The Life of the Rev Simeon Singer a lecture given by

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The Life of the Rev Simeon Singer
A lecture given by

Rabbi Geoffrey L. Shisler

at the

New West End Synagogue, London


Sunday 28th March 2004

At 11.30pm on Monday August 20th 1906 the Rev Simeon Singer died in his home at 52 Leinster Square, Bayswater, at the age of 59. It is reported that the last words he uttered were, ‘I have done my best.’
The funeral took place at Willesden Cemetery on 23rd August at noon, in the presence of a very large gathering, which included the Chief Rabbi and the Haham, and was conducted by the Rev J L Geffen, the Minister/Reader of the New West End Synagogue. And, as was only fitting, he was interred in a place of honour, immediately outside the prayer hall.
After the funeral, a memorial service took place at the New West End, which was packed to capacity, at which the sermon was preached, at Rev Singer’s request, by his good friend the Rev J F Stern, minister of the East London Synagogue, Rectory Square. His seat was draped in black, and Rev Stern spoke from the Almemar, as it wasn’t deemed appropriate to use Mr Singer’s pulpit.
Over the following weeks many and extensive obituaries appeared in the Jewish press and practically every national newspaper; and The Jewish World, a contemporary paper, published synopses of tribute sermons from all around the British Isles. They had been preached in many London Synagogues, in Bradford, Hanley, Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle and Wolverhampton. The Haham spoke in Ramsgate and tributes were paid in Birmingham, Cardiff, Derby, Leicester, Liverpool, Merthyr and Sunderland. And undoubtedly there were countless more that were not recorded by The Jewish World.
A memorial service was also held under the auspices of the East-End branch of the Jewish Religious Union, the forerunner of the Jewish Liberal Movement.
The Jewish World’s own obituary concluded with the following words:
Mr Singer has gone. After an interval his pulpit will be filled. Another voice will echo about the aisles; another teacher will exhort his congregation; another’s smile will brighten their homes. But the newcomer, whoever he may be, cannot fill the place Mr Singer has left. A new generation will grow up, who knew not Mr Singer, and that generation his successor may satisfy; but those to whom Simeon Singer was more than a name will find it difficult to become reconciled to their loss. To them the memory of the past will mean far more than the realisation of the present. In future years, those who will be able to tell their children of the advantages they had enjoyed in Mr Singer’s friendship, will indeed be deemed happy.
I have deliberately chosen to begin the account of Simeon Singer’s life by writing about his death, to portray the exceptional person that he was, and the impact that his untimely passing made on the whole of Anglo-Jewry. Thanks to the kindness of Bastien Gomperts, one of Rev Singer’s great grandsons, I have been able to peruse a large collection of obituaries that has been passed down through the family, and reading through them, one cannot be but deeply impressed by the outpouring of genuine grief in the Jewish community at his demise.
What is also impressive is the realisation that in the days before easy communication was possible, his passing was felt in every part of the country. Wherever he had been, he’d left an indelible impression, and his influence was nearly as great as that of the Chief Rabbi, Rev Dr Nathan Marcus Adler. There’s no question of the sincerity of the warmth that was felt towards him throughout his Ministry, not only by his colleagues and his own congregations, but also by everyone with whom he came into contact.
So who was this remarkable man?
His father, Julius was born at Gyor (Raab) in Hungary in the early part of the nineteenth century.
As a young man Julius involved himself in the movement that was fighting for freedom and civil liberties and, as a result, he had to leave the country.
He went to Denmark where he settled for a while, and became a member of the Guild of Cloth Merchants in July 1833.
In 1837 (same year Victoria came to throne) he moved to England and settled in Watling Street where he traded as a clothier. [It’s believed that the founder of Singer’s sewing machines was a distant relative.]
He married Frederica Wolff. She came from Hamburg and was descended from the illustrious Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz [1690-1764]. {Eybeschutz had been accused by Rabbi Jacob Emden of giving out kemeot (amulets) to children, which were inspired by Shabbetai Zvi. Eybechutz declared on oath that he had never been a follower of that false Messiah and that the amulets, though invoking divine protection, were devoid of any element of magic. This conflict, which lasted many years, not only involved Jewish men of learning throughout the world but also Christian scholars. Finally, world authority in the person of the King of Denmark was appealed to, and the king decided in favour of Eybeschutz. Simeon Singer was preparing a defence of his ancestor Jonathan Eybeschutz, but it does not appear to have seen the light of day.}
Simeon, their youngest son, was born November 5th 1846.
At age 8 (1855) his mother took him to visit Raab. She and Julius believed he would get a better education there, but shortly after their arrival she contracted cholera and died within 24 hours. Simeon remained there a few months with family members, and then returned to London.
