​Founders & Pioneers

Introduction/ Narrated by Harry Hurst

A podcast series compiled from oral histories and produced as part of a digital exhibition exploring how Liberal Judaism has evolved since it was co-founded by British visionary Lily Montagu in 1902.

This episode explores the theme founders and pioneers of Liberal Judaism

This series of podcasts and the exhibition of which it is part honours the contribution of Lily Montagu to the foundation of Liberal Judaism. Lily founded the movement with Claude Montefiore and Israel Mattuck – together they were known as the three M’s. In this episode participants pay tribute to the three M’s as well as other pioneers and influential figures.

For over a century Liberal Jews have been indebted to the dedication of a number of Liberal rabbis and lay leaders. Some of them are remembered and honoured in this episode.

When I first became a liberal Jew, we were very much influenced by the three Ms: Rabbi Mattuck.  Lily Montagu and Claude Montefiore

Brenda Dombey

Certainly here, we’ve sold three Ms quite often. But it’s a very distant memory to most. I go to text class on Tuesdays, and Alex was going round about things like Kashrut. And quite a lot of the text class are brought up on Israel Mattuck’s book, The Essentials of Liberal Judaism. But the next generation think quite differently. His was a fairly radical Judaism. First of all, youchucked out Kashrut. Secondly, you chucked out head covering. You chucked out the book having to go, as I see it, back to front. You cut out Hebrew. You didn’t have – Hebrew was an optional subject which you did at religious school when I was a child here. And there was no need to bother to learn Hebrew because we didn’t use Hebrew. And the choir were up in the choir loft. It was a non-Jewish choir singingI think it was a concentration on the spirituality, which I notice is now debunked. Possibly because, of course, modern theological ideas, they’ve changed, things have changed. The concept of belief in God, which was absolutely fundamental to the three Ms, has been so much changed.

Martin Slowe

Dr Mattuck I remember well, was elderly and when I remember him best was because the synagogue had bombed during the war, we couldn’t use it for the High Holy Days, so we used to go to the Friends Meeting House in Euston Road, and I always used to join my father again in the afternoons of Yom Kippur and I couldn’t wait for the service to end. Dr Mattuck used to always take the final blessing. He was very old-fashioned, he always raised his hands and said, “And peace be upon you.”

Rita Adler

From about 1942, we left the Belsize Square and joined the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, (LJS) where the senior Rabbi was Israel Mattuck , a very brilliant man. I suppose today his Judaism would not be accepted by the establishment, but he was a very, very brilliant speaker, and a very moving and very lovely personality.   And perhaps a bit of a showman, because I always remember how when he gave the final blessing, he lifted up the tallus high up, perhaps you could say today he was a showman, but it was very successful.

Gerald Granston

I met Claude Montefiore. I was quite close to Leslie Edgar, I knew Mattuck, who wasn’t easily approachable, but we knew each other and I was working my way up through the youth movement.

Lionel Lassman

We had a very good read by called Rabbi, called Rabbi Hooker who really put us on the map. And then later on, we had a rabbi called Zucker, who came from America, who really made the connection with the other communities and was very much accepted, not only by our community, but by the whole Jewish community of Birmingham.

Ruth Shire

Well, fairly early on Alan Mann was appointed as our rabbi, he was the third rabbi at the LJS at the time. Then we had a series of student rabbis and also David Goldstein who was also an old boy of my school, he was a few years older than me. I keep coming across these Jews everywhere that went to my school [laughs]. He was with us just up until we started buying the building. We had several student rabbis. There was Kenneth Cohen, who was American, who became the chief rabbi of Wales I believe, he was the only one there afterwards. The best one was Danny Gottlieb, who was our rabbi when we were building the shul, and he was so popular the LJS allowed him to stay on another year because officially student rabbis are only assigned to a congregation for a year, but he was with us for at least two.

