Man who gave war a re­li­gion


THIS SUN­DAY will be an­other day of re­mem­brance. In one of the most mov­ing pub­lic Jewish oc­ca­sions of the year, ex-ser­vice­men and women, an ever-re­duc­ing num­ber of aged veter­ans, will pa­rade past the Ceno­taph on White­hall. Yes, a day for re­mem­ber­ing, the con­stant theme of the prayers that will be read by the Chief Rabbi and a couple of medal-wear­ing rabbinical col­leagues stand­ing in front of the his­toric me­mo­rial.

It is, how­ever, a rea­son­able guess that one name will not be ei­ther in their thoughts or on their lips as the ser­vice pro­ceeds ac­com­pa­nied by brass bands: that of Fran­cis Lyon Cohen.

In 1892, seven years be­fore the out­break of the Boer War, Cohen’s name was very much on the minds of the United Syn­a­gogue, to say noth­ing of the War Of­fice, as it strug­gled with the af­ter­math of the Crimean War. Cohen, the very An­glo-Jewish min­is­ter (dog col­lar, clean shaven) of the Bor­ough Syn­a­gogue in South Lon­don, had a rev­o­lu­tion­ary idea: the few Jews in the army — or at least the few who ac­knowl­edged they were Jewish or showed any in­ter­est in their re­li­gion — ought to have a chap­lain.

That his name might now be­come bet­ter known is due to an im­mi­gra­tion and asy­lum judge, Jonathan Lewis, cur­rently work­ing on a Ph.D on the sub­ject. “Cohen was a com­plete self-starter,” says Lewis. “No­body told him to do it.”

His stud­ies re­veal a fas­ci­nat­ing story, not least that of Cohen him­self. He grew up in the army town of Alder­shot, which got his juices go­ing when­ever mil­i­tary mat­ters came into con­sid­er­a­tion. He thought of the idea of ask­ing “the hand­ful of Jewish fam­i­lies” liv­ing in Alder­shot to in­vite Jewish sol­diers to spend Shab­bat with them and per­haps on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kip­pur and Pe­sach, too.

Here, Lord Roth­schild, the un­doubted lay head of the com­mu­nity was per­suaded by the young man — he was in his 30s — to take the sug­ges­tion to the War Of­fice. “Cohen, as a re­sult, gets an in­vi­ta­tion to meet the GOC, (Gen­eral Of­fi­cer Com­mand­ing) of the gar­ri­son and per­mis­sion is given for Jewish sol­diers to have a short ser­vice on Sun­days and a small hut is pro­vided.” The idea took off.

Soon, he was ask­ing stu­dents of his old alma mater, Jews Col­lege, to con­duct ser­vices. “It was dif­fi­cult to get a minyan but, be­fore long,” says Judge Lewis, “there are Shab­bat and yomtov ser­vices, too.”

There was no sug­ges­tion that Cohen should go into uni­form or be given a rank. There would be a few shillings in ex­penses for the stu­dents and young min­is­ters (none of them were called Rabbi — the chief rabbi of the day, Her­man Adler, saw to that. He be­lieved he should be the only rabbi in Bri­tain, al­though there were the oc­ca­sional hold­ers of semichah who slipped by). “Cohen him­self didn’t get a penny,” Lewis em­pha­sises.

As Bri­tain en­tered the Boer War, Cohen and his civil­ian col­leagues went into ac­tion. It was, Lewis says, a chaplaincy by cor­re­spon­dence. “Cohen finds all the Jewish sol­diers he can.” They were en­cour­aged to give the names and ad­dresses of rel­a­tives and or other peo­ple close to them to whom the men in dog col­lars could write. “They acted as con­duits,” he says.

Two ques­tions arose from all this: why was the An­glo-Jewish com­mu­nity so keen on all this and why did th­ese men in the first khaki uni­forms ever worn in bat­tle by Bri­tish sol­diers join the army in the first place? “They were mostly poor,

some of them had even come from work­houses and it was a chance to get se­cu­rity of a kind. All were vol­un­teers.” A sur­pris­ing statis­tic here: “100 of them were killed in the Boer War”. The war ended in 1902.

But why was the Jewish es­tab­lish­ment, work­ing orig­i­nally with the visi­ta­tion com­mit­tee of the Board of Deputies, so keen? “It was the loy­alty thing. They wanted it known that Bri­tish Jews were do­ing their bit. They were very keen to send other peo­ple’s sons into uni­form.”

It was par­tic­u­larly use­ful at a time when the mass im­mi­gra­tion from East­ern Europe was be­com­ing con­tro­ver­sial. It worked. The army — “there were, how­ever, hor­ri­ble sto­ries of an­ti­semitism in parts of the ser­vices” — showed its ap­pre­ci­a­tion when Lord Roberts, head of the Bri­tish forces in South Africa, at­tended a Jewish ser­vice af­ter the war.

Cohen, who was also an ex­pert on Jewish litur­gi­cal mu­sic, had plainly carved a niche for him­self in the com­mu­nity. And, Judge Lewis em­pha­sises again and again, he was a “self-starter” A self-starter who was about to drive away. He an­swered a call to serve as min­is­ter of the Jewish com­mu­nity in Sydney, Aus­tralia. Chief Rabbi Adler, who was be­gin­ning to re­gard him as a thorn in the flesh, granted him semichah “on con­di­tion that he didn’t darken his doorstep again.”