His father never recovered from the loss of his wife and, from being a prosperous merchant, he became a struggling salesman. But he never neglected his son’s education.
Simeon attended the Jews’ College School, which had only recently been founded in 1855 and stayed there, moving into the College, when he decided to enter the Ministry.
The curriculum of the school was wide and included English, French, German and, of course Biblical Hebrew, as well as Mathematics and Science.
At the age of 13 he was the recipient of the Barnett Myers Scholarship of £10 per annum, which was awarded to the second person on the Lord Mayor’s Commemoration Scholarship (the first was John Chapman - who began his career as second minister at the Western Synagogue) and the following year he was the first person to be awarded another Barnett Myers Scholarship of £35 per annum. Since his father was in no position to help him, he survived on this and giving private lessons in Hebrew and German. (The fact that he was able to teach German, and, as we shall see, he clearly had an excellent command of that language, says much for the standard of education he received at the College.)
His studies at Jews College were interrupted by the untimely death of its principal, the Rev Barnett Abrahams, but he was fortunate to be taught by the new principal, Dr Michael Friedlander (who was 32 years of age on his appointment!). They became firm friends and, at this early stage of their lives, they shared a bachelor apartment, until they both got married. Their friendship lasted for the best part of half a century.
Other than the education he received at Jews’ College, which, as I have said, appears to have been of a very high order, Singer had no other formal education, and was largely self-taught. He possessed an exceptional mind and acquired a working knowledge of Latin and Greek. He spoke German and French fluently, and some Italian and was generally well-educated in the arts and sciences.
His father died in 1867 and is buried at West Ham cemetery.
In the same year Simeon was appointed Minister and Secretary of the Borough New Synagogue at the age of only 21!
He earned a very poor salary at the Borough Synagogue and taught at Jews’ College School full-time, and was, for a time, its Head-teacher.
He was an excellent teacher, and was ‘loved and feared’ by his pupils. The Rev A. A. Green, who was to become the celebrated Minister of the Hampstead Synagogue was a pupil of Singers, and this is what he wrote about his teacher in the Jewish Chronicle:
“Mr Singer......was the idol of the school. He was a great teacher and was to us boys, what Arnold became to a greater institution than ours. Mr Singer was strict and kind, absolutely just and always interesting, and the hours spent with him were the brightest of the day. We worked for him because his approval was a prize. He was the very sternest of pedagogues except for his eyes, the twinkle of which, when he withered up some youthful impertinence, somehow told the delinquent that he was appreciated, if not forgiven. There was no corporal punishment, except of a desultory and wholly unpreventable character, but a look from Mr Singer was more than enough for any self-respecting boy. I can see him now, entering the room after the temporary madness of the dinner half-hour (dinner half-hour - what a timetable!) Lifting up his eyebrows and saying, ‘All frivolities stop!” and the frivolities stopped. The most delightful of Mr Singer’s lessons was the English literature. His own mind was deeply stored and his taste was eclectic and refined, and he taught us to appreciate the beauties of good literature and the points of good style, for the former of which we shall be grateful to him to the end. He was a magnificent reader, and I shall never forget the day when he read to us the immortal great chapter of “Tristram Shandy.” We were thrilled with excitement, and when he came to the famous words, “Shall I go on?” the whole class shouted, “Yes Sir.”
And in his history of Jews’ College, published in 1906, the Rev Isidore Harris recalls ‘the excellent impression made by Mr Singer in a scene from Julius Caesar.’
On April 21 1868 he married Charlotte Pyke. Theirs was the first marriage to be celebrated at the Borough Synagogue, and they had a most happy and successful married life lasting 38 years. She associated herself with all his Ministerial duties and served as his secretary. They lived in Heygate Street, Walworth.
He was already known as a fine preacher, even as a young man, and before he went to the Borough Synagogue, he had frequently preached for the Jewish Association for the Diffusion of Religious Knowledge, (which was the forerunner of the Jewish Religious Education Board), and at the Synagogue in Barnsbury Hall in Canonbury.
He remained at the Borough Synagogue for more than eleven years. It was a very poor congregation and his work there was a continual uphill struggle, but it gave him valuable experience which was to stand him in good stead for the whole of his professional life.
Before the United Synagogue was established, he and his wife were already doing all the pastoral things that were to become an accepted part of the life and work of an Anglo-Jewish Minister; visiting hospitals, asylums and prisons, and engaging in acts of local philanthropy.
He was on the Committees of the Charity Organisation Society, the Jewish Soup Kitchen, the Free Lectures Association, and the Society for the Diffusion of Religious Knowledge.
