London’s East End has been home to a vibrant community of Jews since the 1880s. But today, in this area, once home to almost 200 synagogues, just four functioning synagogues remain—three Ashkenazi and one Sephardi.
David Rosenberg, a social historian of the East End, explains how the demographics of the area have changed: “By the 1920s, there were probably more than 200,000 Jews from Eastern Europe who had settled in the East End,” he told me. “But by the 1930s, thousands had already moved further east, to northwest London and beyond London, too. By the 1970s, there were about 15,000 Jews left in the East End and just 12 functioning synagogues. Today there are probably over 1,000 Jews still there.”
Praying alongside the smattering of older Jews who live in the East End are tourists and members of visiting Jewish youth groups. There is also a small but growing number of young Jewish professionals who have decided to live where they work; the East End is now a business and banking hub, an area that has lately become trendy as old warehouses and retail buildings are repurposed as loft housing. Some of these new Jewish residents have returned to the same streets their grandparents used to walk.
The three small Ashkenazi shuls remaining in the East End have overcome a multitude of challenges. They share a deep commitment from their board members and volunteers, several of whom can trace their families’ connection with the synagogues back to the 1800s. Leon Silver, 69, president of Nelson Street Synagogue, has spent most of his adult life tending to his shul in one way or another. Other than a brief closure during the Blitz—unlike other local shuls, it survived the bombings with all of its original plasterwork intact—Nelson Street has been continuously run since its inception; it’s now the oldest and only purpose-built Ashkenazi synagogue in the area, dating back to 1923.
“When I was growing up,” said Silver, “There was a Jewish market full of kosher butchers, a Jewish school and youth clubs, kosher restaurants, even a kosher smoked-salmon house and bakehouse. But it’s all gone now. I’m proud to say that Nelson Street shul is still here, and it’s still functioning. It’s defied all the odds in many ways. So many others have closed. If I have achieved nothing else in my life, I’ve helped to keep this shul going.”
The building itself is in need of repair and a new roof, but even so, there’s a “keep calm and carry on” feeling. “Our synagogue community is largely made up of older Jewish people who haven’t moved away,” said Silver. “Henry Glanz [age 95] came over on the very last Kindertransport in 1939: The next train after his was stopped and turned back. He comes to shul regularly and he blows the shofar at the end of the Holocaust service every year. The needs of this vestigial community are being catered to. And some young people come, too, mostly students and professionals, though not with as much regularity. But what isn’t happening is an actual revival of a regular young Jewish community; there isn’t the infrastructure here yet.”
About the future of Nelson Street, Silver said, “It would be good if there were enough people to keep the congregation going, so it can carry on as a synagogue. If that wouldn’t be possible, I would fight to preserve the building as part of the Jewish heritage of the East End, and as part of the British Jewish heritage, which really began here. It’s an important building with a beautiful interior and an aura of sanctity.” The renowned British architect Maxwell Hutchinson has drawn up a plan to add museum and library space that would turn Nelson Street into a historic Jewish center and put it more firmly on the tourist map. A grant that was hoped for in order to bring these plans to fruition has fallen through, but hope remains.
Another local shul with plans to turn part of the building into a museum is Sandy’s Row, a converted Dutch chapel built in 1766. “We have a basement that runs the whole footprint of the shul and we have plans to set up a museum of immigration, but we’d need a grant to make it happen,” said Harvey Rifkind, president of Sandy’s Row—a man, like Leon, who is passionately devoted to his place of worship.
The story of the survival of Sandy’s Row parallels that of Nelson Street: In both cases, there has been a lot of dedication on the part of a few committed board members and congregants. “In 2005, the president of Sandy’s Row passed away,” said Rifkind. “He, along with his wife, had kept the shul going for 20 years. It was their life’s work. Without them, Sandy’s Row wouldn’t be here today. When he died, a few descendants of the founders decided that if we didn’t do anything about Sandy’s Row, it would close. So, we formed a new committee, a board of management, and we’re OK. We’re trying to attract new members all the time. When new people come, we make a point of personally welcoming them. We have lots of visitors and we hope we can attract new members that way, too. We put a lot of effort into the shul. It’s a labor of love.”