Terry Benson

I’m here I’m the one of the wardens of Brighton and Hove Progressive synagogue, I look after on a Shabbat morning service. And I think my first ever lesson on how to do wardening was when I was five years old, when somebody who was very much involved with the Liberal movement, Joe Swinburn was the warden at North London Progressive synagogue and had to tell me off for misbehaving during the service. At that time in Liberal Judaism we had some people that would have been very much influenced by Lily Montagu. We had a rabbi, he was a reverend in those days, and he was Herbert Richer, a very influential rabbi at that time in the movement. We also had the influence of Germany, because at that time in the synagogue, a synagogue didn’t only have a rabbi, it had a cantor, music was very important and it had an organ and we had this cantor, who only for few years because he then retired, called Lewandowski they must have been related to the Lewandowskis that did produced a lot of the music we have in our services. And I remember as a child they also sometimes used to say to you maybe you know, maybe one day you would like to become a chazzan because they used to like to pretend I was in those days but no, it wasn’t the case.

David Selo

The minister was Reverend Herbert Richer. In those days they – Liberals called all their ministers reverends. Eventually they became rabbis. Herbert Richer was really a dynamic person. And I suppose my – I could call North London my alma mater synagogue because all I learnt was really from there. It was a strong Zionist synagogue, stemming from when Maurice Perlzweig, the founder, really a founder minister, was there. Unlike the rest of Liberal Judaism, he was very pro-Israel, or the founding of the state of Israel. That continued right the way through the life of North London. They arranged trips to Israel, ambulances for Magen David Adom and so many other things. But the community itself was very dynamic. They were a wonderful bunch of people. In the late ‘60s, I think ‘60s, the union had the remarkable foresight to employ Rabbi Sidney Brichto from America. And Sidney was a most dynamic person, he really was, and he could easily persuade the birds from the trees. He was really a dynamic man to have in control of the whole set-up. And it brought the movement back to life a bit because it was getting a bit staid in its ways. And in around about 1975, I think, the end of 1975, in the push to try and get more Jews to become involved in Progressive Judaism, Sidney approached myself, Harold Miller and Joe Swinburne, and asked if we would be willing to set up a branch of North London in Ilford. Because Ilford at that time had the largest Jewish community in Europe. And I pointed out to him that there was already a Liberal shul in South Woodford. There was one Reform shul and also four Orthodox synagogues. But I said – nonetheless for that, I still thought there was room for us.

Larry Peters

As my life is always very much influenced by Liberal Judaism. I was Bar mitzvahed at North London progressive synagogue by Sidney Brichto who was a very important member of Liberal Judaism. He was executive director, and at that time was taking the services at North London Progressive synagogue. And he wasn’t a particularly tall person. I was always been tall and he always gave a blessing onto the Bar mitzvah boy. And on this occasion he had to comment that he had to look up for the Bar mitzvah boy rather than actually look down to the person and there was always a memory of that.

David Selo

And I remember we had Rabbi Rayner, who was the chief rabbi at the time. And one of my memories is that he took us away to Oxford, I think, to or Cambridge, and we went to a theological college, and we were like students. So we each had our own room and it was an amazing experience really I don’t think I appreciated it at all at the time. But that was a sort of teaching for the confirmation. But I know that Liberal Judaism was criticised then for the confirmation process that it it made it too much like the Christian confirmation and more recently, Bat Mitzvahs and Bar Mitzvahs have come back into fashion I suppose. And both of my daughters were Bat Mitzvahed.

Rachel Goldhill

There’s a lot of debate, among Progressive Jews, not just Liberal Jews, about how far you change prayers in order to say what you believe and how far you reinterpret. And I can see both views, but I think I’m still where John Rayner was. Which is that, you know, you should change things you don’t believe you can say. He was full of integrity. So, you know, he was never afraid to speak out, for example, on Israel and Palestine. He was very clear about what Progressive Jewish values were. I know at our ordination service, there were certain prayers he said he wouldn’t lead because he felt, in all sincerity, he couldn’t say them. And that always stuck, with me, having that sort of courage to be really clear what you believe and what you’re willing to say.I don’t remember the exact prayer, but I know that when we were ordained, our prayers were a mixture of Reform and Liberal. And I suspect it was something related to redemption or something. I’m not sure.

And at the same time he was an innovator and he reintroduced traditions to Liberal Judaism, so he again made Judaism both more radical and more traditional. So he introduced a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, for the night of Shavuot, which go on all night. And one of my great Jewish experiences in my twenties was going to that at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue and learning for a whole night with him. And, like so many great teachers, you know, it was who he was really and it’s sometimes just hard to say exactly – you can name some things and I have, but they’re also towering figures. And from what my dad and from what John said about Lily Montagu, I think she was the same. That she just had this sort of aura about her.