One particular instance of his communal activity which brought him to the favourable attention of leading members of the Jewish community occurred when he visited in prison, a man named Marks who had been condemned to death for murdering another Jew called Barnard. Singer obtained a petition of clemency to the Home Secretary, signed by some influential people, but was unable to stop the sentence of capital punishment being carried out. He was present when Marks was hanged and recited the appropriate prayers. Afterwards he made a charitable collection for the family of the victim, Mr Barnard.
He was also involved with the famous case of the Polish Jew Israel Lipski who had murdered a fellow lodger, Miriam Angel at 16 Batty Street, in the East End. He was able to persuade Lipski to confess to the crime and so avoid any injustice being done to some innocent person.
Although he built up a considerable reputation for his involvement in the wider community, none of these activities were ever undertaken at the expense of what he owed to the members of the Borough Synagogue. And this balance of what he did for his own members, and the time he expended in the more public arena, he retained throughout his entire career.
And so he became a member of the committee of the South London Jewish Schools, and Hon. Secretary of the Education Committee.
He soon acquired a reputation for being an eloquent preacher, an outstanding teacher, and a sound communal worker and, not surprisingly, approaches were made to him to go to other congregations, notably Liverpool (1872) and New York (1875), but he resisted these overtures.
In 1872 he was instrumental in bringing the Borough Synagogue into the family of the United Synagogue, and throughout his whole life he remained loyal to the U.S.
In 1878 he was elected Minister of the new, New West End Synagogue after more than eleven productive and happy years at the Borough, and on March 1st 1879, Simeon Singer preached his last sermon there, as its Minister.
To a packed Shul, where many of the congregation were in tears, he reminded them that the sphere of the activity of a Jewish Minister was not limited to the synagogue.
‘The synagogue might be the centre of his labours,’ he said, ‘but the circumference was a very large one and included many extensive fields. Some of his best and hardest work was done far from the public gaze, in the school-room, in the family circle, in the confidential intercourse with the sorrowing, and the perplexed, in the chamber of the sick and the dying.’
There was deep and genuine regret that he was leaving the Borough Synagogue and the following day, March 2nd 1879, a meeting was convened in the Borough Jewish School to make a presentation to him, but the crowd was so great that they had to go into the Shul itself.
He was presented with a testimonial which comprised a purse of money, and a handsomely engraved and framed address. He was also given a silver card case by his colleagues Rev S Levy, Rev P Ornstein and Mr B Solomons.
In his reply Singer said that he was deeply moved by their kindness and wanted his community to know that they had done for him, too:
“I have been most generously rewarded by your appreciation....... I feel that I am about to depart, not from the house of a friend, but from the house of a parent. When I have failed, you have generously covered over the shortcomings I have exhibited. When I succeeded, you appreciated every action I did, and I felt that every time I was doing my duty.”
Just a few weeks later another presentation was made to him when he had to give up his teaching at the Jews’ College School after 12 years, and although he stopped being employed by the college, his association with it continued throughout his life. He was a member of its council and as Hon Secretary of its Education Committee; he came into constant contact with the students and never ceased giving them of his time and practical assistance whenever he could.
Very soon after he left South London, he moved in to 12 St Petersburgh Place, and the following year he moved to 52 Lenister Square, where he remained for the rest of his life.
He actually assisted at the consecration of the New West End Synagogue on March 30th 1879. The consecration sermon was preached by the Rev Dr Herman Adler, since his father, the Chief Rabbi, the Rev Dr Nathan Marcus Adler, was unwell.
So Rev Singer was identified with the fortunes of the New West End Synagogue from the day it opened its doors until the day he died, and there’s little doubt that he played a very large part in creating its success.
His salary was not big, even by those days. It was £300 pa + free accommodation + taxes and rates, equivalent to about £21,000 today.
A report in the Jewish Chronicle says that Rev Singer was accustomed to say that a man who becomes a Jewish minister literally takes upon himself the vow of poverty!
He attended services regularly and preached every week. He had a pleasant singing voice and frequently conducted the week-day services. He liked to conduct the Neilah Service. He also leined on alternate weeks
He’s described as having ‘a dignified and refined presence; he knew how to place himself on a footing of social equality with the most highly-placed of his congregants.’ So, from ministering to some of the poorest and most deprived members of the Jewish community, in the Borough, he now moved to tending to the spiritual needs of some of the wealthiest and most influential Jews in the land. But he never neglected those who needed him, whatever their station and, as we shall see, throughout his entire career, he laboured unceasingly for the welfare of those unable to support themselves. As Emmanuel Sternheim put it in his tribute:
‘It is given to few men of any denomination to be enshrined, as was Mr Singer, as the idol of both Mayfair and Whitechapel.’
To the general public he was most well-known for being one of the most effective preachers in the community. He had a wide knowledge of literature, science, languages and foreign affairs, and in his sermons he often touched on current events.
In one of his published sermons entitled, ‘The return of the Jews to an Agricultural Life,’ he made a plea for Jews to engage in every kind of work on the land, as our forefathers did, and suggested Canada as a suitable place where Jews might go and establish themselves once again as farmers.
Although practically every sermon he preached was in English, he was also known to have preached to Jewish working men in Yiddish.
He established that at certain services his sermon would be addressed specifically to the children. These were usually the Shabbatot immediately following each festival, though he also used other occasions, notably Chanukah. They were advertised, and always attracted a large attendance of youngsters.
He had very definite views about how to construct a sermon for a juvenile audience and, when addressing a class at Jews’ College on this subject, he stressed the importance of not talking down to them. He also instructed his students: ‘..take thrice as much time over writing a children’s sermon as you take over one of your ordinary discourses.’!
In an appreciation of him written by Lily H Montagu, she questions what it was that made him so beloved to boys and girls of all ages: - ‘Was it his geniality, his love of fun, his supreme tact, his living faith? Was it his power to see the best in everybody and the fun in most things?’
Reading through the book of sermons to children that were published after his death, one can only marvel at the calibre of child who would happily sit through them, (you can hardly imagine them doing so today!), and at the wide range of subjects that Rev Singer seemed to have mastered.
When he first came to the NWE, only the Chief Rabbi officiated at weddings in the United Synagogue. When that ruling was changed, (presumably because the numbers made it impractical for one man to officiate on every occasion) the NWE became a popular venue for weddings and Rev Singer was much in demand to officiate at Chuppahs.
[It’s worthy of note that this popularity has not diminished and more than 3700 weddings have been consecrated at the NWE since it opened its doors in 1879].
In 1897 he was asked to stand for election to the London School Board which presided over the creation of a system of compulsory mass schooling in the capital. In its day it was the world's largest ‘educational parliament’ and it was elected by a system of proportional representation, in order to accommodate religious minorities. Rev Singer was assured of being elected, but turned it down when he realised that it would occupy too much of his time.
In 1902 he joined the Jewish Religious Union (the year it was formed), and served on its committee. The Jewish Religious Union was established by Lily Montagu, Claude Montefiore, and others as a response to the drift away from Synagogue life among the established Jewish population, many of whom were descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had arrived from the 15th century onwards, as well as from the few who had not been expelled in the 11th century.
At the beginning it was supported as an outreach organisation by both Reform and Orthodox rabbis, who often attended and officiated, and Singer both read and preached at their services, which were usually held on Shabbat afternoon. (As I mentioned earlier, it was the forerunner of the Liberal Jewish Movement). While he did not approve of many of the innovations that they introduced, he was totally sympathetic to their aim to try and stem the flow of Jews away from Judaism.
However, his own Synagogue was very unhappy about his association with the Jewish Religious Union, not only because of its religious left-wing leanings, but also because of the concern that he would be taken away even more from his own congregation, and at the request of Sir Samuel Montagu (later Lord Swaythling), he very reluctantly withdrew his support. His letter of reply to Sir Samuel Montague asking him to sever his ties with the Union is, I believe, worth quoting:
“Now, it is certain that the Jewish Religious Union is engaged in doing, and successfully doing, a great and sacred work among numbers of Jews on whose behalf hitherto no one has stirred a finger, and whose drifting from Judaism and sometimes from religion altogether no serious attempt has been made to arrest. I had hoped that the privilege and the happiness might be mine of aiding in some slight measure in the realisation of the ideals of the Union. If however, as under present circumstances seems to be the case, that privilege and that happiness can only be mine at the cost of the peace of the congregation I have for the major portion of my active life striven to the best of my powers to build up, then I acknowledge that the price is too high for me to pay. So much have I felt this that for some time I have not taken part in the Union services. At the next meeting of the Committee I shall send in my resignation. It is with intense regret that I take the step of severing my connection with the Jewish Religious Union. I do so solely under the belief, which your letter confirms, that the peace and welfare of the synagogue I love and have so long served demand this great sacrifice from me

