Brighton & Hove
Marcus Roberts


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The City of Brighton and Hove are still home to one of the major Jewish communities out-side of London. Even though the community has declined to what it was, there are still at least 5,000 Jews living in Brighton. Additionally the town has a lengthy and significant Jewish history particularly as many leading London Jews have visited or made the town their home over the years. The town has a significant number of Jewish sites and building including one of the most architecturally important provincial synagogues.

The start of Jewish life in Brighton seems to have been sparked by the economic opportunities presented by the growth of the original fishing village of Brighthelmstone after 1750. The health-fashion of sea bathing had been introduced at Brighton and this started to draw-in visitors and spur growth. However the major impulse to growth came when the Prince Regent (later George IV) visited in 1783 and gave the place the all important Royal seal of approval.

Another factor that might have encouraged Jewish settlement was the fact that the town had a strong dissenting tradition. There were more dissenting than established places of worship in Brighton. It has been noted elsewhere in this book that places that tolerated dissenters tended to tolerate Jews as well.

Israel Samuel Cohen (also known as Ensele/Ensli ben Samuel Cohen Brighthelmstone) was probably one of the first Jews to settle by 1766. He conducted a typical eclectic variety of trades (he is variously listed as a 'toyman, silversmith, and lodging house keeper), such as were necessary for a Jew to make a living in the provinces. Little is known of his origins, though his wife's family was from Krotoschin in Prussia. It seems other individuals came to join him as well, but not sufficient to turn a small Jewish settlement into a full community.

A proper community was only to come later after the first 'pioneers' had evinced the opportunities of the town. Emanuel Hyam Cohen, originally of Munich, is thought to have been the main force in establishing the community itself in c. 1782. He was an educated man and an educator. He kept a sea-side boys' boarding school, in Artillery Place, a sort of institution that was quite common at the time.

Within the 1780s there appears to have been a small core of established Jews in Brighton. Interestingly they seemed to have allied themselves with the similarly small Jewish community at Arundel, as is suggested by the presence of Brighton Jewish men at an Arundel circumcision. However very little is known about the Arundel Jewish community and how far the links between the communities went.

By 1789 there appear to have been sufficient Jews to merit the speculated founding of the first synagogue in the aptly named Jew street, a street where David Spector believes the local Jewish peddlers may have also been based. The earliest reference to a synagogue occurred in a guide of 1792. There were six Jewish families known in the town, who are mentioned in Land Tax assessments of before 1800, all of them carrying on the lodging house trade, which may well have catered for Jewish visitors in the growing resort. There were also some Jews living out-side of town, at Findon, Seaford and Lewes, who were associated with the synagogue. By 1807 there was a brisk numbers of Jews visiting the town some of whom, like Pellegrine Treves were associated with the high society increasingly attracted to the resort.

One name of the period, with famous associations, is that of Maria Basevi. David Spector in his important article 'The Jews of Brighton, 1770-1900' states that Basevi, the mother of Benjamin D'Israeli, resided in Hove until she married Isaac D'Israeli in 1802.

A second Synagogue was founded in c. 1808, in Pounes Court, off West Street and there is a record of a Yom Kippur service being held there. None of these would have been purpose built structures, but would have been a room or rooms adapted for the purpose. The small Brighton community suffered an apparent major set back in 1813 when they found themselves one man short of a minyon. This led to the synagogue failing amidst some ill-feeling.

This proved only a temporary set-back as the community and the synagogue were able to re-establish themselves in 1821. The massive development of the town (latterly around the all important railway after 1841) seems to have brought in sufficient new Jewish in-comers to solve the problem. Indeed the growth was such that a new synagogue was established at Devonshire Place in 1824 with seating for a much expanded 50 congregants. It was, 'a small building set back from the road' and had a women's gallery. In 1826 Thomas Read Kemp, MP, who developed large tracts of Brighton, such as Kemp Town, gave the congregation ground for a cemetery. While the numbers of congregants were up, there were financial problems for the community.

The records suggest that the community was short of funds for much of the 19th century and the community levied deeply unpopular meat taxes right up to their abolition in 1892. The Brighton Philanthropic Society (est. 1846) distributed regular aid to the Jewish community and the casual poor; in 1853 they were giving relief to about seven persons a week.

After thirteen years the improved synagogue facility at Devonshire Place was itself improved again in 1837, when it was revised to larger and superior specification with plans drawn up by the noted Jewish architect, David Mocatta. The building eventually had in addition to the synagogue, a residence, school-rooms and a two-storey workshop. The addition of a work-shop is not necessarily a unique synagogue feature and this was probably used to relieve Jewish poverty in Brighton and certainly there were many Jewish visitors and itinerants to Brighton.

From this period on the Jewish community started to take a much more prominent position in the town's affairs and indeed the community were to provide a number of important 'firsts'. Both sons of Emanuel Hyam Cohen rose to prominence. In 1822, Hyam Lewis served as a town commissioner, he was probably the first Jew appointed to serve in local government. In 1838, Henry Solomon became the first Chief Constable of Brighton - the first Jewish policeman. In 1827-8, Levi Emanuel Cohen established the Brighton Guardian Newspaper and became its editor and manager and by 1828 its proprietor. He was perhaps one of the first campaigning editors and suffered much as a result - he once described local magistrates as, 'crabbed nervous, passionate, fiery mouthed, vain and bombastic justices - the bare sight of them turns one's feelings bitter'. He also went into theatres and publicly hissed actors leading to him being assaulted by at least one angry thespian in 1835. He was also credited with saving the life of George IV for which he was granted a pension.

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