Wednesday, June 3, 2009

UK: London's Sandys Row Synagogue Receives Large English Heritage Grant

Sandys Row Synagogue. Photos courtesy of and copyright Sandys Row Synagogue, 2009.

UK: London's Sandys Row Synagogue Receives Large English Heritage Grant
by Samuel D. Gruber (based on reports from Sandys Row Synagogue and English Heritage)

(ISJM) In another sign that Jewish heritage is now taken seriously in the UK, English Heritage has awarded its second significant grant this year for synagogue restoration. In March English heritage and the Heritage Lottery gave funds for restoration work at the London's Victorian high style New West End Synagogue. On May 12, 2009 The English Heritage - Heritage Lottery Fund Places of Worship Scheme announced an every larger award £254,000 to Sandys Row Synagogue, the oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue in London, and one of the oldest in the country, for major repairs to the roof and exterior water handling system. The award was part of a package of grants worth £7 million for essential repairs to 56 Grade II listed places of worship across England. London received £1,007,000 for the restoration of seven houses of worship. The other London recipients were historic churches.

Sandys Row Synagogue, which is listed as Grade II historic monument, is deemed the most important site in Britain, still in use, with a direct link to the mass immigration of Jews in the 19th century. It is one of the few synagogues still active in the East End, once the epicenter of Ashkenazi Jewish life in London.

According to Sharman Kadish in (her essential history and guide) Jewish Hertiage in England (p. 10), "Sandys Row Synaoggue is one of the earliest surviving examples of a chapel conversion for Jewish worship in Britain. The building started life as a Hugeunot church, L'Eglise de l'Artillerie, in 1766. From the Huguenots, the church passed through a series of Protestant groups - the Universalist Baptists, the Unitarian Baptists, theScottish Baptists and the Salem Chapel - before it reached Hevrat Menahem Avelim Hesed v'Emet ('Comforters of the Mourners Kindnessand Truth Society") in 1867."

The sanctuary retains 18th-century architectural features, including the original roof. An additional building was erected on Sandys Row itself as part of the re-orientation when the synagogue was consecrated. The 19th-century interior, with its galleries, is essentially intact.

Repair of the building is desperately needed. According to Anthony Walker, the conservation architect who has led the synagogue’s team of advisers, “Last September, in the course of detailed research by conservation surveyors, we discovered that two of the four corner roof supports were completely rotten. The entire Huguenot structure was being held up by the 18th-century ceiling plasterwork.” Jack Gilbert synagogue Board member, spokesperson and a prime mover of this project, said, “Within days, the Synagogue Board were able to implement emergency temporary support structures to prevent an imminent collapse but without this grant the future would be bleak.”

According to Gilbert, "Without the grant, this unique link back to the great Jewish migration of the 19th Century would be in danger of physical collapse. Now the Huguenot roof and walls can look forward to their 250th anniversary in 2013 and beyond! This marks a major milestone for the Sandys Row Synagogue community, as we build a vibrant program of religious and cultural activities, and develop a greater role in celebrating Jewish East End heritage. It is a fantastic starting point — and there is much more we need to do!"

Gilbert credits personal letters of support for the project and the grant application sent by Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, and Henry Grunwald QC, President of the Board of Deputies. The rabbinic support is a sign of continuing thaw within the organized English Jewish community toward working with preservationists to save historic Jewish sites. Only little more than decade ago, there was resistance to outsiders and non-Jews involving themselves in the protection and care of Jewish heritage. Gradually through education and outreach, and also several scandals about the deterioration and demolition of historic buildings, a more production relationship has evolved.

According to Gilbert, the award comes at a time when Sandys Row Synagogue is considering the feasibility of creating an East End Heritage educational center and alongside the Monday-Thursday lunchtime minyan (prayer group), fortnightly Shabbat services and regular tours, they will shortly be adding a women’s minyan and evening cultural activities.

Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said, “English Heritage is delighted to be announcing these repair grants for historic places of worship – particularly on the day that the government launches ‘World Class Places’. Historic buildings connect us to our past and enhance our enjoyment of the places in which we live, work and worship. These beautiful listed buildings are at the heart of our communities and they must remain in active use. We are especially pleased that buildings used by such a broad range of religious groups."

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