British heritage groups try saving struggling synagogues

Only four synagogues remain in the former heart of East London's Jewish community.

london synagogue 88 (photo credit: )
london synagogue 88
(photo credit: )
British religious and architectural charities appealed for help Thursday to save struggling synagogues in historic Jewish neighborhoods as they mark the 350th anniversary of the resettlement of Jews in England after they were expelled by King Edward I. Only four synagogues remain in the former heart of East London's Jewish community, historian Clive Bettington said. In the 1930s, a thriving Jewish population of Eastern European immigrants attended more than 100 synagogues in the Stepney and Whitechapel areas. "All four congregations are at risk with the average age of the members at about 87," said Bettington, who gives walking tours of the now mostly Muslim neighborhood. About 150,000 Jews lived in the East End in 1935, Bettington said. Only 2,000 remain in what is now a predominantly Bangladeshi neighborhood. Historian Sharman Kadish, whose book "Jewish Heritage in England" was published on Thursday, said the buildings provide an important sense of identity for Jewish communities even after congregants move to the suburbs. However, those left behind often don't have the money to repair their synagogues' leaky roofs and cracking walls. "Some of these are very important buildings both locally and nationally," said Ian Lush, chief executive of London's Architectural Heritage Fund charity. "The hardest thing is if a building isn't on a national listing system, if a building is just locally significant, it has far less statutory protection." Finding alternate uses for religious buildings after they fall out of use is difficult and many are torn down, Lush said. London's Clapton Federation Synagogue, built in 1931-32, was demolished in July. The Art-Deco-style Sunderland Synagogue in northeast England, designed by the same architect, Marcus Glass, held its final service earlier this year before being sold to a Jewish charitable trust. David Brandes, a member of the small Congregation of Jacob Synagogue in London, said his congregation obtained grants in the past year to repair the 150-year-old roof. He said his synagogue is lucky to have young families with children attending services. "We're quite fortunate in that sense," Brandes said. "We're breathing new life into our community." King Edward I expelled British Jews in 1290 after decades of anti-Semitic violence. They were banned from Britain until 1656, when republican leader Oliver Cromwell authorized their return. Today there are about 350,000 Jews in Britain.