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10

BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON

HISTORIC CHURCHES

23

RD ANNUAL EDITION

ARE BRITAIN’S HISTORIC

SYNAGOGUES AT RISK?

Sharman Kadish

T

HE SIGNIFICANCE of Britain’s

historic synagogues extends far

beyond the small size of the Jewish

community, which today numbers fewer

than 300,000 – barely a half of one per

cent of the total population – with fewer

than 40 listed in-use places of worship.

In total, 134 synagogues were surveyed

for eventual inclusion in the 2015 edition

of

Jewish Heritage in Britain and Ireland:

An Architectural Guide

. These included

mainly purpose-built synagogues, both

former and functioning, built between

the so-called ‘Readmission’ of the Jews

under Cromwell in 1656 and the second

world war.

London has always been home to

about two-thirds of British Jewry and

therefore to the majority of synagogues.

The beautiful Grade I listed Bevis Marks

Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in the

UK and has been in continuous use since

it was opened in 1701, a reminder that

Judaism is Britain’s oldest non-Christian

minority faith. Bevis Marks is located on

the eastern fringes of the City of London

(where Jews were barred from owning

real estate) in the historic heartland of

Anglo-Jewry, Aldgate and Houndsditch.

The London Jewish community reached

its zenith in the 1900s, thanks to the mass

migration of around 100,000 refugees

fleeing persecution in the Tsarist Russian

empire and other parts of eastern Europe.

They spread out into the East End,

through Whitechapel, Stepney and

Mile End, in proximity to the London

Docks, a natural point of arrival.

Beyond the capital, the most complete

and functioning Georgian and/or Regency

synagogues which survive are clustered

in seaports and market towns strung out

across southern England. These include

Plymouth (1761–62), Exeter (1763–64),

Cheltenham (WH Knight, 1837–39) and

Ramsgate (David Mocatta, 1831–33), all

of which are Grade II* listed. Provincial

synagogues built in this period share

features in common with non-conformist

meetinghouses, Jews occupying a

position of legal disability analogous to

that of Protestant dissenters (and indeed

Catholics) before emancipation in the

mid-19th century. Their synagogues were

discreetly sited and simply styled in a

classical idiom.

In France, after the 1789 Revolution

and, more fitfully, in Germany during the

course of the 19th century, the acquisition

of civil and political rights led to the

emergence of the Jewish community ‘out

of the ghetto’ into the modern world.

In 1858 Lionel de Rothschild finally

won his long battle to sit in the British

parliament as a professing Jew. This was

a symbolic moment. Newly found Jewish

confidence in Britain expressed itself

architecturally in the emergence of the

synagogue as a public building on city

centre sites, especially after 1850. The

Jewish ‘merchant princes’ of the Industrial

Revolution built the first generation of

monumental ‘cathedral synagogues’ in

Middle Street Synagogue, Brighton (1874–75, Grade II*) (Photo: Nigel Corrie/Historic England)