The Cambridge Synagogue Aron Kodesh

This note is a taken from a longer article by Mark Harris, which can be found in the Pesach 2014 bulletin

Cambridge Jews in the First World War

On 4th August 2014, the nation commemorated the 100th anniversary of this country’s declaration of war against Germany. The contribution made by British Jews serving in the armed forces in World War 1 was truly significant and disproportionate to their percentage of the total population.

When Anglo-Jewry numbered some 300,000, an estimated 50,000 volunteered for, or were conscripted into, the services (460 served with the Royal Navy, and, rather amazingly, at least 2,250 served in the newly established Royal Flying Corps). The figures indicate sadly that 1,941 of the mostly young Jewish servicemen were killed in action, and a larger number were wounded or maimed for life. Outstanding heroism led to the award of many medals for valour to Jews serving on the frontline, including five Victoria Crosses, and 50 Jewish soldiers received the DSO.

Only Jewish Cambridge resident appears to have been killed in action during the war. The serviceman may well have been Pte C Fellerman of the 2/2nd London Regiment, who was killed on 15th June 1917. He is noted in the “British Jewry Book of Honour” (see below), and his address was given as “32 Patriot Street, Cambridge”.

Additionally the Trumpington War Memorial inscribes the Jewish sounding name “Anthony Isaacson” who was killed on 23rd May 1916. The Lance Corporal served in the 11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment. He is buried in Becourt Military Cemetery, Becordel-Becourt, Somme region, France. In the 1911 “Trumpington Census”, he was stated to be, at age 19, a “boarder” and a “flour miller”. Whether or not he was Jewish is unconfirmed.

Forty Jewish Cambridge University graduates (the vast majority having been commissioned officers) were killed in action in WW1, including one serving in the Royal Navy and two in the Royal

Flying Corp; and that two MCs were won. It is not known whether any of these had been living as residents in Cambridge immediately prior to embarkation. One of the oldest of those listed as killed in action in WW1 was financier Evelyn Achille de Rothschild, a graduate of Trinity College and a scion of the eminent banking family. He was wounded fatally when fighting the Turks at the Battle of Mughar Ridge on 13th November 1917, and he died a few days later, aged 31.

Some artefacts of the Cambridge Synagogue

It was intriguing to note the following details from “Gown & Tallith” (edited by William 13 Frankel CBE and Harvey Miller, published in 1989 to mark the 50th anniversary of Cambridge University Jewish Society):

  1. The Neir Tamid (Eternal Light) at the Cambridge Synagogue was said to honour two brothers, Herbert Nathaniel Davis (who studied at Caius) and Clement John Burton Davis (who was at Emmanuel), killed in action in 1915 and 1917 aged 24 and 23, respectively
  2. The Aron Kodesh (Ark) in the synagogue was stated to commemorate Harold Lionel Isidore Spielmann (Pembroke), who was killed in 1915, aged 22
  3. A Sefer Torah mantle in the synagogue, apparently fashioned from his Masonic apron, was understood to be in remembrance of Leonard Herman Stern (Magdalene), who was killed in 1915 aged 24.

The Neir Tamid was replaced by a new one a few years ago. The new Neir Tamid was donated by Ros and Barry Landy in honour of their fathers. The original Neir Tamid can still be seen beside the Ark.

The particular Sefer mantle could not be recalled.

The history of Cambridge Synagogue's Ark

Until it is pointed out, few will notice a small, rectangular, enamel plaque fixed to the wall to the left of the Ark. The plaque, which is headed with the colourful crest of Pembroke College flanked by Magen Davids, confirms a note in "Gown & Tallith" that the Ark was presented by his parents in loving memory of Captain Harold Spielmann, of the 10th Battalion Manchester Regiment, who was killed at Gallipoli on 13th August 1915. He appears to have graduated with a BA History degree in 1911, and is buried in Pink Farm Cemetery at Helles. The inscription adds that Captain Spielmann “led his men with skill and gallantry and reached his objective”. The young officer’s name appears also on the 1914-1918 War Memorial at Pembroke, and there is also a memorial to him in Willesden Cemetery. A special service was held on 18th June 1916 by the (then) Cambridge Hebrew Congregation (CHC) “on the occasion of the consecration of the Ark presented by Sir I and Lady Spielmann in memory of their son Captain Harold Spielmann and of other members of the CHC who have fallen in the war”.

Born in 1893, Harold was the son of Sir Isidore and Lady Emily Spielmann (née Sebag-Montefiore). Lady Spielmann’s ancestry is of possible interest to the provenance of the Cambridge Synagogue’s Aron Kodesh. Lady Spielmann was a member of the Montefiore family, a leading Jewish dynasty for centuries in the city of Livorno (also known as Leghorn) on Italy’s Ligurian coast. The town’s archives tell us that in the 1770s, the patriarch of the family was “Moises Montefiore”.

Sir Isidore Spielmann, although an engineer by profession, was, in his day, a highly respected and influential art expert and collector. He was a government adviser on antiques and art, and for many years arranged art exhibitions in major capitals around the world. Indeed, he received his knighthood for services to the nation in that connection.

