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L’Chaim! The Legacy of Ridley Haim Herschell

Passing through Herschell Road on foot, bike and car had little significance for me, until I discovered who the road was named after and how he brought profound transformation to the community living in Leigh-On-Sea and beyond. Although he resided in Leigh-On-Sea for less than two years he is remembered and highly regarded almost two hundred years later. He has an entry in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopaedia, there is an article published in “Community Voice”, the Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation magazine and there have been other articles in the local press published following “All Love-A Biography of Ridley Herschell” by Geoffrey Henderson.

Life was not easy in Poland, the year in which Haim Herschell was born. Sadly foreign invasions and the sounds, sights and effects of explosions, bullets, cannonballs and smoke were nothing new. His preservation was described as “almost a miracle” especially considering there were barely ten Jewish individuals remaining in his town, yet alone ten male adults to constitute a minyan. Great effort and personal risk were made to obtain the required number and Haim Herschell was circumcised on the eighth day (interestingly and medically the optimal day for the blood to clot).

Leaving Home

At the tender age of eleven, Haim Herschell wrote a note to his mother and left his family home to find a yeshiva where he could study with the aim to become a rabbi. Haim burnt the candle at both ends and quickly endeared himself to the rabbi and the residents of his new town. Although he made rapid progress he did not settle for long and aged just fourteen set out again to learn about the kabbalah from the Hasidim.

Again just after two years further study, Haim moved on and commenced working at his father’s brewery. The family business had been struggling so Haim and his brothers needed to be in work. Like many of us in our working lives, this was merely an interlude or a stepping- stone on the way to his eventual vocation. His mother noted that he was impressionable as many of us were in our teenage years. Haim made friends with a Jewish student in Berlin and seemed to make a u turn. Notably Haim could converse more than capably in Hebrew, Polish, German, and of course Yiddish. However instead of studying the Talmud at a yeshiva he read German literature!

We must also consider the era in which Haim Herschell lived both in the history and context which Henderson explains well and which like other articles including this one I have leaned heavily. Henderson astutely recalls that unlike Oxford and Cambridge University where Jewish people and others described then as dissenters who were not permitted to undertake degrees until the 1870s, Jewish undergraduates were welcomed without them been required to renounce their faith.[i] By comparison with today, there are a number of Jewish students and staff at both universities with their respective Jewish societies and a few synagogues representing various Orthodox, Reformed and Chabad houses.

Finding Direction

Proverbs 16:9 tells us that, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” Henderson insightfully proposes that the general condition of the poor in the early days of the Industrial Revolution may well have been influenced his decision to study medicine.[ii] It seems there was an inner struggle between his religious convictions and the thinking of his student friendships. Haim decided to take a trip together with some students for a summer in England and possibly France and add more languages to his repertoire.

He enjoyed England and soon after moved to Paris but found himself back in England and seriously ill. This was the start of a turning point in his life. Haim recuperated in the home of a Christian lady and when he left, she left him with a parting gift of a Brit Hadasha (New Testament) plus the address of a friend in Paris. Although initially he threw aside the New Testament, both that book and the address would prove invaluable later down the line.

Finding Faith in Messiah

In Paris, the inner toil between his religious convictions and the life he was living resurfaced. Yet even his fasting, prayers and acts of kindness could not appease his conscience. Amazingly Haim went to buy an item from a local shop yet the article he purchased was wrapped in a large paper from the Bible from Yeshua’s (Jesus’) Sermon on the Mount concerning the beatitudes. “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Haim continued to read and though this passage stirred his heart, he faced another inner conflict. He was reading the New Testament which he had never read but had loathed since so many Gentiles had unfairly misused it against the Jewish people.

Despite those reservations which are more than understandable considering the relentless onslaught of suffering he and his people have endured at the hands of the Gentiles, he continued to read. He read about a Jewish Messiah in a Jewish context and it shed light on the Torah. He used his training to investigate the claims set forward and recognised that either Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and the New Testament is true or that it was merely the invention of liars. Haim came to the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah and that the Tanakh and the Brit Hadasha fit together, but he had not found the shalom which he desperately sought.

