30 June 2023
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.
We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and Sunday last was the Third Sunday after Trinity. Before today (30 June 2023) becomes a busy day, I am taking some time for prayer, reading and reflection.
Over these weeks after Trinity Sunday, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:
1, Looking at relevant images or stained glass window in a church, chapel 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.
Church of the Most Holy Trinity, Bunclody, Co Wexford:
The Church of the Most Holy Trinity Church, the Roman Catholic parish church in Bunclody, Co Wexford, was built in 1970 on the site of a townhouse of the Maxwell-Barry family, who had given the town its previous name, Newtownbarry.
The site of the church was previously the parochial house and its gardens. This was an 18th century house built as a lodge on the south side of the Mall for members of the Maxwell-Barry family, and was later enlarged. The Comerford family home, the Mall House, stood diagonally opposite, on the north side of the Mall.
At the end of the 18th century and during the first quarter of the 19th century, a barn in Chapel Lane, which links Irish Street and Ryland Street, served as a chapel for the Roman Catholics of Newtownbarry.
The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, was built in 1825-1826 and designed by Richard Pierce (1801-1854), a Wexford architect who later became closely associated with the work of AWN Pugin in Co Wexford.
The FCJ Convent was built beside the convent in 1861, but both are now demolished and the convent has been replaced by a new school.
The Calvary in the churchyard was blessed in 1874 by Bishop Michael Warren, and the sermon was preached by Father James Cullen, founder of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. A 1798 monument was erected in the churchyard in 1875.
The Maxwell-Barry townhouse had been bought by the Diocese of Ferns in 1873 as a residence for the Catholic priests of the parish. This became the site of a new church built in 1970. The granite cross near the entrance of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity once stood on the façade of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, where it was erected in 1854.
Bunclody also has a Church of Ireland parish church and once had a Methodist church. Saint Mary’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church, was built in 1775 by the Maxwell Barry family and later enlarged. The Sunday School was built in 1800, and rebuilt and enlarged in 1990.
The restaurant known as ‘The Chantry’ was originally a Methodist chapel and manse in Bunclody, and was built ca 1812. A plaque at the door commemorates the visits of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, to Bunclody in 1769 and 1787.
The Channel in the Mall is a familiar landmark in the centre of Bunclody and part of an early urban landscape initiative. It was cut ca 1825, incorporating an earlier channel from 1775. It was provided by the Maxwell-Barry family to supply properties in The Mall with clean water through a system of underground ducts.
Lime trees were planted along the side of this small stream in the early 1800s, but some have been replaced in recent years. The water comes from the millrace, which in turn is diverted from the River Clody. The waterway is lined on each side with granite stone, and there are three small granite footbridges.
A sculpture by the stream, ‘Leaves and Spheres,’ is by the artist Declan Breen, a nephew of a former parish priest, Monsignor Richard Breen. The leaves are ‘blown on the wind; and made from bronze representing the lime trees above.
Matthew 8: 1-4 (NRSVA):
1 When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; 2 and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ 3 He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4 Then Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’
The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Freeing people from the Traps of Human Trafficking.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.
The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (30 June 2023) invites us to pray:
We pray for governments, agencies and individuals who seek to prevent Human Trafficking and who support survivors. We pray that we too may play our part in ending Human Trafficking.
you have broken the tyranny of sin
and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts
whereby we call you Father:
give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,
that we and all creation may be brought
to the glorious liberty of the children of God;
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.
O God, whose beauty is beyond our imagining
and whose power we cannot comprehend:
show us your glory as far as we can grasp it,
and shield us from knowing more than we can bear
until we may look upon you without fear;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
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