Lily Montagu


by Ellen M. Umansky

Portrait of Lily Montagu, ca. 1899. Source: National Library of Israel, Schwadron Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

In Brief

Lily Montagu played a key role in making Liberal Judaism more than a fringe movement in Great Britain in the early 20th century. Raised in an Orthodox home, Montagu questioned the aspects of Orthodoxy that were, for women especially, contradictory, that expected her to foster a close relationship to God without providing the necessary tools, such as membership in a congregation or Hebrew education. Seeking a different religious community that accepted and encouraged women’s participation, she founded and led religious services for women for nine years before founding the Liberal Religious Union in 1902. She helped establish Liberal Jewish synagogues across Great Britain, was president of the L.R.U. for over 20 years, and was a founding member of the World Union of Progressive Judaism. 

Lilian Helen Montagu was a British social worker, a magistrate in the London juvenile courts, suffragist, writer, religious organizer, and spiritual leader who founded and long remained the driving force behind the Liberal Jewish movement in England.

Early Life and Family

Lily Montagu was born in London on December 22, 1873, the sixth of ten children born to Ellen Cohen Montagu (1843–1919) and Samuel Montagu (né Montagu Samuel). A self-made millionaire by the age of thirty, Samuel Montagu (1832–1911) was a wealthy banker and bullion broker, a member of the House of Commons and later, as First Baron Swaythling, of the House of Lords. He was also an observant Jew who tirelessly worked to strengthen the organized, institutional life of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Anglo-Jewish community. Her mother, Ellen, was the youngest daughter of Louis Cohen (1799–1882), a successful banker and stockbroker and a member of one of the oldest and most prominent Jewish families in England. Raised in an observant home, Ellen Montagu, in the words of Lily, “remained faithful all her life to the Orthodox observances, both great and small.” Yet Lily believed that she did so more out of “wifely devotion” than personal conviction. Indeed, what Lily Montagu later remembered most about her mother’s sense of religiosity was its “elasticity,” her willingness, in other words, to answer all of her children’s religious questions, no matter how radical; incorporating English prayers into their home worship, impressing upon her children the importance of spontaneous prayer, and perhaps most importantly, believing, unlike her husband, that one could not expect young people to want the pattern of their lives to be identical to that of previous generations.

The religious influence of Samuel and Ellen Montagu on Lily was considerable. Though she later rejected many of her father’s religious beliefs, the significance that he attached to them and the sincerity with which they were held made a lasting impression on her. Indeed, it gave her the resolve to make Judaism as central a part of her life as it was of her father’s. Yet by the age of fifteen, she became convinced that Orthodoxy offered her, and other women, little room for religious self-expression. Longing to become closer to God, she found herself unable to do so. Given the limited religious education that she and her sisters received, how, she asked herself, could she pray in a language that she barely understood? How could she feel part of a worshipping congregation which did not count her as a member? How could she continue to be observant when observance meant so little to her? In short, how could she be both Orthodox and religious? As Lily Montagu came to realize, echoing sentiments that she had learned, consciously or subconsciously, from her mother: “We cannot worship with our parents’ hearts.” In other words, that which stimulates a sense of faith and devotion within our parents may stifle, rather than cultivate, our own spiritual growth.

Searching for an Outlet

Filled with self-doubt and confusion, Montagu began to suffer from what was, at best, a serious nervous condition. Although the medical attention that she received helped precipitate her recovery, a number of other factors were also responsible. First, in order to verbalize her feelings, she began to write stories. These early attempts either inspired or became the basis for Naomi’s Exodus (1901) and Broken Stalks (1902), spiritual autobiographies written in novel form. Second, with the help of Rabbi Simeon Singer (1848–1906), spiritual leader of the (Orthodox) New West End Synagogue, who was her Bible tutor and a close family friend, Montagu regularly recited a prayer asking God to teach her to pray and to make her grateful for the opportunities to serve Him. Soon after, she turned to social service. In so doing, she discovered both a means of serving God and a much needed sense of purpose and direction.