Haim returned to his lodgings seeking something he could sell for food since he was living in impoverished conditions. He found nothing, except the letter with the address given to him by the kind lady who had given him a New Testament and somehow, he had forgotten about. Haim was warmly received and was given a loan, returned to England and stayed in an institution founded by a Jewish man for Jewish people enquiring about the truths of Christianity. Haim came to believe that Jesus is the King Messiah and Redeemer of Israel and the fulfilment of Isaiah 53 and through His sufferings made atonement for his transgressions and iniquities and gave him peace.

There was a great cost and upheaval when his family heard of his Messianic faith. For them, his beliefs were unthinkable. Providentially, he married a Scottish woman who not only became fluent in Hebrew but also wrote to his father in Hebrew explaining the Messianic faith which softened his father.[iii] Haim would go on to preach the gospel nationwide to many Jewish people greeting them with “Shalom Aleichem”, peace to you. The timing was remarkable since with a few exceptions including France and the United States, Jewish people did not have full citizen rights and there were restrictions to Jewish immigration in England.[iv] Yet in due time Herschell’s brothers came to England, came to faith in Messiah and became ministers too.

A Legacy in Leigh-On-Sea

In addition to reading Henderson’s account I can personally vouch for his description of Leigh-On-Sea today. It is a desirable place to reside in being so near the sea and affords a commute to London and is a picturesque and restful place to return to. It is entirely different from what it was almost two hundred years ago. The fishing village was rough and degraded to the extent that it was unlike even the East End of London which at the time was not a great place to reside in either. In fact many people would be keen to live there now.

A renowned individual, Michael Tomlin, was a giant of a man who drank heavily and whom even his fishermen acquaintances were wary of. He is famously remembered for rowing thirty- five miles to Billingsgate Market in the city with his catch of fish with his friend. Unsurprisingly on their return, his mate could not continue rowing since he was exhausted, yet Michael rowed them home. Michael went to hear Haim speak out of curiosity and came under deep conviction of sin. His life was changed and he would never be the same again. He was once illiterate though learned to read the Bible and to preach the gospel to anyone and everyone and became a minister.

In a short period of time, Leigh was dramatically changed and schools were set up and one in particular helped the poor.[v] An affluent benefactor, Lady Olivia Sparrow encouraged Ridley and his wife; Helen taught the women to read as Haim had taught the men.[vi] Although the Herschell’s would move on again to London, Michael Tomlin remained and became a “fisher of men”.

Eternal Life

Herschell would join forces with the famous Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne in establishing the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Jews which later became known as Christian Witness to Israel and is now known as International Mission to Jewish People. He was also a founder of the Evangelical Alliance in 1845 and edited “The Voice” and other works.[vii]In addition to travelling to many destinations, Haim went to Jerusalem, Galilee, the Dead Sea and like many today who have been to Israel made the important connection between reading the Scriptures and seeing the places where these events took place which have in more recent times been further evidenced through abundant and meticulous archaeological excavation.

Are you on a journey of faith? Haim emphasised that when a Jewish person trusts in Jesus the Messiah they by no means cease to be Jewish but should more earnestly seek to maintain their distinctives.[viii]Haim worshipped on Shabbat, celebrated the Jewish holidays and wore a tzizit. [ix]He died in 1864 at Brighton and he was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery. Three hundred police were present, in addition to hundreds more who came to pay their respects and remember him. Though he died his memory still lives on and even more imperatively, he had assurance of eternal life in His Messiah who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

[i] Geoffrey Henderson All Love A Biography of Ridley Herschell (HTS Media, 2006; United Kingdom), p21

[ii] Ibid, 22

[iii] Charles Gardner January 15th 2020 A Priceless Faith Jew finds comfort in words of Jesus as wrapping paper

[iv] Henderson, p64

[v] Anne Marcus Jewish Leigh-On-sea Part 2 Community Voice Volume 57 Southend & Westcliff Hebrew Congregation September/October/November 2016

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Joseph Jacobs, Goodman Lipkind Herschell Ridley Haim: The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia

[viii] Henderson, 172

[ix] Ibid, 173