Sunderland - A Litvak Community in North East England
'The Western European Jewish Community that most Resembles a Shtetl'
Jewish Community
54°54'N  1°22'W
'Kretinga upon Wear'
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Jacob Joseph
Jewish Council 1862
The Sunderland Jewish community can trace its origin well beyond the immigrations of Jews from Eastern Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. Around 1750 a number of Bohemian merchants, led by a certain Abraham Samuel, crossed the channel from Holland and settled in the town, forming a congregation in 1768.  They were soon joined by a group of Polish Jews.  By 1790 a rabbi was invited from Amsterdam to serve the community now officially called Adath Yeshurun, but also known as the Israelite Congregation. The congregation initially met in the home of Jacob Joseph, "Rabbi and Silversmith," who settled in Sunderland in 1790 and remained active until his death at 93 in 1861. His nephew, Judah Leib ben Nissan, was authorised by him as a Shochet in 1839.  Newspapers of the times show marriages "after the manner of the Jews," took place in Sunderland from 1791, the earliest recorded ceremony being that of Lyon Hermann, a dentist of Edinburgh and Mrs. H. Pollock, widow of the late Mr. Pollock, a merchant from London.
Jacob Joseph
Rabbi and Silversmith
Council of the Hebrew Congregation - 1862
(Enlarge for improved quality)
Year Jewish
Population
Source
1750   Foundation
1851 150-200 Synagogue Census
1866 250 Jewish Chronicle
1876 600 Benevolent Society
1896 1000 Jewish Year Book
1934 2000 Jewish Year Book
1945 950 Jewish Year Book
1955 1150 Jewish Year Book
1965 1350 Jewish Year Book
1990 372 Jewish Year Book
1999 60 Jewish Year Book
2004 45 Jewish Year Book
Early Years, Two Synagogues and the Ayres Quay Cemetery

According to Garbutt's 1819 History of Sunderland "the Jews residing in Sunderland and its neighbourhood met for worship in a house (of the Rabbi), formerly the property and residence of Lieut.-Col. Lilburne" and "a short distance to the west of Bishopwearmouth is a small burying-ground belonging to this people." This cemetery, which still exists, was a plot acquired by the community in Ayres Quay that was used untill it filled in 1856. Today the Ayres Quay cemetery contains only the remains of few memorial stones, one in the form of an obelisk for David Jonassohn, who was a mine owner at Usworth Colliery and from 1853 the representative of the Israelite community on the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Indeed, in 1838, the community had become the first regional community to receive representation on the Board of Deputies.

From the synagogue census returns of 1851 the Jewish population of Sunderland was between 150 and 200. We also learn that the 'Polish' Synagogue in Vine Street, Sunderland, had been established in or about 1781 by Polish immigrants from the Chasidic tradition, who split from the main Sunderland congregation.  But with time membership dwindled and by 1860 this synagogue closed. 


Jewish Population of Sunderland
Ayres Quay 7
Ayres Quay
Ayres Quay 4
Ayres Quay 5
The Jonassohn Obelisk and Headstones in the Ayres Quay Cemetery
At the same time the Israelite community flourished.  As they still prayed in the home of the Rabbi, it was decided to construct a synagogue.  A building committee, lead by the shipper A.M. Lotinga, was established. A plot in Moor St. in the East End, close to the Wear estuary, where Jews resided and had formed businesses, was purchased. Plans were made, and the foundation stone was laid in September 1861 and consecrated by the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Nathan Adler on May 7th 1862. Two torah scrolls and other belongings were bought for the new Sunderland Hebrew Congregation in Moor St. for £7. 7s. 3d on 20 January 1862 from the now defunct Polish synagogue.
Hevra Kadisha2
Hevra Kadisha1
Bishopwearmouth Burial Deed
Pincas of Hevra Kadisha- 1869    
Cemetery  Deed
As the community organised itself, a Miqve was opened, kosher meat was supplied, a Hebrew school founded, a Hebrew Benevolent Society formed and burial services were met by the opening of a Jewish section in the municipal cemetery of Bishopwearmouth. Space was also allocated for the nearby communities in Middlesbrough and Hartlepool and remains from the Ayres Quay cemetery were reinterred in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery.
The Kretinga (Krottingen) Jews Arrive

