10 March 2023

Dublin’s largest synagogue
on Rathfarnham Road in
Terenure is to be sold soon

Terenure Synagogue on Rathfarnham Road dates from a meeting in 1936 and first opened in 1953 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Dublin Hebrew Congregation synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, Terenure, is for sale, with an asking price of €7.5 million, according to news reports this week.

The synagogue is a distinctive building in south Dublin, clearly visible and identifiable with windows with five Stars of David over 10 squared panels. It was designed by the architect Wilfred Cantwell (1921-2000) and was dedicated in 1953.

Members of the Orthodox congregation in Terenure are planning to downsize to smaller premises nearby, my friend and colleague Patsy McGarry reported in The Irish Times this week.

Maurice Cohen, chair of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, said the decision to sell the Terenure synagogue is not so much ‘a story of decline’ as one of changing patterns of practice among Jews in Ireland. ‘As with most religions, attendance at services is not as great as it used to be,’ he told Patsy McGarry.

Indeed, despite widespread reports of decline, the Jewish population in Ireland is growing. The 2016 census figures show there were 2,557 Jewish people in Ireland, an increase of 28.9 per cent on the 2011 figure of 1,984, and it is expected the 2016 figure will be exceeded when the figures from the 2022 census are published.

Much of that increase is attributed to employees of multinational companies working in Ireland. Maurice Cohen says, however, that the upkeep of the Terenure synagogue is ‘very expensive’ and figures for attendance at services ‘have gone down dramatically.’ This is exacerbated as ‘the older generation passes away while younger people were less likely to attend. It is an issue Judaism is debating.’

He says that in general the situation of Judaism in Ireland is healthy, he said. A new rabbi and his family are to arrive in Dublin in August, while the current rabbi, Rabbi Zalman Lent, a Chabad rabbi, is to open a Chabad centre in Rathmines this month.

Rabbi Zalman Lent with the Aron haKodesh and Torah scrolls in Terenure Synagogue

Services will continue for the moment at the synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, Maurice Cohen said, adding that what was being planned there amounted to ‘pragmatic revitalisation and an acknowledgment of the dynamism any community experiences.’ The community hopes selling the building will help finance a new synagogue that will serve it for decades to come.

David Rosen, the Chief Rabbi of Ireland in 1979-1985 and my lecturer in Jewish studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics in 1982-1984, told the Jewish News Syndicate that a mobile Jewish diaspora is nothing new. ‘Irish Jews have made a uniquely disproportionate contribution to world Jewry in other diasporas including Israel,’ he said. ‘Its legacy lives on, even if the traditional Irish community is in terminal decline.’

At its height, Dublin had at least a dozen synagogues, and there were synagogues in Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Derry. Just four Jewish congregations remain in Ireland today: the Dublin Hebrew Congregation on Rathfarnham Road; the Dublin Jewish Progressive Synagogue in Rathgar; an Orthodox synagogue in Belfast; and Cork Jewish Community, thriving and formed after the last synagogue in Cork closed in 2016.

In addition, the Irish Jewish Museum is housed in a former synagogue on Walworth Road in a part of Portobello once known as Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem.’

Stars of David in Terenure Synagogue face onto Rathfarnham Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Terenure synagogue at 32a Rathfarnham Road has been part of my life throughout all my years. I have recalled on many blog postings how I was born in a house on Rathfarnham Road, opposite the then Classic Cinema and between the old Terenure Laundry and the new site for Terenure Synagogue.

The synagogue dates back to a meeting in 1936 to set up a synagogue in the Rathmines, Rathgar or Terenure area to cater for the young families now living in these suburbs and who found it was too far to walk on Saturdays and Festivals to the synagogues on Adelaide Road and at Greenville Hall on the South Circular Road.

The congregation moved from Rathmines to a Nissen hut in the grounds of ‘Leoville’ on Rathfarnham Road on Rosh Hashanah, 4 October 1948. Building work on the new synagogue began in August 1952, and it was completed and dedicated on 30 August 1953.

The synagogue was designed by the architect Wilfrid Cantwell. He worked with Michael Scott, alongside Kevin Roche, Kevin Fox and Robin Walker, and worked on Bus Arús, Dublin, and later worked with JN Kidney before setting up his own practice (1947-1975). He attained distinction in the area of church architecture, particularly in years immediately after Vatican II. From 1976 until he retired in 1993, he specialised as a consultant in church design.

Cantwell said his new synagogue in Terenure met the committee’s specifications for a building that would ‘cost less than half the normal place, look as if it cost the full amount and be an example of good modern design.’ It was praised for its ‘original, modern, commanding and attractive design.’

The ‘master builder’ of the synagogue was the Dublin timber merchant Sam Noyek, who built the synagogue with a capacity for 600 people.

Because of its location opposite the Classic Cinema in Terenure, members of the Adelaide Road synagogue referred to the new Terenure synagogue, in Jewish humour that drew on Dublin wit and dialogue, as the ‘cinema-gogue.’

A stained glass window in the synagogue on Rathfarnham Road

The shul was set on fire on Wednesday 9 February 1966. Several Siffrei Torah were destroyed, and the shul itself was very badly damaged. The Nissen hut that had been turned into a function hall was quickly converted back into a shul, and no Shabbat services were missed.

