This Day in Jewish History / Founder of First Reform Synagogue in England Dies

Isaac Goldsmid, British financier opposed to the divisions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, cofounded the West London Synagogue in 1842.

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The West London Synagogue in the 1800s.
The West London Synagogue in the 1800s.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

April 27, 1859, is the date on which Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, a prominent British financier, philanthropist and social reformer, died, at the age of 81.

Goldsmid was born in London on January 13, 1778. He was the eldest of the six children of Asher Goldsmid – whose father, the Dutch-born businessman Aaron Goldsmid, was the first family member to settle in England – and his wife Rachel, nee Keyser.

Following education at Dr. Hamilton’s School in London, Goldsmid began working at Mocatta and Goldsmid, the bullion brokers led by his father, and buying a seat on the London stock exchange. His domestic investments, in such fields as railroads and dock construction, brought him minimal returns; rather, it was Goldsmid’s loans to foreign states that made him an extremely wealthy man. His successful efforts to settle a financial dispute between Portugal and Brazil (two of the countries he did business with) also led to his being named the Baron of Palmeira by Portugal in 1846. Five years earlier, he had become the first professing Jew to receive a hereditary title in England, when he was named a baronet.

Goldsmid is remembered, however, less for his professional career than for his substantial contributions to British society. As the man who, in 1825, purchased the land on which the University of London, later University College, was built, he helped establish the first university in England that didn’t base admissions on a student’s religion. He also assisted in the founding of the University College Hospital (1834), and served for 18 years as its first treasurer.

As a Jew, Goldsmid had two, interconnected causes. He was opposed to the divisions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, and was one of the founders of the West London Synagogue, which did not distinguish between the two communities. West London, the first Reform synagogue in England, was established in 1842. But the diaries of Sir Moses Montefiore show that, as early as 1830, Goldsmid had threatened to set up a non-Orthodox synagogue if the British board of Jewish deputies did not support the campaign for Jewish emancipation, i.e., equality before the law.

A first effort, fostered by Goldsmid, to pass a “disabilities law,” which would have finally allowed Jews to be elected to the House of Commons, took place, and failed, in 1830. After that, the board of deputies withdrew its support for the bill, partly out of concern that emancipation would lead to assimilation. Goldsmid continued to put his weight behind the cause, until the law was finally changed, allowing a Jew to take an oath of public office without needing to declare his faith as a Christian, in 1858. In the meantime, however, he had also made good on his threat to quit the Orthodox Great Synagogue, in Aldgate, and establish a Reform synagogue.

Isaac Goldsmid married his cousin Isabel Goldsmid, daughter of his Uncle Abraham, in 1804: They had two sons and five daughters.

He died at his home, St. John’s Lodge, on this date in 1859, and was buried in the cemetery of West London Synagogue. The very lengthy inscription on his headstone proudly declares that he was “associated with every movement for the social progress of mankind,” including “the agitation for the removal of the civil disabilities of the Jews … which became triumphant a few months before he breathed his last.”

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