Christian Missions, Charities and Zionism

A distinctive feature of Jewish life in Edinburgh was the presence of Christian missionary activity. Jews in Scotland had to contend with the long-established urban missionary focus of Scotland’s Presbyterian churches. Missionaries soon noticed the growing Jewish population and formed special missions for their conversion, offering many material inducements to the impoverished immigrants. This, among other factors, contributed to the expansion of charitable and philanthropic networks in the Jewish community. Charity and mutual support helped deflect accusations of “pauperism” from anti-immigration lobbyists, as well as maintain communal cohesion. Another aspect of life in the city which also contributed to communal cohesion was Zionism.

Christian Missions

“I have been strongly opposed to our Free Church of Scotland employing missionaries for the conversion of the Jews.” Rev. John MacFarlane to the Jewish Chronicle, 13 June 1862

Following the creation of the Church of Scotland’s Mission to the Jews in the 1830s, a number of Scottish missions were sent to various European nations, as well as Palestine, Egypt and Turkey. The arrival of large numbers of Jewish migrants in Scotland at the end of the century provided missionaries with an opportunity to evangelise amongst Jews within their own locality. Although the Presbyterian churches expressed sympathy with the circumstances of Jews in Russia, they also saw Tsarist persecution as a great opportunity to convert Jewish refugees. During the 1880s a number of Jewish urban missions were founded in Edinburgh.

The Edinburgh Jewish Medical Mission was created in June 1900, following the amalgamation of the Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church, continuing the work of the Edinburgh Jewish Dispensary and the Edinburgh Jewish Mission operational since 1896. The new United Free Church poured funds into providing English classes for Jewish immigrants, gathering statistics on the Jewish populations of Scotland, establishing a free hospital, and providing charity for the poor. The 1890s were marked by the frequent presence of missionaries near Jewish homes and shops, and in 1906 the Edinburgh Jewish Medical Mission moved its headquarters into the heart of Edinburgh’s “Jewish Quarter.”

Although the missions were never very successful in gaining converts, their location and determination were a constant source of anxiety and concern until the late 1920s, by which time the missionary fervour sparked by the first waves of Jewish immigration in the 1880s had slowly petered out. However, alarmed by even opportunistic attendance at the missions, Jewish community leaders in Scotland responded by establishing their own dispensaries. Senior religious figures, particularly Rabbi Salis Daiches, ostracised Jews who frequented evangelical premises.


6 Millerfield Place, Edinburgh, November 19, 1920

Sir, — I have on former occasions called the attention of your readers to an organisation which, under the name “The Edinburgh Jewish Medical Mission”, carries on the work which is regarded as a challenge to the Jewish community of this city and its charitable organisations. In several letters which I wrote to you, sir, on the subject, I endeavoured to point out that if the “Jewish Medical Mission” is intended to relieve ailing Jews who require help on the ground of their poverty the efforts of the mission are entirely wasted, as our Hebrew Board of Guardians is both able and willing to provide for all such cases, and even employs the service of a medical man for the purpose of visiting the sick poor in our community. Fortunately, our doctor has very little work to do, and the number of poor Jewish patients in this city that require attention is at present confined to two! I also pointed out that if the object of the Mission is not to cure the bodies of the poor Jews, but to “save” their souls by converting them to the Christian faith, then the method employed is a most unfortunate one and the results obtained can only be described as deplorable, even from a purely Christian point of view.

It is announced that the Medical Mission is to be reopened on Friday next in close proximity to what is regarded as the Jewish quarter, and within a stone’s throw of one of our synagogues. This indicates a spirit of aggressiveness and provocativeness of the mission, which I am sure, will be regarded as un-Christian by the vast majority of your readers. I can quite understand the reasons which prompted Sir Leon Levison and his friends to give up the house in Chalmers Street, and to abandon the work there as entirely futile, and a mere waste of public money. But the reopening of the mission in Nicolson Street seems a peculiar venture, if the object is not to aggravate the challenge to the Jewish community, and to deliberately offend Jewish sensibilities.

