25 November 2022

Milton Keynes Synagogue
celebrates 20 years in 2022,
but dates back to 1978

The Aron haKodesh or Ark and the Bimah in Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue … the synagogue opened in 2002, but the community dates from 1978 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

In recent weeks, I have been getting to know Beit Echud, the Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue (MKDRS), attending some services, and public events and getting to know many of the members.

There was a mediaeval Jewish community in Newport Pagnell during the reign of Henry II.

The Revd Moses Margoliouth (1818-1881), who was the Vicar of Little Linford when he died, was, perhaps, the most controversial figure of Jewish birth to have lived in the Milton Keynes area.

He was born to Jewish parents in Suwalki in Poland and pursued Talmudic and rabbinical studies in Pryerosl, Grodno, and Kalwarya in the hope of becoming a rabbi. After converting to Christianity, he was ordained an Anglican priest in the Church of Ireland in 1844, and for a time was Vicar of Glasnevin in Dublin. His many books included Fundamental Principles of Modern Judaism Investigated (1843), The Jews in Great Britain (1846), A Pilgrimage to the Land of my Fathers (1850, 2 volumes), History of the Jews in Great Britain (1851, 3 volumes), and many Biblical commentaries and books on Hebrew poetry.

Sir Herbert Leon (1850-1926), who lived at Bletchley Park, was one of the richest and most influential Jews in Britain during his lifetime. But he was a secularist and humanist, and had no interest in fostering a Jewish community in the Milton Keynes area. It was not until World War II, when Jewish families evacuated from London to the Milton Keynes area, that Jewish communities were established in Bletchley and Haversham.

The very extensive Jewish contribution to the code-breaking activities at Bletchley Park during World War II are described in the their book by Michael A Kushner and Martin Sugarman. However, these early congregations closed around 1946-1947.

The first Shabbat Morning Service was held in Milton Keynes synagogue 20 years ago on 20 August 2002 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The present community in Milton Keynes has a more recent history. The first Shabbat Morning Service was held in the synagogue 20 years ago, on 20 August 2002, although the congregation was formed 44 years ago in 2018, and the story of the present Jewish community in Milton Keynes dates back 45 years to 1977.

Beit Echud is a small and friendly congregation based in Milton Keynes and it attracts members from a wide area in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. MKDRS is affiliated to the Movement for Reform Judaism, although the membership represents a wide spectrum of religious observance. Some members are in mixed-faith relationships and non-Jewish partners are welcome.

The story of the community dates back to 1977, when Malcolm and Maureen Pruskin moved to Milton Keynes in 1977 and found that there was no established Jewish community here. Maureen Pruskin’s mother, Kitty Morris, wrote to the Jewish Chronicle inviting anyone in the area interested in forming a Reform Synagogue community to get in touch.

The response was impressive, and the first service was led by Rabbi Larry Tabick on 4 March 1978. Guests included representatives from the parent organisation, the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, and soon Milton Keynes Reform Synagogue was up and going. Rabbi Larry Tabick’s wife, Rabbi Jackie Tabick, was born Jacqueline Hazel Acker in Dublin in 1948 and she became Britain’s first woman rabbi in 1975.

Beit Echud … the name means ‘A House United’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Initially, services and social events were held in members’ homes but, as numbers increased, the congregation began using hired halls for events. They were given use of one of the rescued Czechoslovak scrolls for services. After World War II, about 1,500 Torah scrolls, formerly belonging to destroyed Jewish communities, were brought to London. Those that were still usable were distributed for use in small communities.

In time, the name was changed to Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue to reflect a growing membership of people from surrounding areas like Leighton Buzzard, Northampton and Bedford.

Milton Keynes Council allowed the congregation priority use of Tinkers Bridge small meeting place in 1998, and regular services and social events were held there for about 10 years. Rooms at the Open University were hired for our children’s Jewish education classes on Sunday mornings, and a small, short-lived satellite community was founded in Kettering.

At the same time, members of the synagogue became involved in interfaith matters, connecting the Jewish community with the wider community in Milton Keynes. To this day, the synagogue remains a valued and active member of the rich faith life of the city, with representatives on Milton Keynes Council of Faiths and several other community organisations.

A mezuzah fixed to a door post in the synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Rabbi William Wolff was appointed as the community rabbi In November 1990. He was the first rabbi to live in Milton Keynes and stayed for three years.

He was born in Berlin in 1927, and escaped with his family to Amsterdam in 1933 and then to London in 1939. He was ordained in 1984 and served as associate rabbi of the West London Synagogue (1984-1986), rabbi/minister, Newcastle Reform Synagogue (1986-1990), Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue (1990-1993), Reading Liberal Jewish Community (early 1990s), Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue (1993-1997) and Wimbledon and District Synagogue (1997-2002). He returned to Germany in 2002 to work with the Germany’s growing Jewish community.

When Rabbi Wolff moved from Milton Keynes, the community began fundraising for a new building so that all events could be held under the same roof. The congregation was registered as a charity on 23 September 1996.

