The Very Reverend Sir Israel Brodie (1895–1975), Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the British Commonwealth of Nations (1948–65), was an active and energetic Freemason and personified British Jewry at its best.
Notwithstanding the expulsion by Edward I in 1290, the Jewish community have always enjoyed tolerance in Britain unequalled through history by any other nation.
In 1655 the Amsterdam Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel successfully petitioned Oliver Cromwell to re-admit the Jews and the community began to grow slowly. From the start they embraced assimilation into wider English culture and integrated, so far as possible, into the British style of life, emphasising their British nationality whilst maintaining their own Jewish traditions and way of life.
It was a distinctive style of Orthodoxy which Theodore Herzl referred to as “everything English, with the old Jewish customs peeping through”. By the mid-nineteenth century the Jewish community had taken its place in the academic, civic, educational and legal fields. In 1837, Queen Victoria knighted Moses Montefiore, and Isaac Lyon Goldsmid was made baronet four years later, the first Jew to receive a hereditary title.
In 1855 Sir David Salomons was elected as the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London and the 1858 emancipation of the Jews finally allowed Baron Lionel de Rothschild to take his seat in the House of Commons on 26 July, 1858. Benjamin Disraeli, a baptised Christian of Jewish parentage, already a Member of Parliament at the time, became the first and only Jewish Prime Minister in 1874.
The first rabbinical leader of the community was Aaron Hart (1703–1752) and it was not until 1845 that the formal conferment of the title of Chief Rabbi took place, when Nathan Marcus Alder (1800–1891) was appointed to that post. The concept of a Chief Rabbi was then unique to England and broadly based on the function and duties of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is in his footsteps, and with this rich history behind him, that Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie followed.
Israel Brodie, son of Aaron, was born in Newcastle-upon- Tyne on 10 May 1895 and received his primary education at Rutherford College, in the same city.
This followed with higher education at Jews’ College and University College, London and finally at Balliol College, Oxford. In 1917 Israel Brodie enlisted in the RAF and served as a Jewish Chaplain to the Forces to the end of the war. In 1921 he worked for social services in the East End of London until an opportunity to move to Australia came up.
During Chief Rabbi Dr Joseph Hertz’s visit to Australia in 1921 Rabbi Brodie was recommended and finally appointed to replace Rabbi Dr Joseph Abrahams as chief minister of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation. He served the community from 1923 to 1937. He was the first President of the Zionist Federation of Australia and New Zealand (ZFANZ) established in 1927 to co-ordinate the activities of the State Zionist Councils of Australia under the patronage of Sir John Monash.
His involvement in the movement was the beginning of several controversies that marked his life. In this instance, in the light of the Jewish aspirations for a homeland in Palestine, he found himself increasingly distanced from his peers, as his objectives came more and more into conflict with British policy and administration in Palestine encountering, in some instances, outright hostility. In 1935 he was appointed to the editorial committee of the influential and revamped Australian Jewish Herald, which had first seen the light of day in 1879.
In 1933, he was initiated into Freemasonry in the Duke of Sussex Lodge No. 48 under the Grand Lodge of Victoria and on 1 July 1926 he joined the Victoria Lodge of Research No. 218, of which he became Master in 1930–1931, and he delivered seven lectures in the Lodge between 1927 and 1932. He pursued his Masonic career by being exalted into the Collingwood Chapter in 1935, in which year he was appointed Past Grand Chaplain of the Grand Lodge of Victoria.
As a minister serving in the new Melbourne Synagogue, which was completed in 1930, the early years were disappointing, but soon, as a result of very active efforts by the members of the congregation, a flourishing youth group was established, enthusiastic ladies auxiliary met regularly and a large religious school was formed. When Rabbi Israel Brodie, in April 1937, expressed his intention to return to England, everyone felt great disappointment.
Back in England, he applied to teach at Jews’ College, London and in 1939 he found himself once more recruited to serve as the Jewish Chaplain to the Army and the RAF. In June 1940, with some 330,000 Allied troops, he was evacuated from Dunkirk by sea to England in Operation Dynamo. He finished the War as Senior Jewish Chaplain, nicknamed the Forces Rabbi. He served in the army until he was made Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1948. During the whole of this period 1939–1948, he was active as a Lecturer and Tutor at Jews’ College, which trains rabbis and teachers and which was later renamed The London School of Jewish Studies.
The Lodge of Israel in London welcomed him on 25 January 1944 as a visitor and saluted him as a Past Grand Chaplain of the United Grand Lodge of Victoria. Within two years, on 19 November 1946, the year, incidentally, of his marriage to Fanny Levine, a native of Warsaw, he joined the Montefiore Lodge No. 1017, proposed by Bro. Leslie Sober and seconded by Bro. E. Braham.
His advancement to the chair was speedy. He was elected Master in November 1948 and installed at the Café Royal in London in February 1949. He was to visit the Lodge of Israel on several later occasions: on 9 January, 1958 he was received as W Bro the V Rev Israel Brody, Chief Rabbi and was accompanied by RW Bro Max Seligman, Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the State of Israel. He returned again on 28 April 1960, once more accompanied by Max Seligman, now the MW Grand Master of Israel.
By now Israel Brodie had been appointed Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and it is not surprising that the Montefiore Lodge attendance book for the day, which has eight pages added, lists 466 guests, including 169 Installed Masters.
