09 March 2020

Sandy’s Row Synagogue
has survived changes in
the East End and thrives

Sandy’s Row Synagogue is the oldest surviving Ashkenazi synagogue in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

A few minutes’ walk away from Liverpool Street Station and bustling Bishopsgate, with its towering glass towers of finance, Sandy’s Row Synagogue is the oldest surviving Ashkenazi synagogue in London and the last Ashkenazi synagogue still functioning in Spitalfields.

This is a small, historic Ashkenazi shul on a quiet street, but it is still a thriving synagogue. Unlike other shuls in the old Jewish East End that have been lost due because of a dwindling resident Jewish population, Sandy’s Row synagogue is experiencing an upsurge in membership.

The site of Sandy’s Row Synagogue was once open-land called Old Artillery Gardens, next to the pasture-land of Spitalfields or ‘Spital Fyeld’s.’ It is named after Henry VIII’s royal artillery, the ‘Gunners of the Tower,’ who used the open space to experiment with artillery in the 16th century.

George Bradbury and Edward Noell bought the Old Artillery Ground for £5,700 in 1681, with a licence to build new houses on the Old Artillery Garden. A wooden chapel was built on this site and was used by French Huguenots.

The synagogue on Sandy’s Row (right) was first built as a Huguenot chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Artillery Church, L’Eglise de l’Artillerie, was built as a brick building on the site in 1766, and is the same building that stands today. The Artillery Church merged with the London Walloon Church in 1786, and for the next 50 years the church was used by various Christian groups, including the Universalist Baptists, Unitarians and the Scottish Baptists, before becoming Salem Chapel and then Parliament Court Chapel.

Dutch Ashkenazi Jewish migrants mainly from Amsterdam began arriving in Sptialfields in the 1840s. These Dutch Jews, who were economic migrants rather than refugees, settled in a small quarter of narrow streets in West Spitalfields known as the Tenterground. This was originally open land named after the ‘tenters’ or wooden frames used by weavers and fullers for drying and stretching cloth.

The ‘Tenter’ area included White’s Row, Tenter Street, Artillery Passage and Sandy’s Row. The Dutch Jews occupied this narrow maze of and continued to practise the trades they brought with them from Holland, such as cigar making, diamond cutting and slipper and cap making. Many small workshops were established in the area and businesses passed from generation to generation in families.

The name of the the Society of Loving Kindness and Truth is still remembered on the synagogue notice boards (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Dutch Jewish community included about 1,000 people. Their customs and practises were different from other Ashkenazi Jewish groups. They were known locally as the Chuts and refused to join other existing synagogues. Instead, they rented a small room in a building on White’s Row, close to Sandy’s Row, where they held daily prayer meetings and Shabbat services. Festival services took place in a larger Zetland Hall in Maunsell Street.

In 1854, 50 Dutch Jewish families from this community formed a Hebra or friendly society, the Hevrat Menahem Avalim Hesed v’Emeth or the Society for Comfort of the Mourners, Kindness, and Truth. Originally this was a mutual aid and burial society, but as the community expanded its functions expanded and the society began fundraising.

Enough funds had been collected by 1867 to buy the lease on the chapel in Sandy’s Row that the society had been renting for some time. By then, the building was known as the Parliament Court Synagogue. The society raised a mortgage of £700 on the building that was finally paid off in 1929.

Inside Sandy’s Row Synagogue (Photograph © Sandy’s Row Synagogue)

Nathan Solomon Joseph, one of the best-known synagogue architects of the time, was commissioned to remodel the former chapel. He kept many of the original features of the Georgian interior, including the roof and the balcony, which became the women’s gallery.

The original entrance to the chapel was in a tiny alley, Parliament Court, that now runs along the back of the synagogue.

Because Jews pray in the direction of Jerusalem, which in London is to the south-east, the original entrance to the building was bricked up and the Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark for the Torah scrolls was placed on the south-east wall. A new front door was inserted on the north-west of the building, opening onto Sandy’s Row.

The interior design was based on the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place, long since demolished. This included a coved ceiling, cornice, clerestory windows and a neo-classical mahogany Torah Ark set into an apse.

Much of the interior is unaltered since it was built in the 19th century, apart from the pine pews and the wood pine panelling, which covers much of the interior walls. These were added in the 1950s.

The Chief Rabbi of London, Nathan Marcus Adler, refused to consecrate the synagogue because he opposed setting up small, independent congregation so close to the large established City synagogues. Instead, Sandy’s Row Synagogue was consecrated in 1870 by the Haham or head rabbi of the London’s Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation at Bevis Marks Synagogue, Rabbi Benjamin Artom.

Sandy’s Row Synagogue is the last Ashkenazi synagogue still functioning in Spitalfields (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

By November 1887, Sandy’s Row Synagogue was the largest of the East End congregations that founded the Federation of Synagogues. It left the Federation in 1899 and was refurbished for the 50th anniversary of the community after acquiring its freehold, becoming an Associate of the United Synagogue in 1922.

In all this time, Sandy’s Row has remained independent apart from a brief period during World War II when it belonged to the United Synagogues to facilitate the number of burials needed in the area due because of the bombing raids during the Blitz. The synagogue was not directly hit, but shock waves from bombing nearby damaged the structure of the building.

The synagogue returned to its independent status in 1949 and flourished in the 1950s. On Shabbat, 100 to 200 people were present, and on the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when no seats were available, people sat on the floor in the aisles.

For many years, it also hosted the secretariat of the Stepney and Whitechapel Street Traders’ Association, representing market traders in the Petticoat Lane and Whitechapel Markets.

However, the synagogue was in decline by the 1970s. Most of the Jewish population had moved out of the East End and membership dwindled. When Stella and Jimmy Wilder, who had run Sandy’s Row, died in the late 1980s, many feared that it would go the same way as most of the 150 shuls that had once been in the East End.

The survival of Sandy’s Row Synagogue may be a lesson for other synagogues in the City and the East End (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The synagogue struggled to muster a minyan in the 1990s and came close to closing down. The remaining members formed a board of management and membership is slowly increasing once again, with a new Jewish generation moving back into the East End.

The current membership of Sandys Row Synagogue is around 200 and expanding due to a new influx of younger members moving into the area after a long period of decline. The president is Harvey Rifkind.

Mincha or afternoon services take place every weekday except Friday. Shabbat services are held fortnightly, led by Rabbi Mendy Korer of Chabad. In recent years, there have been five weddings and two bar mitzvahs at the synagogue.

The Jewish Chronicle suggested last year that if Sandy’s Row can survive and thrive, there are lessons for other synagogues with similar profiles – at risk, historic, small shuls within neighbourhoods that were formerly inhabited by a much larger Jewish population than exists today.

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