Brighton & Hove
Marcus Roberts


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Over the course of the 20th century the Brighton Jewry was often typified as 'London by the Sea' due to its strong links to North London in particular and in the earlier part of the century Brighton still attracted wealthy Jews who would come for holidays and, for example, would own fashionable flats in locations, like Embassy Court, on the sea front and Mildmay House on Western Road. The town had something of a particularly racy and exciting atmosphere in the early 20th century, as it was often a place of secret assignations and not always really reputable deals. Also civic corruption was a feature at times.

The First World War was a significant interruption in community life and the community was host to some Jewish evacuees from London, who came during the war and also specifically in 1917, to flee the feared Zeppelin raids, in the East End of London. A number of these Jewish incomers decided to settle permanently in Brighton. The Brighton and Hove community participated fully in the war and sacrifice in the tranches. The First World War Roll of Honour, at Middle Street synagogue, shows that 138 men served in the war and that 5 made the ultimate sacrifice.

Between the Wars two new synagogue congregations were formed. The Hove Congregation broke away from Middle Street in c. 1927, as the Eastern European immigrants who had come to Brighton disagreed with what to their eyes, was the Anglicised ritual, at Middle Street and there was some sort of personal argument in the community.

Another significant event was the founding of the Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue in 1935. Unusually, this Progressive synagogue was founded before the Reform synagogue of 1955. The synagogue was set up in a former gymnasium and there have been problems with the roof ever-since!

The Liberal synagogue offered a clear alternative to traditional Judaism in Brighton, especially as Liberal Judaism in Brighton in its early decades, was more Anglicised, than it is now. Early members of the Progressive synagogue often note with appreciation the fact that the Liberal ritual was conducted on rational principles, and without the repetitions of the traditional service. The fact that much of the service was conducted in English, rather than Hebrew, and could be readily understood, was valued along with the fact that men and women could sit together. For those those not familiar with Orthodoxy, it is impossible, for example, for a husband to sit with his wife during services.

In the early days of Liberal Judaism in Brighton, there were no bar or bat mitzvahs for young Jewish boys and girls coming of age. Instead there was a confirmation. The Liberal synagogue also had some dynamic rabbis (such as Rabbi Mattuck, who came from America) and teachers and there was an emphasis on prophetic and Bible teaching and there was much on offer for Jewish youth - a very active religion school, as well as the Jewish youth club which was used by young Jews from across the community, even if those from the Orthodox side were initially skeptical about mixing with liberal Jews.

The Blackshirts and Brighton

Trouble on the seafront at Brighton was not restricted to the 1960s. In the 1930s the Facist movement was active in Brighton. Mosley and his Blackshirts regularly attempted to hold meeting on the Brighton and Hove seafront and were physically resisted by members of the Jewish community. In one incident, a platform was set-up near the statue of Queen Victoria, surrounded by the usual black-shirted henchmen, but some Jewish lads (including the Schnieder Brothers, who were well built young butchers) pressed forward and seizing the edge of the platform, turned it over, so that Mosely gave up and never gave his speech (source Martin Gilmour).

Lord Cohen of Brighton - The Man they Called Mr. Brighton

Lord Cohen of Brighton was one of the leading lights of Brighton Jewry and a man who still enjoys a very high popular regard. As a young man Cohen was shocked by some the poverty and poor housing he saw in Brighton while he worked as a rent collector. This lead him to become a socialist, and politically active for the Labour party. While he never succeeded in being elected MP, he did become Mayor of Brighton in 1956-7, and was highly regarded by all parties and was a maverick and inspirational ideas man in local politics for three decades, who had a big impact on the development of the town.

Cohen also became the head of the Brighton Equitable Building Society, and turned it almost single-handedly into a major and profitable concern that emerged from being a local institution to a national organisation, by a series of mergers and acquisitions.

He was also a property developer and developed great swaths of the inter-war suburbs in Brighton, providing affordable housing to the people as well as providing the mortgages to buy them!

He managed to combine forward looking entrepreneurial skills and nous, flair and the all important public touch - he was a much respected and liked man and sought to lend genuine benefit to his local community in his business dealing.

He was also a philanthropist working to promote local cultural causes. He was the motive force behind the Brighton Festival, which started in 1967 just after his death. He also saved the Theatre Royal and acquired the land for the University of Sussex.

He also gave both money and advice to people who just turned up to his office at the Alliance, having heard that he helped people and he was consequently described as a, 'one-man benevolent fund for the town'.

His suddenly death from leukemia in 1966 his memory was honoured from all sides. One local Labour Councillor said of him, 'He bewildered us , cajoled us and charmed us for 30 years . He was a giant in the life of Brighton.'

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