Believe me, dear Sir Samuel,

Ever yours truly,

S. Singer”

In 1890 Simeon Singer obtained his Rabbinical Diploma from Isaac Hirsch Weiss in Vienna.
Weiss, who died in 1905, was a scholar and writer. He taught at the Vienna Beit Hamidrash and believed in a combination of tradition and secular culture. His most famous work was Dor Dor ve-Dorshav, which traces the history and development of the Oral Law from its inception until the expulsion from Spain. Singer must have been very comfortable indeed with Rabbi Weiss’ approach to Judaism, and he spent two months in Vienna being rigorously examined by him.
However, on his return, in deference to the desire of Chief Rabbi Adler’s requirement that he be the sole possessor of the title ‘Rabbi’, he continued to use the title of Reverend.
It was in the same year that the first edition of his ‘magnum opus’ - the authorised Daily Prayer Book, first came out. The Jewish Chronicle greeted it like this:
Without disparagement of the labours of others, we are justified in asserting that Mr Singer’s is the first scholarly edition of the prayer book that has seen the light of publication in England. The publication of the Authorised Daily Prayer Book supplies a long-felt communal want in a manner that was confidently expected from a man of Mr Singer’s high reputation as a scholar and as a master of English style. The translation is accurate without being pedantic, while the language, graceful and melodious though it be, is equally simple and prayerful.
Its immediate popularity was demonstrated in the fact that by the time of his death, 16 years later, it had already sold 72,000 copies.
Apart from this, most of Rev Singer’s writings were of a non-permanent nature, though in March 1896 the Cambridge University Press issued a volume that he’d written with Solomon Schechter entitled ‘Talmudical Fragments in the Bodleian Library.’ This was an examination of the oldest dated manuscripts of Talmud then known, and was well received.
After the death of the Chief Rabbi, there was a move by certain individuals to divide the Chief Rabbinate between two offices. Singer was invited to become Chief Rabbi of the West End, but he would not even consider the position.
He continued to engage himself with communal matters and frequently appeared around the metropolis, and further afield, as a popular lecturer. A number of his lectures were published after his death by his son-in-law Israel Abrahams, including ‘Romance in the Midrash,’ ‘Early Translations and Translators of the Jewish Liturgy in England,’ - a subject in which he was acknowledged as an expert, and one that he delivered as Hon. President of the Jews’ College Union Society in 1904, entitled ‘Where the Clergy Fail’(!)
Sadly though, some of his most celebrated talks, amongst which were an illustrated lecture on the Jews of Rome, which he delivered more than twenty times, and others, including three on ‘Jewish Life at the Dawn of the Christian Era,’ never saw the light of day after his death.
He was also in constant demand as a speaker at public meetings. As an example, in August 1898, the Russian government issued a circular, 'The Tsar's Rescript', calling for a conference to discuss the 'maintenance of general peace and possible reductions of excessive armaments'. The Tsar had been advised by his ministers that he could not afford both guns and butter: military expansion and social reform. Therefore he hoped to avoid a further round of military expenditure by negotiating an overall reduction in international military expenditure.
In 1899 a large public meeting was held at the Paddington Baths at which Simeon Singer was asked to speak. In a passionate speech he supported the proposed international conference and, quoting Longfellow’s ‘The Arsenal at Springfield,’ he said:
Were half the power that fills the world with terror,
Were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts,
Given to redeem the human mind from error,
There were no need of arsenals and forts,
words that, I am sure you will agree, ring as true today as they did when they were first penned.
He helped to establish the Jewish Wards at the Charing Cross Hospital and raise funds. At a public meeting held at His Majesty’s Theatre to gather support he told the story of a little boy who’d swallowed some silver coins. His GP got them all out with the exception of a single shilling. In the discussion that followed as to what to do with him, someone suggested sending him to the Charing Cross Hospital. When he was asked why send him there, there are closer hospitals, he replied, ‘Charing Cross has the reputation of getting the last shilling out of people.’
As well as this hospital, he also regularly visited patients in University College Hospital and St George’s. He consecrated the David Lewis Hospital in Liverpool and filled posts as chaplain to the Jewish Mayor of Portsmouth and to the Hon N. Charles Rothschild when he was Sheriff of Buckinghamshire.
In 1840, the first of a series of meetings was held by the lord mayor of London that had been called for by citizens of London, both Jew and Gentile, to protest against the blood libel brought against the Jews of Damascus. In 1890 a meeting was held to protest the treatment and persecution of the Jews of Russia.
As a consequence of these meetings, a Mansion House Fund was set up which raised £108,000 and was administered by a Mansion House Committee. At another meeting held at the Guildhall over £100,000 was collected. The funds were merged and the organisation overseeing them then became known as the Russo-Jewish Committee.
In the early stages of its work the Mansion House Committee supervised the transportation of large numbers of Russian-Jewish refugees from Brody to America, having a branch committee in Liverpool. The chairman of both committees was Sir Julian Goldsmith. The committee also took part in all the conferences held to consider the position of Russian Jews and helped to found agricultural colonies in Canada, North Dakota and elsewhere. None of these colonies, however, had a very long life. The Russo-Jewish Committee in London, besides assisting the refugees, also set up a Location and Information Bureau as a labour registry.
Rev Singer served on this committee for fifteen years. It assisted the Jewish Board of Guardians by arranging for the immigration, repatriation, and settlement of refugees and also provided evening classes in English to enable its clients to obtain employment.
Because of his fluency in German, he was very useful to this committee, and at the request of Sir Julian Goldsmid, in November 1891 Rev Singer visited Berlin and Hamburg as its emissary. In fact, over the ensuing years, Singer represented this committee at foreign conferences, and through his statesman-like qualities gained for himself a considerable reputation in Jewish circles abroad.
He collected funds for the relief of Russian Jewish soldiers who had been wounded in the war with Japan; he was an active member of the Anglo-Jewish Association and served on the committee of the Jews’ Temporary Shelter.
As well as this, he found time to serve as Chaplain to the Jews’ Free School Company of the Lad’s Brigade.
He was deeply concerned with the plight of the poorest Jewish girls and women and devoted himself to working on their behalf in the fight against the evils that they had to confront, becoming chairman of the Gentleman’s Committee of the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women. On one occasion he acted as a delegate of the Organisation for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade, at an international conference.
At various times he also served as Hon Sec for the Jewish Provincial Ministers’ Fund, Hon Sec of the Keeling Jewish Committee Endowment Fund; he was chairman of the London Committee of the Jerusalem Central Library, Chairman of the East End Workers, Vice President of the Union of Jewish Literary Societies, and a Member of the Jewish Historical Society.
Rev Singer was characterised as one of the most successful ‘beggars’ that the community ever had. At one time he collected £800 for Jews’ College in eight donations of £100. (£100 in 1900 was equivalent to about £6300 today!)
He was greatly involved in Jewish Education. I have already mentioned his work at and for Jews’ College School, but he also acted as an honorary examiner at Norwood and at the Westminster Jews’ Free School and in 1902 he became manager of the Paddington group of schools. He taught throughout his life, both privately and in Cheder, and teaching was undoubtedly one of the great loves of his life.
In common with Rabbis down the ages, he fought against those who tried to convert Jews to another religion. In 1903 he preached a sermon on the subject that was published separately and distributed, particularly in the East End where their activities were rife.
One particular sentence in that sermon is worth repeating, where Rev Singer said:

‘If Christians will but devote themselves to converting Christians to Christianity and Jews to Judaism, we shall all have our hands full for at least the present generation, and a higher triumph will be ours than that which can follow from any attempts, however successful, to snatch a soul here and there from another fold.’

