I had an extraordinary trip to London two weeks ago seeing my colleagues for the first time in 24 months. Over my four days there I spent time with regional and local leadership and addressed the entire office in one of my first in person town halls in two years. Seeing and speaking with the employees in London was one of the highlights of my trip.
But the other highpoint of my visit was four hours with Jackie Cooper, who went with me on a tour of Jewish London. I have always heard of the East End Jews, living in the shadow of the City of London, lampooned by Dickens in Oliver Twist with the sinister Fagin who runs a gang of pickpockets. Now I had a chance to see for myself the mirror image of the Lower East Side, where I now live in New York City.
Our guide told us that Jews were in Britain dating to the time of the Romans based on coins recovered at a site near the Tower of London. Jews were expelled from England in 1290, which the guide explained as a means of extinguishing debts incurred by nobility on the way to the Crusades. Only in the time of Cromwell around 1656 were Jews allowed to return; they were physicians and traders originally from Spain and Portugal, whose families had been expelled in 1492 and moved to Holland or Eastern Europe. Jackie and I stood in front of the site of the first synagogue, a small one room place of worship. The Jewish population stabilized around 30,000 by the mid-1850s, mostly middle class, with a Jewish member of Parliament admitted in 1858 (a Rothschild, of course). Benjamin Disraeli, a convert to Christianity (so that he could run for Prime Minister), was Bar Mitzvah in Bevis Marks synagogue built in 1701.
The great burst of immigration came in the 1880s, coincident with the surge of anti-Semitism in Russia after the assassination of Czar Alexander II. About 140,000 Jews came from Eastern Europe to the UK, mostly to London, while another 1.7 million went to the U.S. (three of my four grandparents were in that group). Unlike the prior group of immigrants, the newcomers were poor, spoke only Russian or Yiddish. They went into the needle trades, sewing clothes, paid by the piece. They also became traders and small retailers, with pushcarts or stalls. Petticoat Lane was the nickname given to the area; London residents came for the good deals.
The wealthier Jews supported the newcomers. I was stunned to see the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor inscribed on a building entry, with a large soup tureen over the letters to assure easy understanding. There was also a Jewish Free School to educate immigrant children; 4,000 children a year. One of those students was Samuel Gompers, who went on to the U.S. where he became the first president of the American Federation of Labor.
The tour concluded at the Liverpool rail station, with a statue of the children of the Kindertransport, sent to the UK by their parents on the eve of World War II. These 10,000 children escaped the horrors of the Holocaust. As the plaque testifies from the Talmud, “Whosoever rescues a single soul is credited as though they had saved the whole world.”
In this holiday season I think a lot about my family roots. And this tour was a stirring reminder of the Jewish experience, fleeing persecution, finding a new home and making it despite all obstacles through faith and family.
Richard Edelman is CEO.