park Road Synagogue.
In the Second World War 96 men and women served in HM Forces and 16 in full time civilian defence and nursing. Two men lost their lives, namely Capt. Henry Segerman RAMC in the Battle of Alamein and Soloman Niman killed in a local air raid shortly after enlisting in the RAF.
Middlesbrough’s spiritual leaders have included the Rev. E. Davies who was appointed in 1888—a Jew’s College and London University graduate—who stayed nearly 20 years. Rabbi Dr. I. Epstein obtained his doctorate while in Middlesbrough and left the town in 1928 to become the Principal of Jews’ College. He was followed in 1929 by Rabbi Louis Miller, the Rev Wulwick and the Rev Turtledove (1920), who stayed for 30 years as a headmaster of the Cheder and taught moden Hebrew some 20 years before the Jewish state was inaugurated.
After 60 years of worship at the Brentnall Street Synagogue a new synagogue was built in 1938 at Park Road South to accommodate the growing needs of the community. A communal hall attached to the synagogue was named the Agnes Spencer Room in appreciation of her late husband’s long and successful business relations with his Jewish partner, Michael Marks, joint founder of Marks and Spencer.
The present minister the Rev Bernard Kersh, was appointed in 1952following the death of Rabbi Miller.
Recent years have seen a decline in the number of Jewish residents with a consequent decline in synagogue attendance. The young prefer to migrate to larger towns or leave for the universities. Although Teesside is a growth area not many Jewish families have settled there in recent years. In spite of the fact that many of the members of the Hartlepool and Stockton communities transferred their membership to Middlesbrough when these two communities ceased to function, the Jewish population of Middlesbrough in 1975 was less than 300 including children. This is the lowest figure for over half a century. It had reached its peak figure in 1924.
There have been four Jewish Councillors since Jews began to settle in Middlesbrough. They were Isaac Alston (1874-1876), Isidore Bloom (1914-1926), Saul Levy (1925-1936), Julius Reubens (1926-1946).
There are five Jewish Magistrates on the Teesside Bench.
[Extract from “The Jewish Communities of North East England” by Lewis Olsover, published by Ashley Mark Publishing Co, 1980.]