The newly refurbished synagogue was rededicated on Sunday 26 May 1968. Its features include the striking stained-glass windows on the north and south walls by Stanley Tomlin, who began his career in the Harry Clarke Studios in 1932.

At extraordinary meetings of the Terenure and Adelaide Road congregations in January 1999, the two congregations agreed to merge. It was agreed that the Adelaide Road Synagogue would be sold, and that some of the proceeds of the sale would be used to build a new synagogue complex, including a new mikveh and a community centre, on the grounds at Rathfarnham Road.

From then on, the Terenure Synagogue hosted the members of the former synagogue on Adelaide Road. This arrangement continued until 15 December 2004, when both congregations held simultaneous extraordinary general meetings and agreed to merge as the new Dublin Hebrew Congregation.

The agreed new synagogue was never built, and Terenure Synagogue is the only major Orthodox synagogue in the Republic of Ireland.

A Church of Ireland Interfaith Conference visiting Terenure Synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, Dublin

The Machzikei Hadass synagogue in Terenure also last year due to declining membership, and many of its members joined the Terenure synagogue on Rathfarnham Road. This small synagogue at 18 Rathmore Villas, behind 77 Terenure Road North, was within a short walking distance of Terenure Synagogue on Rathfarnham Road – and from the house where I was born. Yet, its discreet location in the heart of Terenure village made this one of Dublin’s least-known synagogues.

Although this synagogue was founded in 1968, its beginnings went back to the foundation of a synagogue in 1883 at Saint Kevin’s Parade, off Clanbrassil Street, in Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem.’

The Jewish community in Dublin numbered about 400 or 500 people in the 1880s. But the city had only one synagogue, at Saint Mary’s Abbey, off Capel Street. In the eyes of the new Jewish refugees and migrants from East Europe arriving in Dublin in the 1880s, this one synagogue was quite Anglicised, too modern and assimilated and with something of a German-Jewish character.

Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, a large number of pogroms broke out throughout the Russian empire, leading to a large exodus of Jewish people from Russia, Poland and present-day Lithuania and Latvia.

The new arrivals in Dublin first settled mainly in the area clustered around Portobello, the South Circular Road and Clanbrassil Street that became known as ‘Little Jerusalem.’

They never felt fully at home in the synagogue at Saint Mary’s Abbey and formed ad hoc minyanim or quorums of ten adult males in private houses. These small congregations led in turn to the eventual foundation of half a dozen or more small synagogues in Little Jerusalem.

One of these small synagogues was founded in Saint Kevin’s Parade, off Clanbrassil Street, in 1883. It is was one the last of the small synagogues founded in the area at that time. The founder and first President (Parnes) of the synagogue, Reuven Bradlaw, was also involved in the foundation of the Bais Olam or Jewish burial ground in Dolphin’s Barn, where he is buried. He was one of the men who carried a Sefer Torah at the opening ceremony for the synagogue on Adelaide Road in 1892.

While most of these earlier, small synagogues in the ‘Little Jerusalem’ area came together in 1920s in the synagogue at Greenville Hall on the South Circular Road, this synagogue maintained its separate identity in the decades that followed.

The small Machzikei Hadass synagogue was discreetly located in the heart of Terenure village (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

By the time the congregation moved to Terenure in 1968, it was known as Machzikei Hadass (מחזיקי הדת, ‘those who reinforce the Law’). The name comes from a 19th century organisation of synagogues and yeshivas in East Europe that aimed to improve Jewish education and observance, and may have been added at the time of the move to the present site in Terenure in 1968.

The Steinberg family arrived from Munkatch in Czechoslovakia in 1928. Aharon Steinberg was responsible for a regeneration of the synagogue in Saint Kevin’s Parade, and he may have given it its later name when it moved to Rathmore Villas, behind 77 Terenure Road North.

Aharon Steinberg presided over the move over half a century ago, in April 1968, not long before he died. A marble plaque commemorating the move was placed at the entrance, beside the original foundation plaque. The Aron Kodesh or holy ark holding the Torah Scrolls was the original one from Saint Kevin’s Parade.

The name of Reuven Bradlaw’s wife, as donor, was inscribed on the silver yad or Torah pointer used in the Machzikei Hadass until it closed last year. His name and the date 1883 were on the marble foundation plaque at the entrance to the synagogue.

The synagogue celebrated its centenary on Shabbos VaYigash, 10 December 1983, with the Chief Rabbi, Dr David Rosen, and the late Judge Wine in the box, and with over 100 people in the synagogue and at a Kiddush that lasted rather longer than usual.

When the synagogue at Greenville Hall on the South Circular Road closed in 1984, many of its members joined the observant community of Machzikei Hadass in Terenure, which offered a warm welcome to newcomers who were less observant religiously than its traditional membership.

Shabbat Shalom

Machzikei Hadass moved from Saint Kevin’s Parade to Terenure over 50 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Shabbat shalom.
Very interesting article on the history of the Jewish diaspora in Ireland. Only recently, have I finished reading through the bible. I am fascinated by Jewish history and culture and their place in the revelation of God's plan for humanity. I am now going to tackle the apocryphal books. I am fortunate to have a bible that includes them.

I came across your website while researching the plymouth brethern in Ireland. They are dispensational in their theology. They also have a very chequered history.


Geraldine Stafford