Jews started to arrive in significant numbers in the north-east of England during the second half of the nineteenth century.  The ports of the area, Newcastle, Hartlepool, Hull and Sunderland were the destination ports of many of the boats that plied the trading routes from the Baltic Sea.  Most Jews moved on to the large cities of Britain, or overland to Liverpool and Southampton before starting their onward journeys to the New World.  Futhermore, Sunderland had become a major port exported coal to the eastern Baltic, but there was little return trade, and some ships accepted Polish Jews, especially from Kretinga (Krottingen) in Russian-Lithuania, rather than lose money by returning empty in ballast.  Many of these closely related immigrants came to improve their economic prospects and to escape the mandatory enlistment into the Czarist army.

One of the first to arrive was Barnett Bernstein Gillis more by accident than design.  Born in Kretinga in 1835, he was engaged at the household of Wolf Charles Behrman to water the horses and keep the household supplied with water from the deep wells in the courtyard. At the age of 14 he was drafted to the Czarist army. Around 1859, on leave with his family for the first time from the army after 14 years of duty, he was smuggled by friends across the Prussian border to Memel and embarked on a timber ship bound for Hartlepool in England.  Disembarking in Hartlepool, a customs officer escorted him to the home of Abraham Cassell of West Hartlepool. Cassell provided Bernstein with a glazing crate, some tools and a little glass. Looking for work, he walked to Sunderland, where he settled working as a carpenter and glazer, the professions he had learnt from his father, Meir 'the Disler' Gillis, later becoming a successful furniture manufacturer.  The news of Barnett's prosperity spread to Kretinga and soon many others, many of them relatives, joined him in Sunderland.

On Shavuot 1889 a huge fire devastated Kretinga, destroying the Synagogue and the Beth HaMidrash and many of the houses of the Jewish community.  By this time a good percentage of the Jewish community in Sunderland were Kretinga natives. Immediately a fund raising committee was established and Rabbi Green of the Hebrew Congregation was sent to Kretinga to distribute the funds.  On his return he reported the awful conditions prevailing,  and the 'Crottingen Relief Fund' was established by a group of former Kretingers - Israel Jacobs, Barnett Bernstein, Solomon Gallewski, M. Shergei, David Olswang, Israel Harris, Charles Gillis and Joseph Pearlman.   With the help of the fund the town was rehabilitated.  In the interim many emigrated, the majority to Sunderland to join their relatives.
Barnett Gillis Bernstein
relief fund
Barnett Bernstein Gillis
Crottingen Relief Fund - 1889
Bishopwearmouth Cemetery
Ayres Quay Cemetery
Villiers Street
Zion St.
Moor St.
Stadium of Light
Wearmouth  Bridges
Sunderland Minster
Holy Trinity
St,. Peters, Monkwearmouth
East End
River Wear
Town Centre
Port
University
The Sunderland Hebrew Congregation

The Sunderland Hebrew Congregation on Moor Street, founded in 1821, became a place for the community in Sunderland to meet and pray together. By 1906 the Hebrew Congregation at Moor Street had 120 seat holders, with Rabbi Samuel Diaches as minister and Simon Olswang as president.
 
In 1911 the synagogue celebrated its jubilee and the community used the opportunity to engage interest in the building fund to construct a new synagogue, closer to where the Jews now resided in Ashbrooke.  The distance between the homes of the congregants and the synagogue had caused a drop in synagogue and class attendance. The need to build a new facility became critical. In 1922 the community bought a site on Ryhope Road for the construction of a new building and the cemetery in Bishopwearsmouth was extended.


