19 May 2023

The Central Synagogue in
the heart of the West End has
‘a touch of cinematic glamour’

The Central Synagogue on Great Portland Street is in the heart of London’s West End (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

In recent years, I have been visiting many of the historic synagogues in the East End of London. But it would be wrong to give the impression that the East End has the only historic synagogues in London.

The Central Synagogue, for example, is in the heart of the West End, on Great Portland Street and Hallam Street, mid-way between Oxford Circus and Regent’s Park.

The Central Synagogue has been at this location, in one form or another for almost 170 years. The present synagogue was rebuilt in 1958 after the original building was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1941. But there has been a synagogue on this site since 1855, and the present synagogue, designed by the architect by C Edmund Wilford, is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year.

The story of the Central Synagogue is an part of the history of Anglo-Jewry. It has played a full part in the life and activities of the Jewish Community in London, and the archives are full of outstanding figures who have contributed to the welfare and prosperity of both the Jewish community and the wider community.

Jews began migrating to the West End at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. But, until well into 19th century, Jews in the West End could only attend the long-established older synagogues in the City of London, such as the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place. The Reform community broke this tradition in 1842 with a modest synagogue in Burton Street, Bloomsbury, that then moved to Margaret Street in 1849.

The Great Synagogue feared losing members in the West End to this new congregation, and agreed in 1850 to fund a new branch synagogue in the West End. The site selected lay behind 43-47 Great Portland Street.

The new ‘Branch Synagogue’ was consecrated in 1855. The Great Synagogue remained responsible for the administration and the supervision of religious services. Membership grew and the need for a permanent synagogue became apparent when the building proved too small and could not be extended.

A Great Synagogue subcommittee chaired by Sir Anthony de Rothschild (1810-1876) was appointed in 1866 to find a new site nearby and build afresh for 800 worshippers, with two ministers’ houses attached. They promptly secured the houses at 133-141 Great Portland Street.

The committee chose as the architect Nathan Solomon Joseph (1834-1909), son-in-law of Dr Nathan Marcus Adler, Chief Rabbi and founder of the United Synagogue. Joseph is regarded as ‘the most prominent of the first generation of Anglo-Jewish synagogue architects,’ and his other works include the Great Victoria Street Synagogue, Belfast (1870), the Garnethill Synagogue, Glasgow (1878), and the United Synagogue Cemetery, Willesden (1873-1874). He was a social reformer and from its foundation he was the architect to the Guinness Trust.

The foundation stone of the first synagogue on the present site was laid on 18 March 1869 by Baron Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879), and it was named the ‘Central Synagogue’. The construction of the ornate building was completed in a year, and the Central Synagogue was consecrated by Chief Rabbi Adler on 7 April 1870. It was established as an independent congregation on its present site in Great Portland Street.

Nathan Solomon Joseph drew up a Moorish design in 1867, arguing that Gothic and Classical styles were both unsuitable, whereas the Moresque was well adapted to an ‘ecclesiastical’ building yet had advantages of ‘elasticity’ and economy. He was asked to present an alternative Italianate version, but the original was preferred, with modifications. That synagogue was built to his design in 1869-1870.

The Central Synagogue was described as the first thoroughly Oriental-style synagogue, not just in Britain but beyond, although descriptions of it bring to mind the Jerusalem Synagogue and the Spanish Synagogue in Prague and the Great Synagogue om Dohany Street, Budapest. The Great Portland Street front was an eccentric confection in brick and two types of stone, culminating at the north end in a tower-like feature over an entrance porch with a horseshoe arch.

The interior, spacious, high and light, faced south like the present building, culminating in a richly decorated apsidal space for the Holy Ark or Aron haKodesh. Windows and arches were round-headed, with an orientalising horseshoe profile above the arches over the galleries, and round clerestory lights incorporating Star-of-David tracery.

Cast-iron columns, painted at first and marble-clad from 1876, carried the galleries and roof, which was divided by ribs. The rabbis’ houses at the back on 36-40 Hallam Street survive, and their two-tone brickwork and Moorish detail having a hint of the Mezquita or Great Mosque in Cordoba.

Embellishments took place over the years, the grandest being the replacement of the central almemar with an elaborate new one in marble, presented in 1928 by the 2nd Lord Bearsted in memory of his parents. Joseph’s original almemar (or bimah) was moved to the Margate synagogue.

The synagogue was destroyed in bombing on 10 May 1941. A year earlier, permission had been granted for it to be used as an assembly centre for temporary refuge for people whose homes had been destroyed. Fortunately, no one was in the building at the time.

A temporary synagogue with 550 seats was built in 1946, and the congregation returned to the site in 1948.

A menorah and inscription over the Great Portland Street entrance to the Central Synagogue in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

It was decided in May 1955 to rebuild a fine permanent replacement synagogue on the original site, and building work began on 4 February 1956. As the new building was being planned, there were pressures from the United Synagogue to abandon the proposals in favour of a new synagogue being planned at Marble Arch.

However, the Great Universal Stores magnate Sir Isaac Wolfson (1897-1991) and his son, the philanthropist Leonard Wolfson (1927-2010), Lord Wolfson, lived in Portland Place. They offered £25,000 towards rebuilding the Central Synagogue, which meant that, with war-damage compensation, the new building would cost the congregation very little.

The foundation stone of the new Central Synagogue was laid by Sir Isaac Wolfson and the new Central Synagogue was consecrated by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Israel Brodie, on 23 March 1958.

The present synagogue was designed by C Edmund Wilford & Sons in 1956-1958, who was appointed the architect at the suggestion of Leonard Wolfson. Wilford had made a name with cinemas before World War II. He had no known connection with the Jewish community, but may have worked for the Wolfsons’ company, Great Universal Stores.

