How we started – The History of AJEX
Jews have served in the British Armed Forces for centuries. It was during the latter half of the eighteenth century and especially during the Boer War that their numbers first became recorded and supported through the appointment of a part-time England based military Rabbi. The practice of having a Chanukah service that provided an annual opportunity to bring Jewish servicemen together can be traced from the 1890’s. The events of the First World War led to the participation of in excess of 50,000 Jewish men and women in the armed services from across the UK, Empire and Commonwealth. They celebrated festivals together (often next to the battlefield) and many attended regular services led by civilian or military Jewish religious leaders. Following the war ex-service clubs became popular as a place for those with similar experiences to meet. On 24th January 1920 the Jewish Chronicle reported on the Federation of Discharged Soldiers, Jewish Branch having a meeting at the Jewish Trades Union Institute in Leeds. At the Armistice events in 1921 a group of men of the Judeans laid a wreath at the cenotaph. This small but important gesture became very important to the Jewish community, a physical statement that they had made their contribution. By 1925 the ex-servicemen were having an annual dinner, and by Jan 1926 the Jewish Chronicle reported a parade of 250 men of the Judean Battalions and the Menorah Club founded by Jewish ex-soldiers. In December 1926 the annual Chanukah service was revived at Bayswater Synagogue and included a visit to the Cenotaph. In 1929 international events including riots in Palestine, resulting in Jewish deaths alongside a rise in Anti-Semitism and fascism in parts of Europe began to raise concerns among Jewish veterans. A meeting was held in the East End of London and those who attended decided to form the Jewish Ex-servicemen’s Legion, there were 200 members straight away. News spread around the country and more and more men signed up. It was agreed that in the November (1929) they would hold a specifically Jewish veterans event at the Dukes Place Synagogue, East London.
With a growth in membership, including contact with currently serving Jewish servicemen the Jewish ex-servicemen‘s Legion decided to organise its first annual Remembrance Parade and Service on 8th November 1930 at Horse Guards Parade. The Legion began to meet regularly and elected its own Rabbi, Louis Rabinowitz as the first honorary Chaplain. To avoid any confusion with the British Legion (now the Royal British Legion) the organisation became the Association of Jewish Ex-servicemen and women in 1936. The aims were simple: to continue Remembrance of the Jewish contribution to the military; to combat anti-Semitism through education; and to provide welfare for Jewish veterans and their families. Following the Second War and an estimated service of over 70,000 Jews to the British Armed Forces the work of AJEX continued in earnest. The events of the Holocaust and Jewish refugees from Europe before and after the war against Nazism meant the need to provide support to the veterans community and ensure a robust British counter to anti-Semitism was even more important. Active education programmes were launched, alongside, welfare networks and annual activities such as the Remembrance service and parade. All this work continues today.