By Elkan D Levy, President of the United Synagogue 1996-99
The Chief Rabbinate of England is a unique institution. Unlike every other Chief Rabbinate, it was not the creation of the secular power, but evolved from the Rabbinate of the Great Synagogue, London, as the needs of the Jewish Community in the British Isles, and subsequently the Empire, developed.
Jews may have come to Britain in Roman times, but the first organised Jewish community started soon after the Norman Conquest in 1066. In the succeeding two centuries, the community included a number of significant rabbis, including Rabbi Elijah Menachem of London, Rabbi Jacob ben Judah the Chazan who published “Etz Chaim” the prayerbook of the community in 1280, and the poet Yomtov of Joigny, Rabbi of the York community at the time of the massacre in 1190.
Following the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, there was no organised Jewish life in Britain although the occasional visitor may have come to London; certainly Henry VIII received advice from a leading Rabbi when arranging his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, there were small communities practising their faith in secret in London and Bristol.
In 1655 Manasseh ben Israel, Rabbi of the Amsterdam community and one of the leading scholars and intellectuals of Europe at that time, arrived in London to petition Oliver Cromwell to re-admit the Jews. A favourable decision was taken by midsummer 1656 – indeed, Cromwell was advised by his judges that there was no legal reason why Jews could not live in England – and the community began to grow slowly, consisting of Sephardi Jews, whose ancestors hailed originally from Spain and Portugal.
It was not long before Ashkenazi Jews, tracing their ancestry to Germany and Eastern Europe, began to appear in London, and in 1690 the first Ashkenazi Synagogue in London was founded. The Great Synagogue, as it soon became known, was established in Dukes Place in the City of London, and flourished there until destroyed by German bombs on 10th May 1941.