London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levene of Jubilee Street Great Zionist Synagogue with his wife ChayaRabbi Yehuda Leib (Lewis) Levene 1884 – 1954, Rabbi of Jubilee Street Zionist Great  Synagogue (This article and photo was given to me by Rabbi Levene's grandson, Avraham - Phil)


Rabbi Yehuda Leib (Lewis) Levene was the Rabbi of Jubilee Street Zionist Great  Synagogue  during the years 1914-1954. He was my grandfather, and I was eight when he passed away, so I do have fond memories of him.

Rabbi Levene grew up in a village named Paritz in  "White Russia". At an early age he went to study in the Yeshiva of the Chafetz Chaim in Radin, where he became a Rabbi and was known as the "Paritz Matmid", i.e. one who is very dedicated to his studies.

At some point he was drafted into the Russian army, where one of his sons, my uncle, told me he became a "barabamchik", a drummer. At some point one of his friends in the army made plans to desert, and my grandfather overheard officers discussing the intended desertion, so he naturally warned his friend that he was about to be caught. This warning also became known to the officers, and so my grandfather also had to desert. He did so, and left Russia for England at around the turn of the 20th century. Something of the Russian army apparently stuck to him, because according to my uncle, when elderly, and walking with the aid of a walking-stick, he would occasionally lift up the walking-stick and playfully point it as if it was a rifle ...

Upon his arrival in England, he sent for his then fiancée, who would become my grandmother, Chaya Bina of the House of Gurevitch, which is the Russian pronunciation of the name of the famous Horowitz family, of which she was a scion.

My grand-parents had 14 children of whom 10 survived namely 2 boys and 8 girls, one of them my mother. The two boys both became doctors, Moshe/Max Levene would become the President of the Oncologists Society of doctors (when young I would call him 'my oncle the oncologist'),and his younger brother Yechiel/Charles was for many years a Professor of Medicine at Cambridge University.

While still in Russia, my grandfather had a very good friend named Rabbi Arieh Levene (no initial relation), who would later emigrate to what was then Palestine. He would later assist the Jewish resistance movements fighting against the British White Paper that prevented immigration to Israel of Holocaust survivors, by visiting those of them in prison. This same Rabbi Arieh Levene would eventually become known throughout Israel as 'the Rabbi of the prisoners', but even more, would become renowned as a Zadik, a 'righteous man'.

Rabbi Arieh Levene is relevant to my grandfather's history, for they became in-laws; Rabbi Arieh’s first-born son, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Levene would marry my Aunty Stella. This is why I earlier wrote in brackets "no initial relation".

A second relevance of this relationship was made clear to me in an unusual way. My grandfather published a book - in Hebrew - of his shul sermons in the late twenties. The front of the book contained three 'haskamot', the traditional authorization of a religious book that it was 'acceptable' doctrine-wise, and commenting on the wisdom and scholarship of the author. The three 'haskamot' were from Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, later to become the first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Issar Zalman Meltzer, and Rabbi Arieh Levene.

In the fifties and early sixties there were still quite a few copies of the book lying around. The reason for this was that it was known that whenever my grandfather gave someone a copy of his book he was very careful to correct by hand one specific printing mistake. When he died, nobody in the family knew what the mistake was, and so for more than ten years no further copies of the book were distributed.

I came to Israel from London in 1964. In 1966 I began studying in Rabbi Kook's Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and at that time I began the habit of visiting Rabbi Arieh Levene at his small house ('room' would be more appropriate here) in Jerusalem, every Friday morning. On one of these visits I happened to ask Rabbi Arieh if by chance he knew what was the mistake in my grandfather's book that he always corrected. He, and his son-in-law who was in the room at the time, both began laughing. I was puzzled, until I received the answer: the mistake was in the 'haskama' written by Rabbi Arieh - although his name was also Levene, he was not of the tribe of the Levites, and had been incorrectly credited as if he had been. It was the word "Levi" preceding Rabbi Arieh's surname that my grandfather always took trouble to remove!

My mother, who was a nursing sister at the London Jewish Hospital during WWII told me that my grandfather also served as the district Rabbi: whenever a question of Jewish Law arose in the hospital, my mother was dispatched to her father to obtain a rabbinic ruling on the matter.

Rabbi Levene possessed a sense of humor that occasionally found its way into his sermons. At the end of his book of sermons, he added a few paragraphs of commentaries on Jewish subjects, some of them humorous in nature. One such item is as follows: when Jacob is about to lie down to sleep before dreaming of the angels ascending and descending the sky-bound ladder, he says "what a fearful place - this can be nothing but the House of G-d". My grandfather wryly commented on this, saying that some people can stay up all night, playing cards or other valueless activities. But as soon as they enter a synagogue they feel tired and may even fall asleep. So it was with Jacob ... he felt tired, so understood that he must be in the House of G-d!

A final word about the name of his synagogue - The Jubilee Street Zionist Great Synagogue.  Today there would appear to be nothing unusual about that name.  I once sat down with back-copies of the Jewish Chronicle and looked through the period covering the time between the start of World War I and the start of World War II. To my great surprise, I discovered that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 giving British support to the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine was received very negatively by Anglo-Jewry (as represented by the Jewish Chronicle). Although this was not stated explicitly, it seems that Anglo-Jewry feared that it would be "advised" to go to Palestine, to build its own state. Thus the name "Zionist Great Synagogue" would appear to be a brave statement of opposition to a position held by Anglo-Jewry at large.

Today the majority of Rabbi Levene's grand-children live religious lives of varying degrees in Israel. Three of his daughters are alive today: my Mother - Lilian Reiss (in Israel), Norma Witler (in England) and Gail Mendelow (in Australia). Rabbi Levene and his wife Chaya Bina, are buried in the Sanhedria cemetery in Jerusalem, as are his oldest daughter Kitty, his two sons Moshe and Yechiel, and his daughter Stella together with her husband Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Levene, son of the Zadik Rabbi Arieh Levene, who is also buried there.

With apologies to Shakespeare, these were people who did no evil, but their good was not interred in their bones: it lingers on, transcending generations.

Jubilee Street viewFootnote:  According to an article in the Jewish Chronicle of 26th August 1955, Jubilee Street Great Zionist Synagogue was founded in 1918 and was originally located at 165 Jubilee Street.  It was demolished to make way for the Sidney Street housing Estate.  A new synagogue was opened in 1955 a few yards away from the original.  It was hoped that other synagogues would merge with it to form one large synagogue, but it was not to be.  Jubilee Street synagogue closed in the mid 1960s and amalgamated with the East London Central synagogue in nearby Nelson Street.  Rabbi and Mrs Levene lived at 142 Stepney Green.  They were buried at the Federation of Synagogue's cemetery in Edmonton.  In 1990 their family arranged for them to be taken to their final resting place at the Sanhedrian cemetery in Jerusalem.  A present day view of Jubilee Street is above left.

(double click photos to enlarge)

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