The St. John’s Wood Synagogue (“the Shul in the Wood”) is located in the inner suburbs of London, close to Regents Park and Maida Vale. One of the largest synagogues in the UK with seating for over 1,200 congregants, it is often used for official ceremonies of Anglo Jewry – notably the last three installations of British chief rabbis.
Visiting this synagogue is not only a religious experience. Walking into the main sanctuary for the first time, a visitor is taken aback by the magnificent stained glass windows, over 100 in number, all of them designed and created by the synagogue stained glass window expert of the mid-20th century, David Hillman.
Indeed, Hillman’s windows adorn many other synagogues throughout London, including Marble Arch, Hampstead Garden Suburb, the Central Synagogue and Egerton Road (the New Synagogue – now transformed into the Bobov Beit Midrash), to name but a few.
His style is distinct and one cannot mistake the religious motifs repeated in the main sequence, dealing with the festivals or months of the Jewish calendar. All of his windows include a wide range of biblical and scriptural verses and quotations, displaying his deep knowledge of Jewish source material, rarely to be found on other windows of this type.
At the time they were created, they stood in stark contrast with the stained-glass windows of earlier synagogues, whose style was more in line with those to be found in churches, despite the Jewish theme. Today, they would be seen as traditional when compared to the brighter and more modernistic designs in many newer synagogues in both Israel and the Diaspora.
Hillman’s religious input in the windows is not surprising, given the fact that he was a talmudic and religious scholar in his own right. He was the son of Dayan Shmuel Hillman, who had arrived in Glasgow from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century and later went on to head the London Beit Din, before retiring to Israel in the pre-state period.
His sister was married to Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, then chief rabbi of Ireland; later to become chief rabbi of Palestine, following the death of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook in the mid-1930s; and the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel – the father of president Chaim Herzog and the grandfather of current Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog.
Hillman grew up in Glasgow as a contemporary of Anglo-Jewish philanthropist Sir Isaac Wolfson – whose family also underwent the Eastern European Jewish immigrant experience of going from rags to riches. Later in life, when each had made their mark in art and business respectively, Hillman prepared windows for two synagogues that Wolfson was instrumental in funding (among the dozens of synagogues he funded throughout Israel).
One of these, the Central Synagogue in London, was rebuilt after being destroyed by bombs in World War II.
Wolfson attended this synagogue and took upon himself a great part of the reconstruction costs and the commissioning of windows – for which reason it was also known as St. Isaac’s during his lifetime.
The second set sponsored by Wolfson is the only set to be found in Israel, in the small Renanim Synagogue in the center of Jerusalem – which functioned for a short time as the synagogue of the Chief Rabbinate, prior to the construction of the Great Synagogue in the early 1980s.
Renanim displays a combination of designs, with Hillman’s windows set off by furnishings brought from an old synagogue in Italy. Heichal Shlomo, the seat of the Chief Rabbinate, is next door and connected to Renanim by a corridor; it is named after Isaac Wolfson’s father, Solomon Wolfson.
The Wolfson–Herzog–Hillman connection thus dates back to Scotland and Ireland in the early 20th century.
A further Scottish connection was provided by the marriage of Hillman to Dr. Annie Rabinowitz, the daughter of another Lithuanian rabbi, Yaakov Rabinowitz, who was the rabbi of Edinburgh in the early 20th century before he too moved on to London, where these families were in close contact.
Glasgow, Dublin, Edinburgh and London – these were the sites of unlikely rabbinical and philanthropic connections, which brought about the social setting of these Hillman windows.
By all accounts Hillman’s father, the dayan, was not overly pleased with the artistic talents of his son, when he should have been concentrating on the family business in the rabbinical and talmudic world. Whether this was general opposition to his son becoming an artist (and even studying at the Royal College of Art), or because he also turned his hand to painting nudes, is not clear.
The story of the large St. John’s Wood collection (over 100 separate windows) is another interesting episode in Anglo Jewish history. Approximately two-thirds of the windows were originally made for the previous synagogue, situated on Abbey Road (of Beatles fame). When the synagogue relocated to larger premises nearby in the 1960s, the windows were all carefully transferred to their new abode – but were insufficient for the large space.
In this way, 30 years after completing the original windows, Hillman prepared additional windows, enlarging each festival set of three to five.
Some of the newer windows depicted full faces of people, which he had not done previously – due to the principle of not displaying graven images inside a synagogue.
The former synagogue was taken over by the New London Congregation of Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, one of the UK’s leading Orthodox religious theologians and scholars of the 20th century, and around whose teachings there was great controversy in the 1960s. It is the New London Synagogue and Jacobs’s teachings which later formed the basis for the establishment of the UK Masorti movement; yet the synagogue itself remains without the windows, which have never been adequately replaced.
Other Central London synagogues that closed over time as their communities migrated to the suburbs of northwest London had their Hillman windows transferred to newer synagogues – but in no case was a window ever destroyed. As such, when the Egerton Road synagogue in the now-hassidic neighborhood of Stamford Hill was sold to the Bobov sect about 15 years ago, the heritage status of the building forbade the new owners from removing the windows, despite the fact that hassidic prayer houses do not go in for this artistic style.
The windows remain in situ for the hassidim to see and admire, when they come to pray and study. They contrast with the one non-Hillman window at the back of the building, a later design depicting Israel and Zionism, which is hidden by a wooden partition from the inside – so that the hassidim should not, God forbid, be distracted by such Zionist symbols.
Studying Hillman’s windows is far more than a lesson in art. It opens the door to understanding a particular epoch in the development of Anglo-Jewry – when religion and art found a symbiosis, and when Orthodox Jewish and rabbinical families appreciated that the two were not necessarily disconnected from each other.
The windows give expression to religious teachings and the cycle of Jewish life, and remain on display for all – worshipers or otherwise – to see and be impressed. ■
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.