17 August 2019
A failed search to
find a synagogue
After visiting Peterborough Cathedral and the Church of Saint John the Baptist, the parish church of Peterborough, earlier this week, I went in search of Peterborough’s synagogue.
Peterborough has two Jewish communities, one Orthodox and one Liberal.
The Peterborough Hebrew Congregation was formally established around 1948, having developed from the Membership Group, which in turn had been formed in 1940 by families evacuated from heavily populated areas in central and East London during World War II.
The new congregation, which followed Ashkenazi Orthodox traditions, first met in Westgate Congregational Church Hall, Westgate, and was linked to the United Synagogue.
Later, it moved to 12 Queen’s Gardens, a house in the northern suburbs of Peterborough, and in 1954 Peterborough Hebrew Congregation opened its synagogue at 142 Cobden Avenue.
Later, a Liberal Jewish congregation was formed in Peterborough in 1991. The Peterborough Liberal Jewish Community is part of the Liberal Jewish family. In Britain, Liberal Judaism has about 9,000 members in almost 40 communities. With the Reform Movement they constitute a significant proportion of the Jewish community in Britain.
The Peterborough Liberal Jewish Community does not have a permanent building, and has fewer than 50 members. But its dream is to continue to grow over the generations and to establish a vibrant, inclusive Peterborough synagogue the expresses the progressive values of Liberal Judaism.
All the websites I searched gave no premises for Peterborough’s Liberal Jewish Community, and so I went in search of the synagogue at 142 Cobden Avenue, using Google Maps to assist my navigation.
Cobden Avenue runs west-east between Cromwell Road and Lincoln Road. The side streets enclosed in this area are closely packed terraces of Victorian houses, with halal shops on many corners.
Towering over all is the green dome and tall minaret of the Faizan E Madina Mosque at the corner of Cobden Street and Gladstone Street, which caters for 25% of the city’s Muslims. This is one of the largest mosques in Western Europe, with a capacity for about 3,000 worshippers at any given time.
Eventually, I found the building I was looking for on Cobden Street. It was in behind terraces of suburban housing. But there was no synagogue there. Instead, a car repair and crash recovery business is operating from the premises.
The Muslim proprietor was happy to greet me, and said he had built up his business there over the past three or four years. He said the premises had been vacant for a few years, and he had no forwarding address for the synagogue.
I was welcome to look around, but he could help me no further. Google Maps and internet searches continued to insist I had arrived at my location.
I walked back into the centre of Peterborough, and read how the Jewish community in Peterborough came to media attention two months ago with the victory of Labour’s Lisa Forbes in the Peterborough by-election in June. She faced controversy in the week before the by-election over a Facebook post she ‘liked’ that said Theresa May had a ‘Zionist slave master’s agenda.’
She later apologised for ‘not calling out these posts’ and promised to challenge antisemitism in the future. But a Jewish community representative in Peterborough said the new MP had made no effort to reach out to her Jewish constituents who are feeling ‘more vulnerable’ since her unexpected victory and the antisemitism controversy.
Janet Berkman, honorary secretary of the city’s Liberal community, told the Jewish Chronicle there had ‘certainly not’ been any contact from Lisa Forbes in the immediate aftermath of the by-election.
Janet Berkman said the Liberal Jewish community in Peterborough had ‘felt relatively safe for quite some years.’ But in the wake of Ms Forbes’s victory, ‘some of our members are saying that they feel rather more vulnerable than they used to.’ But she said that after Labour’s by-election win, the community had received ‘messages of support from people within the local area – not just Jews – expressing concern on our behalf.’
Janet Berkman told the Jewish Chronicle ‘there has been no contact’ with her community nor the national Liberal Judaism body. She said: ‘We have said … that what we want to see is action, not words. And we want her to make the first move. If she is sincere, then we want to see her making the first steps and the first moves to engage with the broader Jewish community and possibly with ourselves.’
But the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Phillips, said that while she was glad the Brexit Party had been defeated in Peterborough ‘I cannot be (as) gleeful or proud as I’d want to be because of how it shows that antisemitism is becoming normal in the party.’
She said: ‘Lisa ignored and endorsed antisemitic things, I’ll take her explanation and apology at face value and look forward to her proving, as others have, that actions not excuses alone can heal. But with every case the party’s values chip away and our ability to stand up against hate erodes.’
The Labour MP for Ilford North, Wes Streeting, stopped campaigning in Peterborough when Ms Forbes’s social media activity came to light. He said she ‘will need to work hard to persuade the Jewish Labour Movement and wider community that her apology was meaningful and that she is genuinely committed to tackling antisemitism.’
A former Labour minister, Dame Margaret Hodge, said on Twitter: ‘Seriously mixed feelings about the Peterborough result. I never want to see Nigel Farage’s party in Parliament. But Lisa Forbes & the Labour Party have a lot to answer for. We must learn lessons & never have a repeat of this. Have formally raised concerns with party leadership.’
Euan Philipps, a spokesman for Labour Against Antisemitism, said his group would be submitting a complaint about the new MP and said ‘The narrow victory by Lisa Forbes in the Peterborough by-election is a dark day for the Labour Party.’
The Jewish Labour Movement urged the party to suspend the whip of newly-elected MP. A JLM spokesperson said the party had ‘consistently failed to take a zero tolerance approach to anti-Jewish hate … Labour’s newest MP is a perfect example of this.’ JLM said that, despite talking about reaching out to the community, Lisa Forbes had not made contact with the group.
Meanwhile, Westgate New Church, where the Orthodox Jewish congregation first met in the 1940s, is now a Local Ecumenical Partnership between the United Reformed Church and the Methodist Church, which worships as a single church community.