On the 23rd December 1912, the Daily Sketch newspaper publishes a photograph taken in Whitechapel of a massive crowd of over 20,000 people surrounding a funeral procession. It shows a hearse followed by 200 horse carriages, and hundreds of pupils from the Brick Lane Talmud Torah, the Hebrew School of the Machzike Hadath (also known as the Spitalfields Great Synagogue). On that Sunday in the East End, whether people are watching down from their windows or roof-tops, or hoping to get close enough to touch the coffin – they’ve turned out to show their affection for a Rabbi who they call ‘a friend of humanity’. This remarkable scene, unparalleled in the history of Anglo-Jewry, is the final journey of Rabbi Avraham Aba Werner…
In the late 1980s, as an assistant at the Museum of the Jewish East End, I’d record oral history interviews, collect old photos and artefacts, and work on exhibitions about the life and times of the Jewish East End. Another job was to help conduct the walking tours of the area – with the support and guidance of the late Professor Bill Fishman. One stop on the route always drew the biggest gasps of wonder. The Brick Lane Mosque (Jamme Masjid) on the north east corner of Fournier Street, originally built in 1743 as a Huguenot Chapel, had housed the Machzike Hadath between 1898 and 1975. It was Rabbi Werner who had led this orthodox Jewish community into their new home in a building which just a few years previously had been styled as a ‘Mission House for Converting Jews’.
Avraham Aba Werner was born in 1837 into a world of deep-rooted Hebrew study in Tels, Lithuania. His father, the town rabbi and judge, was also his teacher. Avraham married at 17, and three years later was appointed the Chief Rabbi of Weger. He would succeed his father as the Chief Rabbi of Tels, and then around 1880, Avraham Aba Werner was appointed as the Chief Rabbi of Finland. Ten years on, with the Werner’s ten children now grown up, Rabbi Werner was on the move again. This time it was from Helsingfors (Helsinki) in Finland, to the very heart of London’s Jewish East End.
Werner had accepted the call from the Machzike Hadath, then a small group of societies, to become their spiritual leader. At this time he had snow white hair, full beard, with pensive blue eyes. Some believed he had a saintly appearance. He’d left relative wealth in Finland to work among a poor community recently arrived from Eastern Europe – and one which was often at odds with the Anglo-Jewish establishment. Rabbi Werner ensured that the Machzike Hadath would become a powerhouse of religious observance, responsible for its own ‘Kashrut’ (dietary laws), and would stay open from daybreak ‘til late at night. Bernard Homa wrote in his book ‘A Fortress of Anglo-Jewry: the Story of the Machzike Hadath’ (1953) that his grandfather “was full of deep feeling, combining great intelligence with fear of God, a lover of God’s creatures, a friend of the oppressed or the lonely, loving all and beloved by all. That was Rabbi Avraham Aba Werner”.
Almost three decades have passed since I first watched Professor Bill Fishman stand outside the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid, joyfully recounting the story of this unique building. Little did I know then that one day I would marry Rachel, a great-great-granddaughter of the Lithuanian-born Rabbi who would leave such a significant impression on, and beyond, his congregation.
The Machzike Hadath (meaning the ‘Upholders of Faith’) is still active today. After leaving Brick Lane the community moved to Golders Green – at first to the home of its then Rabbi, and in 1983, into its present building.
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