31 May 2024

Leicester Progressive
Jewish Synagogue:
a modern community
with a 75-year history

Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation dates from 1948-1949, and has been located in a former school on Avenue Road since 1995 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

All my life I have known Dublin Jewish Progressive Synagogue on Leicester Avenue, Rathgar. I knew it as a child because an uncle lived and worked nearby; I first attended a service there over 50 years ago; and over the years I brought students there on ‘field trip’ visits. In more recent years, I have also received spiritual support and solace there.

It seemed natural, therefore, that when I was back in Leicester last week, I should also visit the synagogue of the Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation on Avenue Road, close to Victoria Park.

During a visit to Leicester the previous week, I had visited the Jewry Wall and the site associated with the mediaeval Jewish community (17 May 2024) and the synagogue of Leicester Hebrew Congregation on Highfield Street (24 May 2024). But Leicester also has a Progressive Synagogue, formed in 1950, and since 1995 it has been located in a former school on Avenue Road.

The synagogue dates back 75 years to 1948-1949, when a small group of Jews of Leicester were seeking an alternative to Orthodox Judaism. In 1950, the Liberal Jewish Group affiliated to the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, later renamed Liberal Judaism.

Services were first held in members’ homes and in hired halls. The name was changed to the Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation in the 1960s and bi-weekly services were held in the Friends’ Meeting House or Quaker Meeting House on Queen’s Road, which I was writing about last week. The congregation was joined by members of the Leicester Reform Group when that congregation disbanded in 1976.

The community bought its premises on Avenue Road in 1995. The building dates from 1885 and was used as school until the community bought it. It has been refurbished as a synagogue and adapted to be fully accessible, with a ramp for wheelchairs and a loop system for the hard of hearing.

Neve Shalom (נְוֵה שָׁלוֹם) means ‘Oasis of Peace’ … the name is a tribute to a village where Jewish and Palestinian-Arab residents live together (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The community name, Neve Shalom (נְוֵה שָׁלוֹם), means ‘Oasis of Peace’ and is a tribute to the village of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Jewish and Palestinian-Arab residents live together in Neve Shalom, committed to harmony and diversity, and seeking to inspire hope for peace.

Leicester Progressive Jewish Community is an affiliate of Liberal Judaism and the members value the continuity of their Jewish heritage. They also reinterpret Jewish traditions to keep pace with modern society while they believe in preserving all that is good in tradition.

Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, sincerity above conformity, and all human needs above legal technicalities. It promotes pluralism and engages in dialogue with other streams of Judaism, other religions, cultures and philosophies. Practices are a blend of both the traditional and the modern, and the community supports gender equality in taking part in services and children are encouraged to be fully involved.

One of the Torah scrolls used regularly for Shabbat morning services in Leicester is a late 19th century Czech scroll. When the community acquired the scroll, it was badly in need of repair and little was known about its background. But the history of the scroll was slowly pieced together and it is a deeply moving story.

Westminster Synagogue, London, told the congregation in Leicester in 1966 that a scroll was available through the Jewish Museum in Prague from its collection of relics saved after the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. The Nazis planned a permanent exhibition of the works of ‘an exterminated ethnographical group’ in Prague. They gathered the gold and silver ornaments, vestments, pictures, books and manuscripts from the desolated synagogues of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, including a huge number of Sifre Torah.

For many congregations, these scrolls, are powerful symbols of the Holocaust. The scroll on permanent loan to Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation is No 228 of 1,564 Czech Memorial Sifre Torah. It is from the synagogue in Ostrava, the third largest city in the Czech Republic, close to the Polish border. About 8,000 Jews from the Ostrava district were murdered in the Holocaust.

Rabbi Larry Alan Tabick was part-time rabbi of Leicester Progressive Jewish Community in 1994-1998. He led the first service for Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue back in 1978.

He is the husband of Rabbi Jacqueline Tabick, who was born Jacqueline Hazel Acker in Dublin in 1948 and who has close links with the Dublin Jewish Progressive Synagogue on Leicester Avenue, Rathgar.

When she was ordained in 1975, Rabbi Jackie Tabick became first female rabbi in Britain. She is now one of the joint chief executives of Progressive Judaism, the union in the making between Reform and Liberal Judaism.

The Progressive Synagogue on Avenue Road, Leicester, opened its doors in 1995 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Rabbi Mark L Solomon is the present, part-time rabbi, and he shares his role with Edinburgh Liberal Jewish Community. He leads services, runs an educational programme and provides pastoral support and advice.

Rabbi Mark Solomon was born in Sydney, Australia, where he was a chorister, and later reader and deputy cantor, at the Great Synagogue. He studied for the rabbinate at the Lubavitcher Yeshivah Gedolah in Melbourne and Kfar Chabad in Israel, and holds a BA in English from Sydney University. He came to Britain in 1988 to study at Jews’ College, London, the modern Orthodox seminary where he was ordained in 1991. He then joined Liberal Judaism, and completed his MA in Jewish Studies at Leo Baeck College.

He has served at Watford United Synagogue (1990-1992), West Central Liberal Synagogue (1992-2000) and the Liberal Synagogue in St John’s Wood (2000-2009). He was appointed the first Interfaith Consultant for Liberal Judaism in 2009 and part-time rabbi of both Edinburgh Liberal Jewish Community and Manchester Liberal Jewish Community in 2010. He left Manchester in 2014 and became part-time rabbi of the Leicester Liberal Jewish Congregation.

He teaches at Leo Baeck College, where he is the senior lecturer in Talmud, Rabbinics and Jewish philosophy, and has been a visiting lecturer at University College, London, and Heythrop College. He is Associate Chair of the Beit Din of Liberal Judaism, co-chair of the London Society of Jews and Christians and has been involved in the Council of Christians and Jews.

Rabbi Solomon is an honorary rabbi of the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group, and one of the rabbinic team of BKY (Beit Klal Yisrael). He was the editor of Covenant of Love: Service of Commitment for Same-Sex Couples, published by Liberal Judaism in 2005 – the first such liturgy published by any Jewish movement.

The community is actively involved in the multifaith life in Leicester, and is represented on the Leicester Council of Faiths and the Leicester Faith Support Group for Asylum Seekers and Refugees.

Shabbat Shalom

The community is actively involved in the multifaith life in Leicester, including the Leicester Council of Faiths and the Leicester Faith Support Group for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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