30 June 2023
needs tender loving care
if it’s going to be saved
I have known Coventry since my late teens, since I first visited the city in 1970. That year the Jewish community in Coventry celebrated the centenary of the synagogue on Barras Lane, which had been built in 1870.
But the synagogue never celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2020. It had fallen into disrepair and had been abandoned and sold. When I visited Coventry yesterday, the former synagogue, on the western fringes of the city centre, and former rabbi’s house beside it, looked a sad and lonely sight.
The Jewish history of Coventry dates back over 800 years. The first reference to a Jew living in Coventry in 1194, when Elias, a tax gatherer, was in Coventry during the reign of Richard I. Soon after, Antera of Coventry, a female Jewish tax gatherer, was a party to a suit involving a house in Coventry in 1219-1220.
In neighbouring Warwick, the Jewish community had given its name by the mid-13th century to ‘Le Juerie’, which is now known as Jury Street, a corruption of Jewry, and there was a Jew’s house in Castle Street. The Jewish community in Warwick disappeared in 1282, eight years before the expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290.
The house associated with Antera of Coventry in 1219-1220 may have been the same house that was still identified in Coventry in 1467 as having once belonged to the Jews (quod quondam. fuit Judeorum).
Ezra Stiles, President of Yale in 1778-1795, refers in his diary to a family living in Coventry in the 1750s who had converted to Judaism in London, and observed they were more strict in their religious observance than Jews by birth.
The first indication of modern Jewish life in Coventry is about 1775, when Isaac Cohen moved to Coventry. He is said to have been the first in a small community of Ashkenazim who were living in Coventry by the early 19th century.
The Jewish community in Coventry first met in the home of Isaac Cohen, a timber-framed mediaeval building in the lost Great Butcher Row. This was the home of Isaac Cohen, and was demolished in 1936. Isaac Cohen of Coventry died on 13 December 1835, aged 108, having lived in Coventry for about 60 years; his wife died before him in 1833 at the age of 101.
Later places of Jewish worship in Coventry included rooms off Derby Lane, now also demolished, Fleet Street, and, finally, in an upper room at No 16 Spon Street.
Prominent Jewish families in Coventry included the Harris family: Mary (Harris) Jessel was the mother of Sir George Jessel (1824-1883), the first Jew in Britain to be a regular member of the Privy Council and to hold high judicial office.
Coventry’s Jews were represented at the opening of the new synagogue in Severn Street, Birmingham, in 1809.
Until the 1860s, many Jewish people living in Coventry were non-resident members of Singers Hill Synagogue in Birmingham.
The Coventry Hebrew Congregation came into being in 1864, and the worshippers moved to a newly-built synagogue in Barras Lane in 1870. The congregation was then said to number about 50 men and boys. By 1881, the number of people attending services was 22, and by 1889 it was said to be impossible at times to gather the minyan or 10 adult males needed, while the regular congregation seems to have shrunk to about a dozen.
The congregation had been reduced to six contributing members by November 1890, and the synagogue closed temporarily shortly after. It reopened in 1906, but the congregation was still small and very poor.
Coventry Synagogue was built on Barras Lane in 1870, with the rabbi’s house on the upper floor in the south-west corner.
The building was designed by Thomas Naden (1824-1916) of Birmingham, later president of the Birmingham Architectural Association. It was built on a modest scale, with a limited budget. It was built of red brick with blue brick and painted stone dressings and a plain tile roof in a simplified Romanesque style. The connected grouping of two-storeyed rabbi’s house, synagogue and vestibule face onto Barras Lane and Gloucester Street.
The Gloucester Street front has a door with a fanlight and paired, arched lights, and there are similarly paired windows directly above on the first floor level.
Inside, the synagogue was divided into bays by wooden trusses, which were cusped, had cut-out decoration and rested on stone corbels with detached columns. The Aron haKodesh or ark of painted and gilded wood was in the centre of the north-east (liturgical east) wall, with pilasters on either side of a recess and an arch above with a central oculus window with a stained-glass image of the luhot (Ten Commandments) and a Star of David.
The bimah or reading platform was immediately in front. There were timber pews on either side of the bimah and in the gallery. The 20th century stained glass windows were by Hardman Studios, the pre-eminent stained-glass studios in Birmingham, and some of them were removed when the synagogue closed. The building also had a mikveh (ritual bath) in the basement.
Synagogue services were suspended for many years during World War II because of heavy aerial bombing of Coventry and the evacuation of many people.
There was a post-war recovery in the Jewish community in Coventry, and the Jewish population numbered about 240 in 1964. In the synagogue, GN Jackson carried out post-war alterations to the gallery and rebuilt the porch and vestibule that year.
The synagogue on Barras Lane had been at the centre of the Jewish life in Coventry for over a century when it celebrated its centenary in September 1970, receiving congratulations from Queen Elizabeth II and President Zalman Shazar of Israel.
Coventry Jewish Reform Community was formed in October 1993, and for several years it shared the facilities of Barras Lane Synagogue with the Coventry Hebrew Congregation.
However, numbers continued to decline in the Orthodox community, But the congregation had dwindled by 1999 and running costs were exceeding donations. The synagogue ceased holding regular services by 2003 and membership merged with Solihull and District Hebrew Congregation. The building gradually fell into disuse and disrepair.
The sharing arrangement had come to an end and the synagogue finally closed 15 years ago in 2008. The Reform community now holds its services at the Friends’ Meeting House (Quakers) in Coventry and in members’ homes.
The building was designated a Grade II Listed Building on 18 June 2009, because it was a good surviving example of a rare Victorian provincial synagogue, it was largely intact with its original seating, ark alcove and bimah, and because of its well-handled architectural treatment, with a light and spacious interior and appropriate embellishments.
However, the building quickly deteriorated. Dry rot caused extensive damage, the whole floor had rotted and collapsed, the bathroom and a kitchen were gone. The synagogue was sold ten years ago in 2013 to an Israeli-born businessman, who had plans to restore the building, reopen it as a functioning synagogue and to host school visits.
Avi Tordjmann took on the task of restoring the Barras Lane synagogue for use by the community. He refitted the Rabbi’s house, and had hopes to start work on repairing the prayer hall, and spent two years clearing away debris and waste. He told CoventryLive: ‘In a new age it doesn’t have to be for one religion – it can be for the whole community.’
But as I walked the former synagogue and the former rabbi’s house yesterday, the buildings looked empty, forlorn and abandoned. I caught a glimpse of the former glory of the interior in the sunlight through one of the remaining stained-glass windows inside. But the only sign of the former use of these buildings is a faded and sun-bleached mezuzah affixed to the doorpost of the rabbi’s house, tthe Hebrew letter ש still visible. Curiously, I noticed, its position follows the tradition of Most Sephardi Jews, and is affixed vertically, whilw Ashkenazim usually place it in a slanting position.
Hopefully, Avi Tordjmann can see through his dream of restoring his project to bring this synagogue back to its former glory.