Surely your readers will ask — What does this new enterprise mean? What good does the Medical Mission hope to do for the sick Jews of this city? Is it to compete with such institutions as the Royal Infirmary? The Edinburgh Infirmary is distinguished by a spirit of broad-mindedness, religious tolerance, and human sympathies, which could not be excelled by the Medical Mission or any other institution of the kind. […]

Salis Daiches, Rabbi (excerpt from The Scotsman)

Jewish charitable activity

Charity and philanthropy have always been important elements of Jewish communal life, but in the context of mass immigration from Eastern Europe they assumed different characters and importance. There was a need to compete with the charity offered by the Christian missions. Native-born Jewish leaders were also keen to prevent anti-immigrant attitudes from developing. One of the main accusations by those in favour of excluding Jewish immigrants was that they would be a burden on welfare. Jewish charity was seen as an important means of keeping poor Jews off the poor rates, and helping them to establish themselves in business.

Jewish charity at the time was also influenced by broader Victorian attitudes distinguishing the “deserving” from the “undeserving” poor. Much of the charity offered by established Jewish leaders placed an emphasis on the need for recipients to “conform” to philanthropists’ social expectations. Immigration from Eastern Europe provoked a substantial expansion in Edinburgh’s Jewish charitable networks. They were extremely successful in keeping Jews off the poor rates, and the self-sufficiency of the community was the source of praise from civic leaders and politicians. However, until the 1920s, around 50% of the community struggled with significant levels of poverty.


For those who sought to express a Jewish identity outside the synagogue, Jewish communities often had a range of political and cultural organisations which provided such an outlet. Of these societies, Zionist organisations were among the most popular and the most enduring. In August 1890, Scotland’s first Zionist group was founded in Edinburgh. The group was a branch of Chovevei Zion, or Lovers of Zion. The society, which had a less state-centred vision than that later put forward by Theodor Herzl, embraced secular Jews as well as Christian supporters and senior Jewish religious figures. Zionism enjoyed steady but never complete support in Edinburgh, and the popularity of the movement in the city often ebbed and flowed in response to wider national and international patterns.

August 1890

Scotland’s first Zionist organisation founded in Edinburgh.

April 1891

The Edinburgh “tent” of Chovevei Zion convened to elect its officials.

July 1891

Future Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Rev. William Paterson, proposed an all-Christian Honorary Tent in Edinburgh.

January 1892

Mass Zionist demonstration held at Free Assembly Hall.

January 1892

Paterson reported to London headquarters of Chovevei Zion on failing Christian enthusiasm.

April 1893

Honorary Christian Tent dissolved.


Theodor Herzl published a summary of his Judenstaat in the Jewish Chronicle.

July 1896

Rising support for Herzl’s vision – by contrast, Jewish support for Chovevei Zion dropped rapidly in Edinburgh.

January 1898

Leaders of the Edinburgh Chovevei Zion wrote to London HQ expressing extreme disappointment in the leadership of the movement.


As Chovevei Zion declined, Herzl’s Zionism ascended. Edinburgh Zionist Association (EZA) was founded.

July 1900

New Zionist Hall founded at 46 Nicolson Street. It contained a Zionist reading room.

November 1900

EZA heralded rapidly increasing support for Zionism among Jews in Edinburgh.


Chovevei Zion ceased to operate in Edinburgh.

July 1901

Edinburgh Ladies’ Zionist Association founded.

February 1902

Edinburgh Junior Zionist Literary Club formed.

March 1902

“An overflowing mass of Jews” gathered at Livingstone Hall to hear an address on Zionism by Mr Jacob de Haas, secretary to the First Zionist Congress, and editor of the Jewish World.

February 1910

Lewis Rifkind created an Edinburgh Young Men’s Zionist Culture Association.


Socialist Poale Zion formed in Edinburgh, later led by Lewis Rifkind.