Joseph Frederick Stern

Joseph Frederick Stern (1865-1934) was appointed Preacher, Reader and Secretary of the East London United Synagogue, Rectory Square, Stepney Green in 1887, and took full charge after the removal of his predecessor Victor Rosenstein after a series of scandals, serving until 1928. Sometimes dubbed the 'Jewish Bishop of Stepney' for his social work, he reformed the liturgy, introduced children's services, a mixed voluntary choir (under Bernard Cousins) and an 8' mahogany pulpit, and offered cheap marriage ceremonies. He is said to have chanted the prayers, in Hebrew and English, in a manner akin to Anglican clergy, and with a marked English accent! Although his innovations did not prevent the Chief Rabbis of the period (Dr. Hertz and Sir Israel Brodie) from visiting, traditionalist immigrants rejected the United Synagogue approach, and established Stepney Orthodox Synagogue, afiliated to the Federation of Synagogues. Charles Booth had interviewed Stern, and commented, "Mr. Stern would defy the foreign prejudice and carry and umbrella (on the Sabbath) if he needed one, but not a walking stick ... Mr. Stern preached on the preceding Sabbath on Gladstone's death. The congregation accepted it. In a ḥevra they would have said 'who is this William Ewart Gladstone?' Mr. Stern would like to go further than he is free to do so. He breaks the din [Jewish law] every day (according to the Interviewer) but has to be wary of offending the foreigner. He would abandon the annual cycle (of Sabbath readings from the Pentateuch, presumably in favour of the triennial cycle); use more English in the Service. He objects to Zionism and praying for the restoration of sacrifices ... although thought a little too much of an innovator by one, he is much respected and his energy and devotion are very great. On the whole, he is a good specimen of the Jew, full of his religion and filled with loyal English sympathies." His obituary in the Times said but for the wisdom, sympathy and unflagging courage of men like Canon Barnett, H.S. Lewis and J.F. Stern, the process of absorbing and digesting that great influx of foreign Jews would have caused a far more serious social upheaval than it in fact did. Marc Michaels in The East London Synagogue: Outpost of Another World (Kulmus 2008) comments that, although unpopular with most first generation immigrants, it paved a way for their descendants, but that anglicisation proved to be the victim of its own success, encouraging greater social mobility and the suburbanisation of the Jewish community. He was later honored as Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE). (via this choice bit of oral history)


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