It reads like a Masonic Who’s Who: the Very Rev. W. Bro. Canon Lancaster, Grand Chaplain; the Very Rev. VW. Bro. Bishop of Woolwich; W. Bro. Nat Gordon, RW Master of Montefiore Lodge No. 753 Glasgow, leading a deputation from Scotland; W. Bro. Saul Taylor, IPM; W. Bro. B. R. Gates and W. Bro. S. Barclay, Past Masters and Bro. I. Hyman, and many other distinguished visitors.
The minutes record Bro Brodie’s active participation in Lodge affairs. His talks and orations were already popular, and as Master, his lecture Four Cardinal Values was particularly well received. At the end of his year as Master, the Lodge presented him with a leather-bound volume of the Summonses issued during his year in office.
Israel Brodie became Chief Rabbi in 1948 at the age of 53 at a time when Jewry in the world at large was going through a difficult time. The Holocaust in Europe was a sensitive subject and the ending of the British Mandate in Palestine was causing continual unrest in Israel. The choice of Chief Rabbi had fallen on him because he was perceived to be a tolerant man with a faultless English background.
He proved a persuasive and peaceful negotiator and led the community through this period with pride and dignity. He was the founder of the Conference of European Rabbis, and through this entity Brodie took a significant part in rebuilding the religious life of European Jewry after the Holocaust.
His several pastoral tours to Australia and New Zealand and other parts of the Commonwealth, which were recorded by his wife Fanny, who also kept notes relating to visits to Israel, Ireland, South Africa and the USA, strengthened the worldwide Jewish community in a quiet but significant manner.
Sadly, the closing years of his tenure were overshadowed by religious dispute. In 1961, Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs (1920– 2006) a renowned scholar of Judaism, who has been referred to as “the greatest Chief Rabbi we never had” was nominated to be principal of Jews’ College. However, one of his many books, We Have Reason to Believe, published in 1957, challenged the traditional view that the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, were dictated by God, word by word, to Moses on Mount Sinai.
As a result, Brodie blocked the appointment, stating that Jacobs was unfit for the post and prohibited Jacobs from returning to his post at the New West End Synagogue. The incident, known as the ‘Jacobs Affair’, reverberated around the world and the resulting controversy within Orthodox scholarly circles is still alive today.
In 1954, he was honoured by the United Grand Lodge of England with his appointment as Past Grand Chaplain and at the Meeting of the Montefiore Lodge on 28 October he was presented with the regalia of the Office of Past Grand Chaplain, which included a skull cap made from the same blue cloth material as the apron. He wore the ‘kipa’ at all the meetings he attended.
At this time, following on a minor dispute in the Montefiore Lodge, in which a candidate proposed by Bro Brodie was black-balled, there came about the resignation of several Brethren and the withdrawal from the Lodge of Rabbi Brodie himself for several years.
Brodie’s tenure as Chief Rabbi followed on that of Joseph Herman Hertz (1913–1946), who had also been a Freemason in the Transvaal, South Africa under the UGLE, attaining the rank of Past District Grand Chaplin, although it would appear that he took no further activity as a Mason following his appointment as Chief Rabbi in 1913. There were several other prominent Rabbis who were active Freemasons.
The Rev. Dr. Bernard Elzas and the Rev. Marcus Haines, Ministers of the New West End Synagogue as well as the Rev. Isaac Goldston, were all initiated in the Lodge of Israel No. 205. In Lodge Joppa No. 188 the Rev. Israel Levy Lindenthal and the Rev. David de Sola of Bevis Marks were initiated in 1846. The Rev. Aaron Barnett Levy was a Chaplain of the Lodge of Tranquillity (1855–1857) and the Rev. Dr. George Joseph Emanuel of Birmingham was initiated in 1861.
Also, the Rev. Morris Rosenbaum, Past Provincial Grand Chaplain (Northumberland), the Masonic historian, was an active Freemason, as was the Rev Rayehael Levy, father of Elkan D Levy, a colleague and close friend, whose assistance with this article I am glad to acknowledge.
In 1969 Israel Brodie was made a Knight of the British Empire “for services to British Jewry”, the first Chief Rabbi to be so honoured. In 1970 he was made an honorary member of Montefiore Lodge. Bro. Brodie died on 20 February, 1979.
Brodie, Very Rev. Sir Israel, Past G.Chap., Newcastle 100:234
Brodie, Very Rev. Sir Israel, Past G.Chap. (1954) 92:36, 50, 58
Levy, Elkan D, Historical Notes on www.chiefrabbi.org, the website of the Chief Rabbi
Silverman, Montefiore Lodge No. 1017, London
Shaftsley, John M, Jews in English Freemasonry in the 18th & 19th Centuries, AQC 92 (1954)
The Film below is a never publicised 8mm film was lost for over 65 years to be discovered whilst transferring home movies of a family that moved from Ireland to Canada. Guess what – Rabbi Brodie’s successor Immanuel Jakobovits also makes an appearance as Chief Rabbi of Ireland at the time: Immanuel Jakobovits, Baron Jakobovits (8 February 1921 – 31 October 1999) was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1967 to 1991. Prior to this, he had served as Chief Rabbi of Ireland and as rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York City.
Includes bonus footage of study at the Beth Hamedresh! Enjoy! With permission from the Silver family.