Other End End synagogues were not as fortunate; their congregations closed over the years, although pieces of their buildings’ histories have survived. Silver remembers when the Fieldgate Street Synagogue, a 15-minute stroll from Sandy’s Row, was sold to the East London Mosque complex in 2015: “The building is part of the Muslim Center complex, and it’s rented out to Zakat, which is a Muslim charitable organization,” he said. “It’s been completely redone and altered inside, but the main prayer hall is more or less intact, the original pillars lovingly preserved. I took some prayer books and artifacts that were left behind when they closed; brought them over to Nelson Street. When you look above, right in front of you are two stained-glass windows with the Star of David in the middle, still there.”
Nearby, Spitalfields Great Synagogue, which closed in 1975, is now the Brick Lane Mosque, but a Hebrew plaque remains on one wall. And the Mile End and Bow District Synagogue, a few miles away, is now a Sikh temple, but the plaque that listed the Torah portion in Hebrew remains inside. While London’s demography is ever evolving, Silver says that East London is becoming a more tolerant place. “Our rabbi is an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jew,” he said. “Two or three times a year we would be abused as we walked down the street. But that doesn’t happen anymore as intercommunal relations have improved enormously. In fact, most of the children who come in school groups to our shul are Muslim. There are strong interfaith links between us these days.”
Leanne Harris, now 65, grew up in the East End. “My family left and moved further east in the late 1950s,” she said, “but we still traveled by car, parking around the corner from shul in case anyone saw us, every Saturday. This happened with lots of families. Only the parents or grandparents seemed to remain in the East End.” Like some others of her generation, Harris is, these days, a member of an online Facebook group called Jewish London—Past and Present, in which members share memories and photographs and make connections. “My grandfather was a founding member of The Congregation of Jacob Synagogue, founded in 1903, which is the other Ashkenazi shul that is still open. It has, over the last decade or so, staged a revival; some people want to go back to their East End roots.”
The fourth operational synagogue in the East End is close to the others geographically, but in most other ways, it’s a world away. Bevis Marks is a large Sephardi shul, dating back to 1701, with a booming population. The oldest synagogue in London, Bevis Marks is also the only synagogue in Europe that has held regular services continuously for more than 300 years. “We’re not what you think of when you think of Sephardic shuls, as the synagogue is incredibly Western,” Rabbi Shalom Morris told me. “It doesn’t have the same Islamic influence that the Sephardic shuls elsewhere in the world do—these Jews coming here never left Europe. Our shul has a unique Western quality to it, and that makes it somewhat more palatable to everybody. It’s one of the remarkable Jewish institutions in the world; it’s become this incredible repository of distinctive customs, melodies, and ethos have that been preserved within these walls because the community has been present throughout.”
Though Bevis Marks is open every day of the week and puts on a wide array of cultural events, lectures, and services (unlike the three smaller and less-well-funded shuls in the neighborhood, which simply can’t afford to do so) it does share something important in common with the other local shuls. “There’s an undying commitment of the people within this community to its preservation. They are deeply devoted to its maintenance. As a result, we have members whose ancestors were here when it was built, and they still come every Shabbat,” said Morris.
The Young Ambassadors Program is a newly launched initiative from Bevis Marks that allows young people to take an active role in helping push along the shul’s upward trajectory: welcoming new people, hosting meals, promoting and sharing information about the synagogue. Annie Stein, 30, recently moved to the East End from Golder’s Green, a Jewish area northwest of London. “I work near Bevis Marks; my commute was almost an hour every day,” she said. “The shul played some part in my decision to move east; ultimately, I’d like to live close to a synagogue. I feel like the Jewish infrastructure in this area is still just about here, but seems to me to be hanging on by a thin thread. With Bevis, there’s something solid. Bevis represents something hopeful to me.”
The future for Bevis Marks seems bright—and, perhaps, that will affect the other remaining East End shuls. “My hope is that the growth of Bevis Marks will spur the growth of every synagogue community in the East End,” Morris said, “that this becomes a viable Jewish neighborhood with different kinds of options and different synagogues. If every synagogue is flourishing, that’s a success.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Amy Schreibman Walter is a writer and teacher living in London. Follow her @amyswalter