Rabbi Margaret Jacobi

Both sets of parents, members of the United synagogue wouldn’t hear of having me marriage in a liberal synagogue. So I consulted John Rayner whom I knew very well Rabbi John Rayner, as what to do because I didn’t want it to have a enormous row. He advised me that it was okay to get married at Brixton. I got married at the Brixton United Synagogue, although we were living in Tooting, and there was Streatham United Synagogue. My father, for some reason or other wanted to be at Brixton. So I’m afraid I’ve got a united synagogue ketubah. When John said, do it, It’s not the time to fall out with your parents. And it was both sets of parents. So I did it. And we always we always said one day, we will have a real real wedding we will have a liberal wedding, but we never got round to it.

He was a student when I first knew, but then his first appointment was itself was at South London where I was a member. John was a mixture of very formal and serious and you and the other side of him was telling jokes. Just being a normal, normal human being. I think many people only saw John John’s serious side, and of course know, very academic and very knowledgeable indeed. ButI’ve seen him standing on his head. Well, I think he was also a very important figure in liberal in liberal Judaism. He was sort of seen, I think, in a way although he didn’t have that title as a senior Rabbi in liberal Judaism. People would listen to John and regard him as the expert. And at the same time, perhaps a little unapproachable, maybe because he was so much looked up, looked up to, I suppose, on the other hand, he was a very warm and very, very caring person. I think he certainly was seen as someone who spoke for liberal Judaism.

Rosita Rosenberg

We got a phone call from Rosita Rosenberg who was then administrative secretary of what was then ULPS – she said ‘ Would you be interested Brenda in helping to start up a synagogue locally’?  I jumped at it! I knew Rosita very well because she’d been part of the Ner Tamid Youth group. So from there, we went to various meetings with other people from Streatham synagogue and from St. Johns Wood synagogue who all lived fairly locally and were all in a position similar to ourselves with children growing up and having to spend hours on a Sunday taking them to religion school. And so we held a meeting at the big Assembly Rooms in Surbiton, and from that meeting I think 50 families signed up to start the synagogue at about 3 guineas a head.

Brenda Dombey

We decided to visit the Southgate Liberal Synagogue as it was then. And met a very wonderful human being – Rabbi Harry Jacobi. And we lived very much under the guidance of men like Harry, and his lovely wife Rose. It was a very nice, happy synagogue”.

Gerald Granston

He was really committed to Liberal Judaism. He thought it contributed to the world. He thought that a really important part of what it was there for, was to make a wider contribution. He was quite universalist in his outlook, although particularist, too. And, you know he was a Zionist, but not a critical Zionist as well. And, there again, that’s where he valued Progressive Judaism in Israel. This was very important to him – is that he thought it should never stay fixed. He always wanted to be changing. And he exemplified that because he was always changing his mind, right to, at our last rabbinic meeting, a retreat, he said something which completely surprised me. Because for years he’d been saying one thing, and then he said something different. And he thought that’s how Progressive Judaism should be, always ready to change and adapt. He really encouraged young people to have creative services. And he became concerned at one point that young people were being too traditional. So he really was always, you know, looking ahead, looking to the future, looking at what needed to be done differently in changing times.

Margaret Jacobi


This podcast series of oral histories is part of the exhibition: Lily’s Legacy – Voices and Visions of Liberal Judaism, a project supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund. 

It was produced by Miri Lawrence and Lucia Scazzocchio, Sound editing and design by Lucia Scazzocchio, and special thanks to all the contributors who agreed to share their stories. For more information about what you’ve just heard, do visit the exhibition website,  www.lilyslegacyproject.com



To download or share all the podcasts in this series go to lilyslegacy.transistor.fm/subscribe

Founders & Pioneers

The Hon. Lily Montagu founded the Liberal Jewish Movement in Britain with Claude Montefiore and Israel Mattuck in 1902 – together they were known as the three M’s. The Jewish Religious Union, as it was initially called, was later renamed the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues and is now known as Liberal Judaism. The first Liberal Jewish synagogue in Britain was opened in 1911 and the first Liberal Rabbi, Israel Mattuck, was appointed in 1912.