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The history of the Liberal movement

Last updated: 2003-08-24

Just picture this scene. The year is 1902. It is Saturday afternoon, October 18th. Around 300 men, women and children are seated - together - in the Wharncliffe Rooms, the splendid banqueting suite of the Great Central Hotel in Marylebone Road, London.

In case of problems, a policeman guards the entrance. A non-Jewish artist employed by the newspaper “The Jewish World” has been given permission to sketch the occasion, provided he sits at the side. A mixed choir, accompanied by a harmonium, is ready to sing in both English and Hebrew. Orthodox minister, the Rev. Simeon Singer, is about to conduct the service. Bible scholar Dr. Claude Montefiore will give the sermon. You are observing a unique occasion - the first service of the Jewish Religious Union, later to become the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues.
 
The plans for this service had been initiated some months previously – on 16th February 1902 - when the JRU was formally established at a “drawing room” meeting held at the home of the Hon Henrietta Franklin, one of the sisters of the Hon Lily Montagu. It is to Lily Montagu that we owe the foundation of our Movement. From the publication of her article in January 1899, at the age of 26, in “The Jewish Quarterly Review”, when she expressed the need to retain the allegiance of Jews who were drifting away from Judaism, to her death in 1963, she dedicated her life to Liberal Judaism. That article evoked a response from leading Jews, both lay and ministerial and was the first step towards the establishment of the JRU.
 
Originally, the Movement was intended only to provide a supplement to existing services, and indeed an approach was made to the then Chief Rabbi, Herman Adler, to hold the first services in a United Synagogue, but this was rejected. Later, the West London (Reform) Synagogue offered similar facilities, but the conditions laid down- such as the right to veto the content and the refusal to allow men and women to sit together - were unacceptable to the JRU.
 
In the decade that followed, prayer books were written, publications issued, in particular a series “Papers for Jewish people”, children’s religion classes were established and services were held in both the West End and East End of London. Contact was made with other Liberal and Reform congregations in Europe and the USA. By 1909, a decision was made to establish a Synagogue and a “Manifesto” written by Montefiore, together with a pamphlet “The Jewish Religious Union – its principles and its future” was published. The new congregation was to be called “The Liberal Jewish Synagogue” and was at first in a leased building in Hill St., Marylebone. Services and activities began there in 1911. A young American rabbi, Israel Mattuck, was headhunted to become the first Liberal rabbi in the UK.
 
The “Three Ms”, Montagu, Montefiore and Mattuck, worked untiringly not only for the Liberal Jewish Synagogue – which was in 1925 to move to a brand new building in St. John’s Wood Road – but also towards the development of national Liberal Judaism. They were also instrumental in the foundation in 1926 of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The original concept was Lily Montagu’s and WUPJ was formed at an international Conference held at the LJS in 1926.
 
By that date, a second synagogue had been formed in North London. The Rev Maurice Perlzweig, encouraged by the Three Ms to study for the Ministry, served both this congregation and the LJS. 100 people had to be turned away from its first service in 1921, through lack of room! By the time of the consecration of North London’s first building in 1927, the JRU also had a West Central section, an East London section and a newly formed group in Streatham. By 1929, the latter had become the South London Liberal Synagogue and in the same year, the first congregation was established outside London, in Liverpool. These and the other congregations that were to follow came about by dedicated co-operation between the Three Ms and local pioneers. Both the national Movement and the Liberal Jewish Synagogue were run from the St. John’s Wood premises of the latter and for many years the two were virtually synonymous. Indeed, it was not until 1958 that the national Movement had its own phone number while up to the early 1960s, the LJS paid a financial contribution equal to the sum of all the other congregations.
 
In the 1940s the JRU had a change of name in order to reflect its nature more accurately. In 1942, it became “The Jewish Religious Union for the Advancement of Liberal and Progressive Judaism” – somewhat of a mouthful! Two years later, this was changed to its present title.
 
Until the 1960s, the ULPS trained its own ministers, but in 1964, it joined the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain in the Leo Baeck College, of which nearly all of Liberal Judaism's current rabbis are graduates. In 1987, the ULPS and RSGB amalgamated their Education Departments in the Centre for Jewish Education. Arrangements are currently under way for CJE to become part of the College. Good relations have been maintained with the RSGB over the years although occasionally they have become strained. Various attempts over the decades, the most recent being in 1984/5, to discuss possible merger, have not succeeded.
 
For many years, the Movement and its first congregation, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, were synonymous and the leadership of both was identical. Rabbi Mattuck was, in due course, succeeded as Senior Rabbi of the LJS by his pupil and son-in law, Rabbi Leslie Edgar and he, with Lily Montagu, were the very active leaders of the ULPS until the early part of the 1960s.
 
The 1960s saw a move to more professional central administration, when following a report from a Development group headed by Rabbi Bernard Hooker, the post of Executive Director was established and the first appointee, Rabbi Sidney Brichto, took up office.
 
No account, however brief, of the history of Liberal Judasim would be complete without mention of its liturgy. Mattuck’s prayerbooks, which owe much to his inspired literary style as well as to the influence of American Reform Judaism, were succeeded in 1967 and 1973 by “Service of the Heart” and Gate of Repentance”. These, both edited by Rabbi John Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern and more traditional in content were the first to modernise the language and remove archaic terms. “Siddur Lev Chadash” succeeded “Service of the Heart” in 1995. It combined traditional with creative content and was innovative in its gender inclusive language for both God and humanity. The centenary year will see the completion of the revision of “Gate of Repentance” "Machzor Ruach Chadasah", edited by Rabbi Dr. Andrew Goldstein and Rabbi Dr. Charles Middleburgh.
 
Where does the Liberal Judaism stand today? It has thirty congregations, a strong body of rabbis, an established institution for both rabbinic and lay educational training, a thriving youth Movement, (ULPSNYC-Netzer having succeeded the original 1940s established Federation of Liberal and Progressive Jewish Youth groups) and a professional administration. The pendulum has swung back towards more traditionalism in observance, but this is combined with a radical approach, a liberal theology, and a willingness to confront the social and ethical problems of the 21st century, just as its founders did in the early 20th century. We are proud of what they undertook to ensure for us a form of Judaism with which we can feel both inspired and comfortable.