At risk: Britain's Jewish heritage

As British Jewry continues its steady decline, some of the nation's most spectacular and important religious architecture is under threat. Cahal Milmo reports
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The Independent Online

The Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, a rare building from the 1930s, was demolished in February on the Sabbath. The Clapton Federation Synagogue, one of the last two of its kind, disappeared overnight in July, just as it was to be listed.

In the year that marks the 350th anniversary of the re-establishment of the Jewish community in England, a further seven historic synagogues are under threat of demolition or disfigurement, or in need of urgent repair. The threat to the rich heritage of Jewish architecture in Britain was highlighted by English Heritage yesterday, as the first comprehensive guide to buildings and landmarks built by Jews was published.

Experts warned that the steady decline of the Jewish population since the 1950s, to a current level of 380,000, and its shift to new parts of the country, means that some of the nation's most spectacular religious architecture is facing an uncertain future.

Two synagogues which feature in the guide to 300 Jewish buildings and landmarks, ranging from a London soup kitchen to a Marks & Spencer warehouse in Manchester, have been demolished even while the book was going to print.

The Art Deco Clapton Federation Synagogue, in east London, was hurriedly demolished this summer in the face of a campaign to have it listed.

Its sister building, the Grade II-listed Ryhope Road synagogue in Sunderland, which is the last surviving example of the work of the Newcastle-based Jewish architect Marcus Glass, has also recently been closed and sold.

By the end of the Second World War, the North-east was home to one of Britain's largest Jewish communities. Now the only large-scale synagogue is in Gateshead, and the work of architects like Glass is fast disappearing. Other synagogues under threat - and considered among the finest in Europe - are in Liverpool, Birmingham, Brighton and Kent. Britain has the second largest Jewish population in Europe after France, centred on north and east London and Manchester.

Sharman Kadish, the author of the book and director of the conservation group Jewish Heritage, said: "We have a thriving and stable Jewish population in Britain, but its location has changed. In some places where there were strong communities, there are now only small groups who cannot afford to maintain a synagogue, or where the synagogue must shut down. The result is that some unique and valuable buildings that form part of this country's religious heritage are being lost or find themselves under very real threat.

"They may be sometimes geographically isolated from today's Jewish communities, but they still have great value, both spiritual and cultural, in providing Anglo-Jewry with a sense of history and identity."

The warning throws into sharp relief the unsung contribution of the Jewish population to architecture since 1656, when Oliver Cromwell made it clear that the ban on Jews living in England, imposed by Edward I in 1290, would no longer be enforced.

The guide, Jewish Heritage in England, points out the diversity of structures which have been built, designed or used by Jews since the 18th century. From libraries to a drinking fountain in the East End of London erected in memory of Edward VII, it chronicles the integration of Jews. Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in Britain, which was completed in 1701 at its site in the City of London, was reputedly built using an oak beam donated by Queen Anne from a Navy ship. The building survived an attempt to demolish it in the 1880s, when members of the congregation wanted to build a new synagogue closer to their homes in Maida Vale, after a campaign by William Morris.

Other synagogues face more imminent threats. In Birmingham, where the city's 1934 progressive synagogue was demolished in February, the Grade II-listed Singers Hill Synagogue is facing closure because of dwindling congregations. The Princes Road Synagogue in Liverpool, described by English Heritage as a "jewel in the crown" of the city which will be European Capital of Culture in 2008, is struggling to raise funds for repairs.

English Heritage said the plight of the synagogues was part of a wider problem of the conservation of places of worship. It is estimated it would cost £925m over five years to repair all the religious buildings at risk. The conservation body is asking for £8.8m for each of the next three years to ensure the survival of the most endangered structures.

David Tomback, English Heritage's development and economic director, said: "Our Jewish buildings are a tangible reminder of our Jewish heritage. They contain social messages as well as including fantastic pieces of architecture and truly beautiful hidden gems. We are looking for money that will help communities help themselves. If we can do the small jobs to maintain these buildings we can ensure their long-term survival."

Jewish community leaders said that, where possible, they were looking for ways to ensure the survival of synagogues which no longer had viable congregations of worshippers.

Marlena Schmool, former director of community issues for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: "We look on synagogues as being living entities, places where communities live and meet. It is a matter of regret when a synagogue can no longer serve that purpose, but we would rather they remain living places by finding alternative uses, either within the Jewish community or outside it."

THREE IN DANGER

Singers Hill Synagogue, 1856, Birmingham

One of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the city, the synagogue was designed by Henry Thomason, who was also responsible for Birmingham's art gallery.

The grand, Grade II-listed building underwent a refit in 1937 to expand its capacity under the guidance of its president, Oscar Deutsch, founder of Odeon cinemas.

He used his own cinema architect to remodel the interior. The synagogue celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, but smaller congregations mean it is in danger of being declared redundant and closed.

Princes Road Synagogue, 1874, Liverpool

One of the finest "cathedral-sized" synagogues in Europe, the Princes Road building was designed by two Scottish-born architects, the Audsley Brothers, who later emigrated to America to build organs. The resulting building is a mixture of styles, with elements of eastern Jewry and a façade reminiscent of 13th century gothic.

Its six octagonal turrets were deemed unsafe in the 1960s, and removed. The congregation is struggling to raise funds for maintenance.

Montefiore Synagogue and Mausoleum, 1833 and 1862, Ramsgate

Built by the Victorian philanthropist and British Jew Sir Moses Montefiore, this simple neo-classical building was the first purpose-built synagogue in Britain designed by a Jewish architect. Sir Moses was celebrated in the Holy Land for importing Victorian technology to Jerusalem. The adjoining mausoleum is a replica of Rachel's Tomb, the Jewish and Muslim place of pilgrimage between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The site is the subject of proposals for a housing estate and private hospital.

ALREADY DEMOLISHED

Clapton Federation Synagogue, 1932, East London

One of only two surviving examples of the art deco synagogues built by Newcastle-based Jewish architect Marcus Glass, it was demolished in July while under consideration to be listed. Glass was known for the " cinematic" style of his buildings, with tall windows and art deco detailing. The building was closed in 2005 and sold to a charitable trust within the Orthodox Jewish community, which said it had sold the building to a developer prior to its demolition.

Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, 1938

A rare untouched example of the International style of synagogue, it had a exposed brickwork in the interior and a Star of David worked into the walls. The building was also remarkable for its timber and glass Ark built in the style of a 1930s radio set. It was designed by Ernest Joseph, the architect best known for the art deco Shell Mex on the Strand in London. It was demolished on the Sabbath in February 2006 after an eight-year wrangle over redevelopment plans for central Birmingham. There are plans to build a replacement synagogue in a new office development nearby.

A JEWEL IN THE CROWN

Bevis Marks Synagogue, 1701, London

The oldest synagogue in Britain now lies within the boundaries of the City. But when it was built, it was on the edge of the financial sector because Britain's newly arrived Jews were not allowed to own property within London.

The simple, red-brick building was designed by Joseph Avis, a Quaker carpenter who had worked for Christopher Wren. He was given the considerable budget of £2,650, and apparently returned the surplus, telling the owners he did not want to profit from building a house of God.

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