On December 9th 1928 the synagogue was consecrated.  The building was designed by the Newcastle Jewish Architect Marcus K. Glass in 'free Byzantine  style'.  It was a large well built building with a barrel ceiling painted with the stars and sky, and light by large semi-circular stained glass windows on either side.  On three sides was a women's gallery.  Membership during these years numbered around 250 families.
Beth Hamedrash
Ryhope Road Synagogue
Ashbrooke
SUNDERLAND
Jewish Council 1904
Jewish East End
Ashbrooke1
Moor St
Hebrew Congregation 1949
Council of Hebrew Congregation - 1904 and 1949
           East End                              Moor Street                Ashbrooke
Ryhope Road Synagogue 4
Ryhope Road Synagogue 1
Ryhope Road Synagogue 8
Synagogue - Aerial
Ryhope Road Synagogue 9
Ryhope Road Synagogue 13
Ryhope Road Synagogue 14
Ryhope Road Synagogue 11 Choir
Ryhope Road Synagogue 3
Ryhope Road Synagogue 5
The Ryhope Road Synagogue of the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation
Di Englishe Chayer vs. Di Griner - The Beth Hamedrash

By 1888-1892 over half of Sunderland's thousand Jews were connected directly or indirectly with Kretinga. Differences regarding tradition, culture, background and standards of religious observance between the two parts of the Sunderland community were wide. The veteran community was anglicised in practice, attached to their form of service and were not disposed to give up their traditional ways to the Litvaks. As fellow Jews, the Board of Guardians and Benevolent Society ensured that the newcomers were not left destitute, but this was the limit of their benevolence. They were certainly not intending to compromise their customs and privileges for those of their unsophisticated orthodox brethren from abroad.

The Kretingers were a closely linked community within a community, and maintained full links with their families and friends back in Kretinga.  They were economic immigrants, not asylum seekers, who had chosen to emigrate, often from positions of respect and social standing. They believed strongly in their traditions and certainly were not going to follow the ways of the existing congregation, which they viewed as lacking true religious conviction.
Bishopwearmouth Cemetery
Bishopwearmouth Cemetery
Honour Boards of the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation
The Bishopwearmouth Cemetery
Separation became inevitable. This sprang from the Chevra Gemara and Chevra Torah which held a daily Talmud lesson in the home of Charles Gillis in Lawrence St. and later in premises on Zion Street.  By 1897 membership had increased and funds were raised a purpose built structure for a Synagogue,  Beth Hamedrash (Beth Midrash), Miqve and Cheder which opened in November 1899 in Villiers Street with place for 200 men and 70 women.    Conflict between the two congregations developed concerning the authority to solemnise marriage and to authorise Shechita. The Hebrew Congregation, with the support of the Chief Rabbi, objected to independent authority being granted to the new community.  Conflict over the right to appoint Shochetim continued right up until the thirties, during which the Beth Hamedrash operated a separate Shechitah board. The Beth Hamedrash had also tried, but failed, to achieve the approval of the Congregation for the appointment of a Rabbi.  Their choice was for Rav Hurwitz, who was engaged directly from Lithuania on recommendation of the Rav Kovner and Slobodka Rabbis.  With his appointment the Beth Hamedrash accepted the authority of the Chief Rabbi, but remained more independent and much more orthodox than the Hebrew Congregation.