The plight of the Jews of the East End engaged much of his attention. He frequently preached to congregations of working men and women and always drew a big gathering. He was a member of the Committee of Workers among the Poor and served as its chairman for a year.
Throughout his time at the NWE he received approaches from other communities. He was contacted from Australia, South Africa and America, and in 1892 he turned down a call to become the Minister of the Hampstead Synagogue.
I’d now like to say a word about Singer’s approach to Zionism, and the Zionist movement, which was just being established.
There’s no doubt that, in the purest sense of the word, Singer was a true Zionist. That is, that he looked forward to the re-establishment of a Jewish state on the soil of the Holy Land. However, since he had a whole hearted belief in the Messianic prophecies, there was something that he deeply disliked in the idea that this restoration might be gained by purchase of land, or by other human means. He joined the Chovevei Zion movement, which promoted Jewish settlement, particularly agricultural settlement, in Eretz-Israel. He was not opposed to its nationalistic aims, because he interpreted them in the sense of the prayer in the siddur , “May our eyes behold Gd’s return unto Zion in mercy.”
Although Theodore Herzl held the very first of his meetings in London to promote his idea of the establishment of a Jewish State, in Rev Singer’s house in Lenister Square, Singer could not entertain the idea of a Jew having allegiance to any other than the State of which that Jew was a citizen. He always stoutly maintained that he was an “English Jew,” and he was proud to call himself an Englishman.
He disassociated himself from Herzl’s movement and year by year he became more hostile to its policy. He was devoted to the notion of colonization in Palestine or anywhere else, but not to a sovereign Jewish state.
Although there is not time to explore Simeon Singer’s theological position in depth, I would like to say a few words about it.
The New West End is fortunate to possess a number of Rev Singer’s sermons that he delivered in the Borough Synagogue, and are in his own handwriting. Among them is one that was preached on Shavuot 1873 when he was only 27 years old. In it he speaks of the three fundamental doctrines on which Judaism is founded.
He says that they are: Metsiut Hashem - a belief in the existence of Gd; Sachar VeOnesh - a belief in reward and punishment, and Torah Min Hashamayim, which we now take to mean that every word of the Torah was dictated by Gd Himself to Moses, but which he translates as ‘the truth of revelation.’
Disappointingly, he doesn’t develop these themes in any depth, and it’s not clear from this sermon how his understanding of the expression, Torah Min Hashamayim’ related then to that which we accept today.
However, in 1896, when the Rev Singer was 50, Claude Montefiore published a ‘Bible for Home Reading,’ and this prompted Simeon Singer to preach a sermon that makes it very clear, especially in the light of events that were to take place here some 68 years later, that he would not be able to obtain the Chief Rabbi’s certificate to be appointed as Minister of the New West End Synagogue today!
Let me quote one section:
How else are we to deal with scepticism? By appealing to authority? But it is just the basis of authority in religion that people are sceptical about. We must be content to win men’s assent, not to force or even to demand it. Ask for too much in religion and you get nothing. Insist upon it that every word and letter of the Bible is equally the result of the direct inspiration of Gd; that not only that the original authors were inspired, but that those who transcribed their words age after age were also inspired to the degree of inerrancy; that scientific, historical and other difficulties shall be regarded as nonexistent; say to men and women craving for help in all the problems of their spiritual life ‘Take the book exactly as it is or leave it all together,’ and you place the thinking portion of mankind in a perilous dilemma.
But show that Gd has seen fit to employ human agents to act upon human souls; that these agents partake of human qualities, their limitations and even their defects, that their minds could no more be expected to be in all respects alike than their voices; make it clear that not all parts of the Bible are on the same religious or moral plane: prove that there is development and progress in religious truth and conduct as in other things; prove that the highest teachings are the Bible are absolutely unsurpassed in the religious literature of the world and that it is to the Bible the world is indebted for all that is best in its religious consciousness; and - apart from the all-convincing power of a holy life - you will have done the utmost within human ability for the conquest of unbelief, for the exaltation and the enthronement of true faith.
Israel Abrahams, his son-in-law, and a distinguished academic in his own right, probably knew Singer’s position best of anyone. He had access to all of his manuscripts and, after Singer’s death, Abrahams produced three volumes of his literary remains.
In one of them Abrahams writes:

“He had neither love for nor belief in the minute critical analysis of the Bible. Though he held that the spiritual and moral worth of the Bible was independent of its scientific accuracy, he frequently preached sermons in which the truth of the Scriptural records were maintained. But he was attracted to the theory of a progressive revelation by his cheery optimism. That the world was ever improving, that men were deepening their knowledge of Gd, was a foremost element of his creed. “