Quickly es­tab­lished Down Un­der, Cohen set up a sim­i­lar un­of­fi­cial chaplaincy in Aus­tralia.

Mean­while, a re­place­ment had to

Som­bre: The Queen lays a wreath at the Ceno­taph

be found for Cohen in Bri­tain. The min­is­ter of the fash­ion­able Cen­tral Syn­a­gogue in Lon­don’s Great Port­land Street, the Rev. Michael Adler (no re­la­tion of the Chief Rabbi) reluc­tantly ac­cepted the job af­ter — along with Simeon Singer, of au­tho­rised prayer book fame — at first turn­ing it down.

He had pre­vi­ously started a se­ries of Chanu­cah ser­vices at his shul for ser­vice­men that be­came so pop­u­lar that con­gre­ga­tions could be counted in the hun­dreds, al­ways at­tended by the grandees of the An­glo-Jewish es­tab­lish­ment.

Adler put the work on a dif­fer­ent foot­ing. His be­came an of­fi­cial job. His ac­tiv­i­ties be­came par­tic­u­larly ground-break­ing when the First World War broke out in 1914. He asked per­mis­sion to go to the front in France. This was ini­tially turned down. But it wasn’t long be­fore he was cross­ing the Chan­nel and wear­ing a tin hat and a mud-splat­tered khaki uni­form. There were 20 other chap­lains who served wher­ever they could get close to where Jewish troops were fight­ing. He pro­duced prayer books and other lit­er­a­ture.

“He was a most un­mil­i­tary­look­ing man,” Lewis says. “He was in his 40s, an au­thor of He­brew gram­mar books. Looked rather like Cap­tain Main­war­ing ”. But there was no doubt­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­forts of Adler and his col­leagues — each of whom wore a Magen David cap badge. Adler also had the Magen David at the front of his staff car — the only Jewish chap­lain to have one. When the Amer­i­cans joined the war in 1917, each of their chap­lains did have a car — and helped their Bri­tish col­leagues .

But it wasn’t really enough —- and that was the real prob­lem: hav­ing to spread the re­sources ex­tremely thinly, Adler pre­pared an English­language edi­tion of the sid­dur and mach­zor to be used by Chris­tian chap­lains when they were the only ones near a group of Jewish sol­diers at the time of the High Holy days. Con­versely, there were times when a for­mer United Syn­a­gogue min­is­ter was the only chap­lain avail­able to Chris­tian troops in need of com­fort. Mirac­u­lously, all the Jewish chap­lains sur­vived the war.

The army al­ways re­garded Jewish chaplaincy as im­por­tant, says Lewis. They al­lowed Jewish troops to take time off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kip­pur when pos­si­ble. The navy were less in­dul­gent. They left it to ship’s cap­tains to de­cide if the “ex­i­gen­cies of the ser­vice” could al­low it. “But not when ships were at sea.”

All this set the pat­tern for the Sec­ond World War when there were 50 chap­lains, some­times spread out thou­sands of miles, through all the var­i­ous the­atres of war. It was also the first no­table time when An­gloJewish pol­i­tics en­tered the scene. The se­nior chap­lain, Dayan M Gol­lop was forced to re­tire be­cause of ill health. He nom­i­nated Rabbi Les­lie Edgar as his suc­ces­sor. The United Syn­a­gogue com­plained — Edgar was a Re­form rabbi and the es­tab­lish­ment in­sisted it should be a job held by an Ortho­dox cleric.

Their view was ac­cepted and a Royal Air Force chap­lain, who, ear­lier when in the army, had been at Dunkirk, was ap­pointed. His name: Is­rael Brodie — who im­me­di­ately had to get him­self trans­ferred back to the army with the rank of Lieut. Colonel. He re­mained in of­fice un­til 1948 when he was ap­pointed Chief Rabbi, a post he held un­til 1967.

The most well-known of the war’s Jewish chap­lains was Les­lie Hard­man, who en­tered Ber­gen-Belsen with the lib­er­at­ing Bri­tish army. He fa­mously said Kad­dish at the burial there of 20,000 vic­tims. He also cir­cum­cised Jewish ba­bies who had been born in the camp and con­ducted the mar­riage of a sur­vivor to a Bri­tish sergeant who had lib­er­ated her.

His ex­pe­ri­ence of what he saw at Ber­gen-Belsen, he said, al­most made him lose his faith. Peace­time suc­ces­sors in­cluded the el­e­gant Isaac Levy, min­is­ter at Hamp­stead, Cyril Har­ris, later to be­comeChief Rab­biof South Africa and the re­doubtable Rev­erendMal­colmWeis­man­who,inad­di­tion to be­ing se­nior chap­lain in the RAF, was also min­is­ter to small com­mu­ni­ties and pris­ons. To­day, the se­nior chap­lain Rabbi Reuben Liv­ing­stone, is a full­time army ma­jor who did a course at Sand­hurst. Fran­cis Lyon Cohen would have been pleased.

Fran­cis Lyon Cohen

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