The West Central Jewish Girls’ Club, founded in 1893 by Montagu, together with her sister Marion (1868–1965) and their cousin Beatrice Franklin (1871–1959) who later married Herbert Samuel (1870–1963), very much reflected this call to service. Believing that “the more we have, the greater our self-questioning—the more severe our responsibility,” Montagu helped create a club that gave working-class Jewish girls the opportunity to develop themselves socially, intellectually and spiritually, through classes, Sabbath services (which she led), concerts, outings and other special events. The worship services that she conducted were relatively brief, in English, featured sermons on topics that she felt were of vital interest to the girls, and retained only those traditional prayers which she thought had “meaning for modern Jews and Jewesses in the actual circumstances of their lives.” From 1890 until 1909, she led similar services for children at the Synagogue. The services were well attended not only by children but also by women. Their success, as well as the more limited success of her services at the West Central Club, led Montagu to envision ways of creating services for adults. Her intent was nothing less than to help revivify the religious life of the Anglo-Jewish community.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in the early 1890s Montagu met Claude Montefiore (1858–1938), Jewish scholar and proponent of Liberal Judaism. It was Montefiore who gave her both the means and the confidence to redefine Judaism so as to allow for personal growth and expression, for she found in his works a vision of Judaism that mirrored her own understanding of true religion as personal in nature, universal in outlook, and best revealed through daily conduct. Her discovery of what Montefiore identified as Liberal Judaism, and what German Rabbis Abraham Geiger (1810–1874), Samuel Holdheim (1806–1860), and others called Reform, precipitated Montagu’s formal break with Orthodoxy, leading to an estrangement from her father that lasted until his death in 1911.

Establishing the Liberal Religious Union

Seeking to give Liberal Judaism greater organizational expression, Montagu published an essay in the January 1899, issue of The Jewish Quarterly Review on the “Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism Today.” In this essay, she asked all religiously committed Jews to help her form an association aimed at strengthening the religious life of the Anglo-Jewish community through the propagation of Liberal Jewish teachings. Membership would not necessarily demonstrate allegiance to Liberal Judaism but simply the recognition of its ability to awaken within many Jews a sense of spirituality and personal responsibility to God. The Jewish Religious Union (J.R.U.), established by Montagu in February 1902, instituted Sabbath afternoon worship services conducted along Liberal Jewish lines, and “propaganda meetings,” led by Montagu, to clarify and spread its teachings. Though Montefiore agreed to serve as the group’s official leader, thus strengthening its credibility, it was Montagu who assumed responsibility for its major activities and daily affairs.

By 1909, ongoing Orthodox opposition to the J.R.U. and the concern among many that a schismatic, Liberal movement was in fact being created, led to the resignation of most of the organization’s early, non-Liberal leaders and to a new membership rate that, despite well-attended services, was alarmingly low. Acknowledging the failure of its initial all-inclusive vision, the Union declared itself to be a movement specifically committed to the “Advancement of Liberal Judaism.” During the next few decades, Montagu helped form Liberal Jewish synagogues throughout Great Britain, frequently serving as their Chairman or President, and became lay minister of the West Central Liberal Jewish Congregation in 1928, a position to which she was formally inducted in November 1944, and which she held until her death in December 1963. Following Montefiore’s death in 1938, she assumed the Presidency of the J.R.U., a position she held for 23 years.

Organizing the World Union

Having conceived of the idea for an international J.R.U. as early as 1925, Montagu helped found and eventually became President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. In charge of the organization’s daily affairs from 1926 through 1959 (during which time its offices were located in her home), one of Montagu’s first duties was to organize an International World Union Conference to take place in Berlin in 1928. During the conference, a worship service was held in Berlin’s Reform Temple and Montagu, perhaps the first woman and certainly the first Jewish woman to occupy a pulpit in Germany, preached a sermon, in German, on the theme of “Personal Religion.” Through her efforts, the number of World Union constituencies steadily increased and, at her initiative, new Liberal Jewish congregations were created in Europe, South America, Israel, South Africa, and Australia. In 1955, when poor health led its second President, Leo Baeck (1873–1956) to step down from his position, Montagu was elected President of the World Union. Despite her advanced age, she chaired meetings, organized conferences, helped attract new members, and increased the Union’s activities. In 1959, when the World Union’s headquarters were transferred to the United States, she was named Honorary Life President and was elected to chair the Union’s newly-established European Board.