After a brief move to Shenley Brook End Meeting Place, the dream of a new building became a reality. Under the leadership of the chair Len Sharpstone, a building committee was formed, a plot of land in Giffard Park was found under the reserve sites provision. Two years later, a 60 tonne crane and eight lorries carrying the building sections arrived at the site on Wednesday 15 May 2002.

By the end of the day, the synagogue building had taken shape and the first service took place there on Saturday 17 August 2002, with the Bar Mitzvah of Jonathon Dryer.

A Menorah traced in the brickwork of Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The dedication service of the new synagogue on Sunday 6 April 2003 was attended by many invited guests from the local community. The service was conducted by the late Rabbi William Wolff, then Regional Rabbi in North-East Germany and later honorary Chief Reform Rabbi of Germany, and Rabbi Sammy Rodrigues-Pereira, Rabbi Emeritus of Hatch End Reform Synagogue in north London.

The guests included Andrew Gilbert, chair of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain (now the Movement for Reform Judaism), the Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, the Mayor of Milton Keynes, leaders of Reform and Liberal Judaism, interfaith representatives, and other local dignitaries.

Rabbi Wolff declared: ‘How thrilled I am! I was proud of you, now veterans and your dogged determination. I had the privilege of being part of it. By comparison with your beginnings, this is a cathedral, the House of God.’

Holy books and prayer books … a book shelf in Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Barry Norman, who had chaired the building committee, became the chair of the synagogue. Rabbi Aviva Kippen was persuaded to come to Milton Keynes as rabbi, but there were problems with her contract, the appointment fell through, and eventually she moved to Melbourne Jewish Community.

Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu was appointed part-time rabbi in February 2006, the synagogue’s first rabbi since the new building was completed.

She remained for 10 years before moving on to Shaarei Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue in Stoke Newington, where she is now the senior rabbi.

She also lectures in Leo Baeck College, where she was ordained in 2004 and which has trained generations of Liberal, Reform and Masorti rabbis.

Beit Echud, ‘A House United’ … a hanging in Milton Keynes Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Meanwhile, Barry Norman died in a car crash in August 2005 and he was succeeded by Sarah Friedman, who was asked by the council members in 2006 to produce some designs for an Aron haKodesh or Ark.

The community chose a new design in 2007 and the new Ark with its ‘Tree of Life’ decoration was installed in time for Rosh haShanah in 2008. The matching bimah and lectern in memory of Len Sharpstone were added in time for the 30th anniversary celebration on 22 November 2008, conducted by Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu. The community celebrated is 40th anniversary on 1 July 2018 with an open day. The synagogue building was 20 years old this year, and the anniversary was marked with a special kiddush on 20 August 2022.

At the last agm, Martin Neville and Lou Tribus became co-chairs of MKDRS when Priscilla Durrance stood down as chair and succeeded Sarah Friedman as Treasurer.

The Torah scrolls in Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue include scroll No 970 (left) from Pacov in the Czech Republic (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

One of the treasures of Milton Keynes synagogue is scroll No 970 from Pacov in the Czech Republic.

During World War II, 1,564 Torah scrolls were taken by the Nazis from synagogues throughout Bohemia and Moravia. They survived the war and were stored in an old dilapidated synagogue in Prague. They were bought in 1964 and moved to Westminster Synagogue in London, where the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust was set up. The Trust repaired the scrolls and loans them out to synagogues around the world.

Today Pacov in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands has about 5,000 inhabitants today. There are no resident Jews there, but it once had a thriving Jewish community that can be traced back to the late 16th century. The first prayer room was probably in a private home. A freestanding classical synagogue was built ca 1823 and later rebuilt in the neo-Romanesque style.

The number of Jews in Pacov peaked around 1880 at over 200. Numbers slowly declined after that as many left for bigger cities, mainly Prague, or for foreign countries.

During the Holocaust, the 97 Jews then living in Pacov were transported to Theresienstadt in November 1942, and later to Auschwitz, where all but six of them were eventually murdered – the youngest victim was two-year-old Helenka Schecková, who was a two-year-old at the time. The town’s Rabbi Nathan Guttmann died in Auschwitz too; his daughter Nelly survived and now lives in Israel.

The residents of Pacov set up Tikkun Pacov, an organisation to convert the old synagogue into a museum and memorial to the Jews of Pacov. They raised money to buy the building in 2018, and are now working on repairing the building. A delegation retuned to Milton Keynes last week after visiting Pacov with the Pacov scroll. When the synagogue first received the scroll in 1985, the community was told it was written in 1927. But Rabbi Kevin Hale, a specialist scribe in Czech scrolls, informed the delegates that it was actually written before 1765, making it more that 250 years old.

I was back in Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue earlier this week to hear Dr Vivi Lachs talk about her new book London Yiddishtown as part of the synagogue’s adult education programme, and I have been invited to speak next year on synagogues I have visited throughout Europe.

Shabbat Shalom

Torah crowns and mantles on the scrolls in the Aron haKodesh or Ark in Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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