02 March 2023
East London Central
Synagogue on Nelson Street
is the last purpose-built
synagogue in the East End
During my recent walks around the East End, I visited a number of synagogues and former synagogues, and plan to write about them in the coming days and weeks.
By the early 1890s, there were shuls (synagogues), chevrot (benevolent societies) and steiblech (informal places of worship) all over the Spitalfields, Whitechapel and Saint George’s area. The East End had become a centre of Jewish life by the early 20th century, with a Jewish population of about 250,000 people and about 150 synagogues.
Most of these people were Yiddish-speaking first-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, unlike other, longer-established Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in Britain, which had come in earlier generations from the Low Countries.
In recent days, I have written about some of these synagogues, including the Spital Square Poltava Synagogue at 2 Heneage Street, the former Artillery Lane Synagogue and the former Gun Street Synagogue.
The East London Central Synagogue, also known as Nelson Street Synagogue, is an Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogue that belongs to the Federation of Synagogues. It was founded as the Nelson Street Sfardish Synagogue (Hebrew name: Ohr HaChaim D’bnai Berdichev) in 1923.
Nelson Street is in the Borough of Tower Hamlets, and previously in Stepney, and extends for 1,000 ft east from New Road, off Commercial Road. It runs parallel with Varden Street, immediately to the north, and crosses over Turner Street and Philpot Street.
Initially the style of service (nosach) was Sfardish or Sphardish, also known as Askenazi Sfard, which is not to be confused with Sephardi.
The name Sfardish refers to a style of service that differs slightly from mainstream Ashkenazi and is similar to Hassidic usage. The order of service and certain extra words to some of the prayers are similar to the Sephardic tradition, but the Hebrew pronunciation and tunes are Ashkenazi, as are most of the congregation.
There were other Sfardish shuls in the area, such as Philpot Street Sfardish synagogue, which eventually amalgamated with Nelson Street.
The foundation stone of Nelson Street Synagogue was laid by the synagogue president, B Bernstein, on 19 August 1923. The synagogue was designed by Lewis Solomon (1848-1928), who built several synagogues, and served as both the honorary architect of the Federation of Synagogues and architect and surveyor of the United Synagogue.
Lewis Solomon was born in 1848 to a Jewish family and was an apprentice and later clerk of works in the office of Matthew Digby Wyatt. He commenced practice on his own in London in 1872. Lewis Solomon and Son also redesigned the premises of the neighbouring Congregation of Jacob synagogue on Commercial Road, which also survives, in 1921. His other works include Golders Green Synagogue and the Fulham and West Kensington Synagogue.
His practice was being run by his son Digby Lewis Solomon (1884-1962) by 1923. Lewis Solomon died in 1928, and the practice later became Lewis Solomon, Kaye & Partners.
Nelson Street Synagogue has been described as having ‘an unassuming exterior and a stunningly beautiful interior.’ The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described it in 1951: ‘Discreet brick exterior with two tiers of windows beneath round-headed arches with stone keystones. Fine classical interior. Galleries with iron railings between Ionic columns; coved steps, framed by a Venetian arch on Doric columns. Above the Ark, scrolled pediment with tablets of the law and Lions of Judah. Panelled pews and Bimah.’
Nelson Street Synagogue has a tradition of assisting local poor people, setting up of soup kitchens and other charities. It also provided a welcoming haven for refugees fleeing Eastern Europe.
The East End was heavily bombed during World War II, and the Jewish population moved on to new Jewish centres in north and north-west London, such as Stamford Hill, Golders Green and Hendon.
The consequent fall in membership numbers caused many East End synagogues to close and the congregations of the East End synagogues consolidated. Over the years, about 20 neighbouring synagogues were amalgamated with Nelson Street, but some of them live on as names on commemorative plaques.
Belz Synagogue (by 1952), Berditchever Synagogue (by 1952), Buross Street, Cannon Street Road Synagogue (early 1970s), Chevra Shass, Commercial Road Great Synagogue (after 1968), Grove Street Synagogue (about 1949), Jubilee Street Zionist Synagogue (about 1967), Mile End Synagogue, New Road Synagogue (1974), Philpot Street Great Synagogue (after 1956), Philpot Street Sphardish Synagogue (after 1956), Rumanian Sidney Street Synagogue (by 1952), and the Sons of Britchan (B’nai Brichtan) Synagogue (1952).
The synagogue was renamed East London Central Synagogue in 1975. Today it is the East End’s only surviving purpose-built synagogue and one of just three remaining in the East End: East London Central Synagogue on Nelson Street, Sandy’s Row Synagogue, and the Congregation of Jacob synagogue on Commercial Road.
Because of these amalgamations, the shul on Nelson Street now has a large collection of Torah scrolls, some dating back to the 18th century, although many are now of unknown origin.
The Jewish East End Celebration Society organised a number of Jewish East End activities 20 years ago (2003). These included an interview with Anna Tzelniker, a renowned Yiddish actor who worked with her father Meier and others in both mainstream and Yiddish theatre.
She was born in Romania and came to England as a teenager with her family in the early 1930s. She started her career in her father’s travelling Yiddish theatre company in Romania. Her many roles included five years in the West End stage production of Fiddler on the Roof.
A march to the synagogue from Aldgate five years ago (January 2018) commemorated the East End’s Jewish heritage, and was followed by a multi-faith service of remembrance.
The East End now has a considerable Muslim population, and the shul actively engages in interfaith relations through the Tower Hamlets Inter Faith Forum, of which the large East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road is also a member. The synagogue is regularly visited by historical societies and walking tours, and in the past has taken part in Open House London.
Today the East London Central Synagogue is daubed with disturbing graffiti, and the area to the immediate east is strewn with litter and its view marred by bins and rubbish from neighbouring premises.
The synagogue is due to celebrate its centenary this year, and the architect Maxwell Hutchinson has drafted a plan to add museum and library space, so that the shul may build on its attraction as a tourist destination and become an historic Jewish centre in the East End.
A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (9)
During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.
Last month [January 2023], I celebrated my 71st birthday, rejoicing in the many blessings I have received in the past 71 years.
I think Johnson was less happy as he advanced in age at each birthday. Referring to his biographer, James Boswell, he wrote in a letter to Hester Thrale (1741-1821), diarist, author and patron of the arts, on 21 September 1773:
Boswell, with some of his troublesome kindness, has informed this family, and reminded me that the eighteenth of September is my birthday. The return of my birthday, if I remember it, fills me with thoughts which it seems to be the general care of humanity to escape. I can now look back upon threescore and four years, in which little has been done, and little has been enjoyed, a life diversified by misery, spent part in the sluggishness of penury, and part under the violence of pain, in gloomy discontent, or importunate distress. But perhaps I am better than I should have been, if I had been less afflicted. With this I will try to be content.
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