That he was an observant Jew is, I believe, beyond question. In a sermon that he preached in 1900 in the Manchester Synagogue of British Jews, one of the early Reform Congregations, he takes to task the Jews who say: “We are Jews....we attach no religious observances, but we are Jews in our hearts.” He says that they would not trust a merchant who said he was a most honest man, not exactly in business...but in his heart. Or what value would a woman place on her servant who said she was willing, industrious and reliable, not in the work of the household, but in her heart?
As I said; that he kept the Mitzvot is, I believe, undoubted. But as regards his theological position, the Jewish Chronicle said of him that “he was a distinctly progressive force in England, and he did much to break down the barriers dividing the orthodox from the more advanced sections of the community.”
Singer used to say that, since there are no sects in Judaism, why treat Reformed Jews as sectarians?
A favourite idea of his that occurs again and again in his sermons, was that variations in character were part of the divine plan; in the same way that no two people look alike, so no two feel or think alike.
He held a passionate belief that people were entitled to hold their own opinion, and they had every right to argue that opinion. The fact the two Jews disagree on an issue, should have no bearing whatsoever on their personal relationship, or on the recognition by one of the other of their legitimate Jewish status.
This idea of the tolerance of dissent, he almost elevated into a principle of religious unity.
In a sermon preached in1890, called ‘Variations in Character’ he spells out his view very clearly:
Gd, had he so chosen, might no doubt have cast us all in the same mould. Masses of men might have been cut out like quantities of the cheap boots and clothes so many of us have to wear, upon the rough material of which a big strong machine descends and turns the whole thing out wholesale, all according to sample. Now, what may be suggested as the reason for this infinite diversity in the outward appearance of human beings? More than one answer could be given, but the answer that commends itself to day is that the Almighty Gd by this means intended to teach us that those differences which we so easily trace in the human countenance are not less prevalent in the human mind and character.
Nay, that in the mind and character of men there are likely to be many more and greater differences, because Gd is there dealing with far finer elements; that men have been intended from the first not only to be outwardly distinguishable from one another, but to have different thoughts, opinions, tastes, feelings, likings - that all this is Gd’s own doing, and therefore something not to be deplored, but to be understood, to be made the best of, and to be grateful for.
And in his memoir of Simeon Singer, Israel Abrahams quotes a prayer of Rev Singer’s which, characterises, very well, Simeon’s Singer’s approach to the design underlying men’s differences:
“Thou whose infinite power and wisdom are reflected in the infinite varieties of Thy creation, we see Thy handiwork also in the differences that prevail in the minds of men. We pray to Thee for all men, Thy children, our brethren. Take them all under the sheltering wings of Thy love. And may we, recognizing that divergences of thought and belief are of Thine implanting, strive the more zealously to be one in charity and forbearance, one in the desire to know and do Thy will.”
And it was not just pious ideas that Singer uttered, but he often demonstrated his passionate belief in them. He was very keen on the interchange of pulpits among all Jewish communities. He preached at the Reform Synagogue in Manchester on more than one occasion, and expressed his willingness to conduct a wedding at Upper Berkley Street. He detested the insincerity of those who would stand up and proclaim all Jews brothers and yet actually treat some of them as if they were aliens.
He was not happy that he was unable to offer his own pulpit to Reform ministers, but he invited the Rev. L. M. Simmons, of the Manchester Congregation, to preside at the Annual Prize Distribution at the New West End Synagogue Religion Classes.
In one sermon he quotes Dean Swift when he berates those who have “just enough religion to make them hate one another and not enough to make them love one another,” and in another he expresses the hope that ‘the Jubilee of the West London Synagogue of British Jews may be distinguished by a closer approximation of all sections of the Anglo-Jewish community; that fifty years of separation may be followed by countless years of generous reunion, during which the ancient quarrels of brethren shall be forgotten...”, sentiments that you would not be likely to hear uttered in a United Synagogue today.
That Sir Julian Goldsmith felt able to approach him in 1893 to become the Minister of Upper Berkley Street, the Reform Synagogue, is, I think, more an indication of Singer’s inclusive approach to his fellow-Jew, than an intimation that he was, himself, progressive in his practice.
His reply to Sir Julian, turning down the offer, is very revealing. He wrote that it was indeed one of the dearest wishes of his heart to bring about a “complete fraternal understanding and religious fellowship between all sections of Jewry. But,” he added, “so far as practical service in the interest of our common Judaism is concerned, I believe I can be of more use by not quitting my post in that section of the community where men are needed to testify fearlessly against narrowness and intolerance of every kind.”
Although basically traditional in his approach to the Synagogue service, Singer introduced some minor changes to the service in the New West End. The Ten Commandments were read every week; a reading from the Bible, in English, was begun in 1888, as well as a general prayer in English; he modified the Prayer for the Royal Family removing some of the obsolete mediaeval phrases, and introduced the express consent of the bride, as well as the bridegroom, into the wedding ceremony. He was also directly involved in the admission of mixed choirs into the United Synagogue.