Eventually the Chief Rabbi's certificate of approval was attained.  A letter dated January 14th 1904 stated, 'I hereby beg to testify that the worshippers of the Villiers Street Synagogue and Beth Hamedrash, Villiers Street, Sunderland, constitute a Jewish Synagogue'.
Hevra Gemara
Letter2
Beis Hamedrish 3 Villiers
Villiers St Synagogue
Beis Hamedrish 4
Beis Hamedrish 2
Beis Hamedrish 7
Beis Hamedrish 5
Beis Hamedrish 6
The further growth of the congregation led to the need for the enlargement of the Beth Hamedrash, first in 1920 and again in 1933 when it was found that the members had moved from the now dilapidated East End. This requiring a further move, this time to Mowbray Road in the south west of the town, where many members now resided.  The Mowbray Road Synagogue and Beth Hamedrash were consecrated on 6th February 1938 by Rabbi Rabinowitz and former Rabbi Hurwitz.  This was to be the new spiritual home of the orthodox Kretinger migrants and their descendants for over 50 years, for as long as they could provide a viable number of congregants to sustain their house of prayer.
Committee of Chevra Gemara - 1902
Letter issued by Charles Gillis for Chevrah Torah
Beth Hamedrash - Villiers Street
Beis Hamedrish 1
Beis Hamedrish 8
Mowbray Road Synagogue and Beth Hamedrash
Beth Midrash 1938
Beth Hamedrash Chanukkiyah
Consecration of the Beth Hamedrash - 1938
The War Effort

The war effort of WWI was fully supported by the community, with 150 Sunderland Jews enlisting in the forces.  The Sunderland Echo of 1st November 1916 reported that a memorial service had been held the day before at the Moor Street Synagogue, in the presence of military and civic dignitaries, in memory of the four Jewish soldiers killed at the front. During the course of his sermon Rabbi Dr. Salis Daiches, said that 'with their blood they had paid the debt of gratitude which the Jewish race owed to this country and which had provided a haven of refuge'. Sixteen fell during the war and a memorial and a plaque was attached in the Moor St. Synagogue.

The Second World War brought similar enthusiasm for enlistment, especially as a result of German persecution of the Jews of Europe.  Five members of the community fell and their names were added to the memorial plaque, in the Ryhope Road synagogue.

The community's war veterans formed a branch of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen (AJEX) after the war.
Soldiers 1940
Ajex
WWI War Memorial
War Memorial
Jewish Soldiers - 1940                       Ex-Servicemen
Memorial Plaques in Ryhope Road Synagogue
Philanthropy, Societies, Clubs and Public Life

Dr. Salis Daiches, the Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation, stated in 1914 that the Sunderland communal institutions included the following: Hebrew Board of Guardians, Hebrew Ladies' Benevolent Society, Hebrew Benefit Society, Chevra Kadisha, Hashnosath Orchim (Hospitality to Strangers), Chevra Tehillim (Society for the Study of the Psalms), Gemilloth Chassodim (Loan Society), Ladies' Guild,  Jewish Social and Literary Club, Hebrew Literary and Debating Society, Jewish Women's League, Hebrew Order of Druids, Zionist Association, and the wonderfully named Mount Pisgah Beacon of the Order of Ancient Maccabaeans (no less!!).

Sunderland's Jews maintained a vibrant communal life and a social life and were deeply involved in the wider community, and public involvement led to political involvement.   In October 1884 to mark the hundredth birthday of Sir Moses Montefiore, after informing him of their intention to relieve 'the great distress now prevailing in this town, irrespective of creed' by providing a dinner in his honour, 'for one thousand poor and necessitous children of this town,' the congregation fed 1,200 non-Jewish Children.  This act was followed up later by Newman Richardson, a member of the Council of the Congregation, who after being elected as a Conservative Town Councilor in May 1894 entertained a thousand children of his war to a Christmas diner.  By 1910 Samuel Samuel, the brother of Marcus Samuel (Viscount Bearsted) unsuccessfully contested the Sunderland seat for the same party. But it would be for the Labour Party that Jewish politicians would have the greatest success. In 1949 Alderman (later Sir) Sir Jack Cohen was elected mayor of Sunderland, a position he held for many years.  Later on Charles Slater was elected to the same position where he led the city council for almost two decades until the early 1990s, a period considered to symbolise good municipal government.