Wilford and his assistants were directed to look at synagogues in London and perhaps also Venice. T Tersons Ltd built a conventional, dignified building in 1956-1958 that corresponded closely with its predecessor but it also had what has been described as ‘an internal touch of cinematic glamour.’

The Great Portland Street façade is mainly clad in Portland stone, but the plinth and the columns flanking the high and hooded windows are of red Swedish granite. At the north end, the entrance doors are set back in a high frame clad in gold mosaic. There is also an entrance on Hallam Street that now serves as the principal entrance.

The galleried interior gives a powerful impression of height and restrained opulence. The focus is on the ark at the south end, which stands in an outer surround of red mosaic embellished by flanking lions on tall pillars of gold and an inner frame of Sienna marble. The bronze doors on the Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark and other bronze work was made by the Brent Metal Company, and is strong, spiky and characteristically 1950s. The other main feature is the almemar or bimah, clad in red marble, with attached panels carved in low relief.

Over a 15-year period, the synagogue windows were filled with colourful glass made by Lowndes & Drury to designs by David Hillman. There is a hall below the worship area, and the circulation spaces including the stairs to the galleries are generous.

A centenary service on 22 November 1970 was conducted by the Emeritus Chief Rabbi, Sir Israel Brodie, Rabbi Cyril Shine and the Revd Simon Hass. A special service was held in 2008 to mark the Golden Jubilee of the reconsecration of the Central Synagogue.

The Central Synagogue holds regular weekday and Shabbat services, as well as a range of social events throughout the year. Non-members must pre-book for services.

The Central Synagogue is keen to build up a strong young community again, and recently introduced a new children’s service format so that children of all ages are catered for. There are special services next week, from 25 to 27 May to celebrate Shavuot.

Shabbat Shalom

The Central Synagogue on Great Portland Streetis said to have ‘an internal touch of cinematic glamour’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (41) 19 May 2023

The Ascended Christ, Christ Pantocrator, in the Dome of Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Ascension Day was yesterday (18 May 2023), but this is still the Sixth Week of Easter. Eastertide continues throughout this week and next week, until the Day of Pentecost.

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (19 May) also celebrates Saint Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, Restorer of Monastic Life (988).

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Looking at a depiction of the Ascension in images or stained glass windows in a church or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Church of the Ascension (Analipsi Church) in Georgioupoli stands in its own gardens off the main square and behind the seafront (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of the Ascension (Analipsi), Georgioupoli:

The most photographed landmark in Georgioupoli on the north coast of Crete is the tiny white chapel dedicated to Aghios Nikolaos at the end of a rocky artificial breakwater that juts out into the bay between the harbour and the beach.

It is popular with tourists who are encouraged to make their way out to the chapel and to light a candle there, and sometimes it is a popular venue for weddings, although it is difficult to imagine how a bride could make here way there in a full wedding dress, even if she used a boat and the waves were calm.

But tourists who spend most of their time at the seafront in this resort between Rethymnon and Chania are unlikely to notice the principal church in the town, the Analipsi Church (Εκκλησία Ανάληψη) or the Church of the Ascension.

This church is back from the seafront, away from the main square and shops, and set in its own gardens. On the outside, it is a confident statement of Greek and Orthodox identity in this town, built it has a greater capacity than the needs of a small resident community.

The church is cruciform in shape, has two tall bell towers, and porches on three sides.

Inside, the dome and the frescoes covering the walls are an almost-overpowering example of contemporary Greek iconography at its best – modern in style and approach, yet maintaining a clear continuity with Byzantine traditions.

At the base of the dome, the four spandrels between the arches and the dome are filled with triangular images of the four evangelists.

One section of the north wall in the nave has four panels depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ: Christ’s Agony in Gethsemane (top left); his arrest in the Garden (top right); his trial before Pilate (bottom left); his humiliation by the soldiers (bottom right).

A number of frescoes in the church depict the scenes of well-known miracles, including the miracle of the loaves and fishes; the healing of the paralytic man; the healing of the young blind man; and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Two linked scenes tell the story of the execution of Saint John the Baptist: Salome asking for the head of Saint John the Baptist, and the beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

The many scenes from the life of Christ include the Presentation in the Temple; the Transfiguration; his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; and the Last Supper.

Among the saints seen on the wall of the church are the Emperor Constantine and his mother, Saint Helen, discovering the True Cross.

Often the west walls of Greek churches traditionally depict a judgment scene. The doors out of the Church are guarded by two archangels, the Archangel Michael and the Archangel Gabriel. Above them is a scene depicting the Dormition of the Virgin Mary.

Inside Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 16: 20-23 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 20 ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. 22 So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23 On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.’

Saint John in a spandrel beneath the dome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Ascension.’ USPG’s Global Theologian, the Revd Dr Peniel Rajkumar, reflected on the Ascension in the prayer diary on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Friday 19 May 2023):

Let us pray for theologians worldwide. May their study of the scriptures expand our horizons and deepen our faith.


Almighty God,
who raised up Dunstan to be a true shepherd of the flock,
a restorer of monastic life
and a faithful counsellor to those in authority:
give to all pastors the same gifts of your Holy Spirit
that they may be true servants of Christ and of all his people;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

God, shepherd of your people,
whose servant Dunstan revealed the loving service of Christ
in his ministry as a pastor of your people:
by this eucharist in which we share
awaken within us the love of Christ
and keep us faithful to our Christian calling;
through him who laid down his life for us,
but is alive and reigns with you, now and for ever.

Four panels depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Great Commission … an unusual post-Resurrection scene for a fresco in a Greek Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org