While most British Jews continued to maintain at least a formal attachment to Orthodox congregations, by 1963, when Montagu died, the Jewish Religious Union, renamed the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues (U.L.P.S.), had successfully established Liberal Judaism as an important religious force within Anglo-Jewish life. At the request of the U.L.P.S. and with the agreement of a Governing Body of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Lily Montagu Center of Living Judaism, housing the West Central Liberal Congregation, the European Board of the World Union, and the offices of the U.L.P.S., subsequently was named in her honor.

Selected Works

Thoughts on Judaism. London: R.B. Johnson, 1904. 

The Faith of a Jewish Woman. London: Simpkin Marshall, 1943.

My Club and I: The Story of the West Central Girls Club. London: Herbert Joseph, 1954.

Samuel Montagu, First Baron Swaythling: A Character Sketch. London: Truslove & Hanson, 1913.


Conrad, Eric. Lily H. Montagu: Prophet of a Living Judaism. New York: National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, 1953.

A short biography of Lily Montagu written by her nephew and designated literary executor and published in honor of her eightieth birthday, it is a loving, intimate and at times reverential portrait of Montagu as a social worker and religious leader. While the book contains a few minor historical inaccuracies, Conrad’s many personal details and small vignettes provide a rare view of Lily Montagu’s private life. Noteworthy too are the book’s photographs and foreword, written by Leo Baeck.

Kuzmack, Linda Gordon. Women’s Cause: The Jewish Woman’s Movement in England and the United States: 1881–1933. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1990.

Kuzmack’s history of the Jewish women’s movement in the United Kingdom and the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries offers substantial information on the Jewish League for Woman’s Suffrage, founded in 1912, including a lengthy description of Montagu’s activities as the League’s Vice-President and spiritual advisor.

Meyer, Michael A. Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement In Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

This work critically examines the Reform movement, from its early nineteenth century origins through today. Impressive in both breadth of material and depth of analysis, it details Lily Montagu’s role in the creation and development of Liberal Judaism in England. It also mentions her work on behalf of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in establishing Liberal congregations in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and South Africa. Although Meyer’s discussion of Montagu is relatively brief, it clearly establishes her significance in the history of Reform Judaism.

Umansky, Ellen M. “Liberal Judaism in England: The Contribution of Lily H. Montagu.” Hebrew Union College Annual 55 (1985): 309–322.

This essay clearly delineates Lily Montagu’s contribution to Liberal Judaism in England. Without minimizing the important contributions of the movement’s other early leaders, it carefully traces the origins of the Liberal Jewish movement, revealing Montagu’s significance as its founder and the individual most responsible for its organizational growth.

Umansky, Ellen M. Lily Montagu and the Advancement of Liberal Judaism: From Vision to Vocation. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1983.

To date, this remains the only book-length critical study of Lily Montagu as religious organizer, leader and thinker. Following an introduction that clarifies the book’s historiographical assumptions and relationship to other studies of Anglo-Jewry, it traces the historical, religious, and intellectual settings in which Montagu rose to prominence; her family background, early achievements as author and pioneer in the British club movement; and the spiritual awakening that led her to devote her life to the Liberal Jewish cause. Including lengthy discussion of her role in the Liberal Jewish movement’s organization and development, it ends with an assessment of Montagu’s historical significance.

Umansky, Ellen M., editor. Lily Montagu: Sermons, Addresses, Letters, and Prayers. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1985.

This volume contains almost fifty of Lily Montagu’s previously unpublished writings, including those of greatest historical significance, such as the letter that directly led to the founding of the J.R.U., the first sermon Montagu delivered at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, and the sermon she delivered in 1928 at the World Union Conference in Berlin. It also includes Montagu’s personal letters to family members and colleagues, outlines of special religious services that she created, and prayers she wrote and incorporated into communal worship.

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How to cite this page

Umansky, Ellen M.. "Lily Montagu." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 22, 2024) <>.