A variety of communal associations developed, including the Anglo-Jewish Society and the Choveve Zion Society.  The latter, a Zionist organisation with origins under Pinsker in Russia, held lectures and meetings to discuss the prospects of Jewish colonisation of Palestine.  Its ideas were adopted by many of Sunderland's Jews and in 1899 the first meeting of the Zionist Federation was held in the hall of the Hebrew Congregation, a meeting that included many members of the rival Beth Hamedrash.  Early meetings included one with Jacob de Haas, who had worked with Herzl as a sub-editor for the Jewish World.  Funds were raised for the JNF to purchase land in Palestine. This was strengthened by the arrival of Rabbi Hurwitz, a fervent Zionist, who was appointed, together with Israel Jacobs as delegates for Sunderland at the sixth Zionist Congress in Basle after 200 shekels had been collected.  Once there they split over the issue of Uganda.  With the support of the local Rabbis, the Zionist Federation became a centre of community activity through the years.

Chedar

Chedar

Reb Kaplan's Cheder

Reb Kaplan's Cheder

Drama

Drama

Drama

Drama

Mayors Sunday 1949

Mayors Sunday 1949

SHC Council 1977

SHC Council 1977

Scouts

Scouts

St Johns Ambulance

St Johns Ambulance

One of the central community organisations was the Jewish Literary and Social Circle, formed in 1911 for the young people of the community. Starting with thirty members it reached 150 by 1936. The Circle met in Murton Street with the financial help of the community.  The society concentrated on rising Jewish consciousness in the secular-sense. It operated a billiard hall and a library with books of general and Jewish interest. Activities included drama, concerts, essay-writing, lectures and public speaking. The 'Lit' was also importantly a place to meet members of the opposite sex for social activities and dancing.
Sunderland Community Activities
Menorah School

Menorah School

Change and Decline

The Litvak Jews of Sunderland were all Yiddish-speakers who continued to speak Yiddish for in their new home.  Their children understood Yiddish and spoke English; yet their grandchildren became solely English speaking, showing little interest in Yiddish or Hebrew language culture that had been so vital in Lithuania in the early twentieth century.  This cultural change and other sociological factors would eventually bring about the demise of the community.

At the end of the nineteenth century the community consisted of tradesmen and shop owners mainly concentrated in the East End. Their children had taken up the professions as doctors, dentists, accountants, lawyers, teachers etc. initially returning to Sunderland. In the fifties there were over thirty Jewish medical doctors practicing in the Sunderland area. The religious communal life and social life were strong with a community of 2000 in the 1930s.
In 1946 a yeshiva was established in Sunderland by Rabbi Grossnass, where, unique for the yeshiva world outside Israel, Hebrew was used as the first language of instruction. In its early years students from Prague who had been in concentration camps or in Siberia joined the yeshiva, followed by groups from North Africa.

But, upward social mobility showed the way out and was the major reason for the disintegration of the Sunderland community. Dwindling numbers, usually for the purpose of career enhancement or of finding a greater choice of spouse, led most children to elect the larger cities of the United Kingdom or, in over 130 instances, to make aliyah to Israel. By the end of the twentieth century only thirty families remained totaling only 114 people. The Menorah Jewish primary school closed in July 1983. The Sunderland Talmudical College relocated to Gateshead in 1990. The Sunderland Beth Beth Hamedrash on Mowbray Road closed in 1984. 'Di Englishe shul' in Ryhope Road could no longer be supported by its few members and closed in July 2006.  The Chanukkiyah and Torah Scrolls were transfered to synagogues elsewhere. However, this edifice will be preserved as a listed national heritage building, though no longer owned or used by Jews.

The Sunderland community is best preserved today as a virtual web community that maintains connections between some of the now widely dispersed Sunderland Jews.
Sources

1 - Arnold Levy. 1956. The History of the Sunderland Jewish Community. Macdonald. London.
2 - Gordon Leigh. 2002. From Kretinga to Sunderland: A Jewish chain migration from Lithuania 1850-1930s.MA thesis.
3 - Sunderland Community - http://www.jewishgen.org/SIGs/JCRUK/Community/sunderland.htm



Copyright © 2007 Jon Seligman.  All Rights Reserved.