However, it shouldn’t be thought that he made these changes independently. He always obtained the agreement of those in higher authority than himself first.
I mentioned, at the beginning of my remarks, that the Rev Singer’s influence was almost as great as that of the Chief Rabbi, and this can be illustrated by the fact that he was invited to attend functions that, in more recent times, certainly only the Chief Rabbi would officiate at.
He spoke at the consecration of a South-Side Synagogue in Glasgow in 1892, at the opening of the Sarah Pyke House in 1900 and at the seaside Home in Margate in 1903. He addressed the congregation at the opening of the Finsbury Park Synagogue in 1901 and at the dedication of the new Hebrew wards at the London Hospital in 1904.
He was looked upon as a man of great stature and was brought in to help settle communal quarrels. In 1891 he settled the East End Bootmakers’ Strike and after that, was called in to assist in other trade disputes.
And yet, even with all of this devotion to duty, he still managed to lead a private life. He took a number of journeys abroad with his wife, to Southern Europe and Italy, usually after having spent the first part of the summer holiday with their children in England.
He would swim and boat, play tennis, ride his bicycle or “drive the cob,” and with great relish would discuss crops and other rural topics with the locals, often exhibiting a considerable knowledge.
Israel Abrahams reports that it would not be long after his arrival in some village before he was the favourite and confidant of school-child, farm labourer or fisherman. He liked staying in country rectories, if he could, because they would usually have a good library and not much decent furniture - so he didn’t have to worry about the children damaging it!
On one well-known occasion he arrived for a vacation somewhere in Jane Austen country and was greeted by the Rector, who, realising that his tenant was a clergyman exclaimed: “My dear sir, I can let you have the house on much lower terms than I have proposed, if you will take the service for me every Sunday in the village church.” Singer expressed doubts whether his doctrine would suit the congregation, and the Rector said: “Don’t worry about that, they are very broad minded.”
It was on these holidays that Singer managed to do most of his light reading. He loved reading aloud, and, as I’ve already said, was very good at it, and he frequently read to his family.
His community always benefited from his travels and he often referred to places he’d been, or thing’s he’d seen or done, while away. As one of his friends, Mr H.S.Lewis, said of him:
“... his mind was never closed to new impressions, and he was absolutely without fads. One felt about Simeon Singer that he had triumphantly overcome the greatest danger into which a preacher is liable to fall, the danger of stagnation. Throughout his life he was always growing, he spoke about Judaism as a student whose search after religious truth would never end.”
Being a naturally gregarious person he counted amongst his friends many people in all strata of society. He truly loved his fellow man and that love was demonstrated in so many ways.
In an appreciation of him in the JC August 31 1906 Constance Battersea wrote that Simeon Singer used to leave his own Seder on second night Pesach to conduct Seder at Charcroft House, a refuge for Girls and Women.
In an incident recalled by the Rev G S Belasco, he wrote that Rev Singer went to a London Hospital to visit a seriously ill man on Rosh Hashanah. The man asked him not to say prayers aloud because he didn’t want to be identified as a Jew, but Rev Singer reassured him and started to recite, in English, some of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. “Soon a hush fell over the entire ward and medical staff gathered in that ward to hear Simeon Singer pray, and thus a congregation came together for Jews and non Jews that one and all fell beneath the power of the solemn words of the prayers recited as only he could recite them.”
In an amusing reference quoted in The Referee for September 2 1906, an incident was recalled in which Rev Singer went to see the writers of a sketch at the Adelphi theatre called ‘A Humourous Hebrew’ and he ‘very amiably’ asked them to modify it as numbers of his play-going co-religionists thought it was calculated to hold the Jews up to contempt.’ ‘Mr Singer was very much in earnest and I fancy we promised to give the comic Jew a rest,’ one of the sketch-writers recalled.
Throughout his life he was given total support by his wife Charlotte, and it must be said that she should take a great deal of the credit for the work he was able to accomplish. She was described as the ideal Minister’s wife and bore the extensive social duties imposed on her with great charm.
They had six children: Jules, Samuel, David, Richard, Charles and Freda. Seeing the extraordinary hours that their father laboured, and the little material rewards he gained for his efforts, it hardly surprising that none of them followed in his footsteps.
Richard became a Barrister in New Zealand, Charles a member of the medical staff of a Government hospital in the Malay Peninsular, and Freda, married the scholar Israel Abrahams. The other three are said to have gone into the commercial world.
I would now like to conclude with the words of the very lengthy obituary in the Jewish Chronicle for August 24th 1906, and then those of S Alfred Adler from the same edition:
It is impossible to do full justice to Mr Singer’s boundless activity and the enormous influence he wielded. He numbered his friends among the members of all denominations without distinction. As someone has rightly said, he used to cram three years work into one.
“He knew - none better than he - how to harmonise modern thought with ancient teaching - how to blend the old with the new - the spirit of the age, with the poetry and mysticism of the Ghetto.
But the finest sermon he preached was his life - a sermon of devotion to the community, of love for his congregation, which will ever shed lustre upon the annals of Anglo-Jewry.”

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