A publication of eight pages, “authored” by the CHC and published by “Cambridge: University Press” in 1916, related to a special service to consecrate the Aron Kodesh on 18th June 1916. The service would have taken place in the previous synagogue in Sidney Sussex. The publication provided the order of service (part in Hebrew, part in English) for the consecration of the Ark. Before the Kaddish and Adon Olam, there is a reference to a “Memorial Address”.

A full account of the consecration service in the 23rd June 1916 issue of the Jewish Chronicle, including a verbatim report of the “Memorial Address”.

In the presence of the late Captain Spielmann’s parents, other family members and a detachment of Jewish soldiers from the 2/4th Northants Regiment (based in Newmarket), and in a synagogue “filled to its utmost capacity”, the prayers of L H Spero (Downing College) included the following blessing:

“Bless and comfort those who have made this gift to our congregation. May the thought of this day be to them a consolation, to us an inspiration. May it uphold them in their sorrow, and confirm our loyalty to duty, our fidelity even unto death. May this Ark, enshrining the memory of a strong and beautiful soul, be unto them and unto us, enduringly, an incentive to the strength of righteousness, a symbol of the beauty of holiness. Amen.”

Mr Fox's memorial address included the following about the Ark:

“This Ark consists of two parts – the Ark proper and a screen surmounting it. The former is a fine old French armoire, in walnut wood, of the time of Louis XlV (c. 1675). The panels are beautifully carved, and the interior of the Ark is lined with French silk of the period. The Ark and the screen are connected with panelling, the latter being of modern construction, and made to harmonise with the Ark. Columns and pilasters with carved and gilt capital support a massive entablature running round the Ark, and a pediment, in which are the Tablets of the Decalogue, completes the structure. The colour of the woodwork and the gilding produce a very handsome and harmonious effect. The Hebrew text over the Ark is in pierced sheet metal, repoussé on foliated scroll base and richly gilt. The text chosen is from Psalm xix, 9, ‘The Commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes'

מצות יהוה ברה מאירת עיניים

A very happy allusion is thus made to the Hebrew name (Meir) of the late Captain Spielmann. Mr. M Harris (Messrs Isaacs and Co) has taken a personal interest in the work and has largely contributed to its success. The dedicating Tablet, by the well-known craftsman, Mr. Nelson Dawson, is in enamel. It bears the arms of Pembroke College flanked by the Mogen David. The inscription sets out the circumstances of the gift in memory of Captain Harold Lionel Isidore Spielmann, ‘born January 12, 1893, killed in action in Gallipoli, August 13, 1915,’ and closes with the memorable words written by his Colonel in his report of Captain Spielmann’s heroic death: ‘He led his men with skill and gallantry, and reached his objective.’ The beauty of this tablet, both in wording and in artistic style, fits perfectly with the exquisite taste of the whole structure.”

As an internationally renowned art expert and collector, it seems likely that Sir Isidore would have selected the antique armoire to create the Ark with great care, particularly as it was to be gifted to the synagogue in memory of his son. The website of David Harper Fine Art and Antique Auctions states: “Armoires … slowly evolved out of cupboards and cabinets and were finally born in the late 17th century. Soon after they developed, French artisans made some sumptuously decorated armoires for Louis XlV. Expense was not an issue, and the King employed the most celebrated furniture makers of the time …” Recent auction and other sale prices for antique armoires, which had not been commissioned by Louis XlV, appear to be relatively modest. Only an expert in this antique French furniture genre would be able to ascribe a value to, and possibly to identify the maker of, the erstwhile armoire.

Finally, maybe we can do no better than quote from the letter sent to Captain Harold Spielmann’s parents by his commanding officer, Lt-Col G Robinson. This single, moving, instance is illustrative of, and representative acknowledgement and recognition of, the ultimate sacrifice for their country’s cause made by numerous serving Jews, including those who had been associated closely with Cambridge:

“He only joined us about three weeks ago, when he arrived in command of a draft of 248 men, and I was so impressed with his keenness and energy that I put him in command of a company. My judgement was fully borne out. Your son worked hard, and I felt I could always rely on him. On the evening of the 12th inst. a battalion next to us in their trenches lost a portion of a trench on their front, and I was forced to organise a counterattack by one hundred men of my battalion under your son and two other officers. Your son was in command of his section of the attack, and carried out his orders with skill and gallantry. He reached his objective, but was immediately killed and his men had eventually to fall back under strong opposition. His death, by bullets, was instantaneous. Our men had done well, and we regained most of what had been lost, but they were done, and I lost many of them besides my excellent young officer Spielmann. It was crushing to me losing him. He was a ‘gentleman officer’ with such high notions of chivalry, honour and esprit de corps. I considered him one of my best officers, and had just recommended him for a permanent Captaincy, as I had such a high opinion of his capabilities. Your boy died a hero’s death in his country’s cause, and that must ever be a source of satisfaction and comfort to you and one in which you must all take a pride – falling in action gallantly leading his men. What more can a soldier ask for?”