This Day in Jewish History

1873: Unsung Heroine of British Reform Judaism and Worker Rights Is Born

Her father would never forgive Lily Montagu for her role in launching the Liberal Synagogue in London.

Lily Montagu
Wikimedia Commons

December 22, 1873, is the birthdate of Lily Montagu, one of the founders and early leaders of Liberal, or Reform, Judaism in the United Kingdom, as well as an activist for the improvement of work conditions and educational opportunities for British women in general. Montagu was the scion of one of Anglo-Jewry’s most distinguished families, and she took her activist cue from her parents, even as she broke away from the Orthodox tradition that her father in particular held so dear.

Lilian Helen Montagu was the sixth of the 10 children of Samuel Montagu and the former Ellen Cohen. Samuel was a self-made millionaire, founder of the merchant bank that bore his name, a bullion broker and from 1885 to 1900, a member of Parliament, representing the heavily Jewish Whitechapel district of London’s East Side. His wife was the daughter of a banker and stockbroker.

Theirs was a family with a strong social conscience: Samuel, a Liberal MP, was sensitive to the manifold challenges faced by the working-class residents of his district, and, for example, offered a reward for the capture of the Whitechapel Killer (Jack the Ripper) in 1888.

But he was also highly traditional, and whereas Lily’s brothers were afforded a serious Jewish education, as a girl, her Jewish training was limited to Bible study. Her regular schooling too ended when she was 15, although she continued to be tutored at home.

Nonetheless, she had a strong, natural spiritual inclination, and from early on was in search of meaning in her Judaism. From her mother, Lily received encouragement for her questioning.

No succor in Orthodoxy

So earnest was Lily in her journey that when, at age 15, she concluded that Orthodoxy did not hold the answer for her, particularly as a woman, she underwent something of a psychological breakdown. According to historian Ellen Umansky, she overcame her crisis with the help of three different factors.

First, she began writing stories, using them to express her feelings; second, she received personal tutoring from Rabbi Simeon Singer, leader of the New West End Synagogue, and a family friend. Finally, she began to immerse herself in the field of social service.

At the suggestion of Rabbi Singer, Montagu began to lead religious services for children at New West End, while at the same time, she organized what became the West Central Girls Club. In the services, which were popular not only with children but with their mothers, she tried to address topics and included prayers that she thought would have relevance for attendees.

In the girls club, she had the idea of offering educational activities and discussing issues connected to real life, for example abuse in the workplace. When, early in World War I, many women were laid off from their sweatshop jobs, she set up workshops to offer temporary employment until government-sponsored replacements could be organized.

How she became a lay minister

According to the historian Jean Spence, Montagu became an important force in England for reform in industrial conditions, and for recognition of the special exploitation that women were subject to in the workplace. She supported the trade-union movement, but because she never became directly involved in politics, her contribution, says Spence, has been insufficiently recognized.

Another key encounter was with Claude Montefiore, another Jewish aristocrat and the intellectual founder of British Liberal Judaism. Initially, the two organized the Jewish Religious Union, which though non-denominational, was innovative enough that the chief rabbi forbade it from using facilities belonging to the United Synagogue. By 1909, Montefiore and Montagu had established an independent movement, and in 1911, its first synagogue, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, bringing in a Reform rabbi from the U.S., Israel Mattuck, to lead it. 

When the Liberal Synagogue opened up a branch in West Central London, and there was no trained clergy available to run it, Lily became its lay minister, leading services, helping with weddings and funerals, even preparing candidates for conversion.

When Samuel Montagu understood what his daughter had done, he cut off all contact with her. That was in 1909, and from then until his death, two years later, they did not speak. It was a painful break for both, and can be understood as indicative of just how seriously each of them took matters of religion.

Lily Montagu never married, but instead devoted herself fully to community and religious work. She died on January 22, 1963, age 89.