08 September 2023
During my recent self-guided walking tour of Jewish Birmingham, I realised that the surviving Jewish heritage of Birmingham is largely Victorian.
The finest example of this Victorian heritage is Singers Hill Synagogue, now Birmingham’s main synagogue, which was founded in 1856. Its predecessor around the corner is the former Severn Street Synagogue at 60 Severn Street.
The foundation stone of Severn Street synagogue was laid on 29 May 1809 and the building was completed in 1813. After that synagogue was completed, it was wrecked and pillaged in religious riots. But it was largely rebuilt and subsequently enlarged in Greek Revival style by the architect Richard Tutin (1796-1832) in 1823-1827, and it was refurbished in 1851.
By then, there were 780 Jews living in Birmingham, of whom about a quarter were recent arrivals from Poland and Russia. They were active mainly in four areas of economic life: glaziers, slipper makers, tailors and traders.
A schism developed within the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation in 1852, leading to the formation in 1853 of the rival though short-lived Wrottesley Street Synagogue. Unity was restored in 1855, and the two congregations were reunited at the opening of the synagogue in Singers Hill in 1856.
Today the building identified by local historians as the former synagogue is in the heart of Birmingham’s China Town. However, the red-brick and terracotta building is late Victorian, clearly not the purpose-built Greek-revival synagogue designed by the architect Thomas Norton of Birmingham.
By the early 1850s, the Jewish population of Birmingham had increased to about 700 people or 140 families, and the synagogue council was ‘energetic and out for change’. Synagogue finances were revised, but attempts to develop a suitable system caused controversy, and the level of membership payment determined whether members had the right to vote and where they sat in the synagogue.
Quarrels were rife and on occasion were referred to the Chief Rabbi or Sir Moses Montefiore for arbitration. In 1851, the president of the community begged to be relieved of the task of solving disputes, and the treasurer volunteered to take over the task. Insults were exchanged freely between the synagogue officers: a Mr JC Cohen grumbled about his seat all the year through, and he was not satisfied by being given the position of president on Yom Kippur that year.
The council was constantly aggrieved by The Reader, the Revd Lewis Chapman, and often urged him to make himself ‘agreeable and useful’ or told him to leave. He was accused of being lax in his duties, singing when he should chant, and even of being ‘violent’ once at a wedding.
Although the council raised his salary from £70 to £100, he continued to find ways to supplement his income, running a clothes shop on the side, coaching private pupils during school hours, and taking in boarders.
The synagogue was organised almost like an exclusive club. Privileged or ‘free’ members formed the first category of the wealthier. They paid an entrance fee, were voted for in a select committee and could be blackballed. This elite had the franchise and all rights. The second category, the seat-holders, rented seats but had no privileges. The strangers had no seats.
The assessment system was in place by 1851. Each member was levied according to his means and a collector was engaged to collect the money. Everybody complained from time to time, even the wealthiest, the only exception being the public-spirited Isaac Blanckensee (1807-1871), a successful jeweller, who asked to have his assessment raised.
Those who fell into arrears were relegated to a back seat, some were even excluded from buying kosher meat, and those who bought it on their behalf were fined 10 shillings.
Discontent was rife and a letter to the Chief Rabbi in 1853 complaining of the ‘supremacy of money’ and that ‘poor Jews worshipped almost on sufferance.’ This unpopular system was probably one cause of the first brief division in the congregation in 1853. A group led by AT Louis and Isaac Blanckensee set up a separate synagogue in Wrottesley Street, and Lewis Chapman left with the dissidents.
The rift was healed in 1856 and the Wrottesley Street Congregation, including Chapman, returned to the newly-built Singers Hill Synagogue, and it remained the only synagogue in Birmingham for many years.
By the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population was again increasing rapidly, as persecution in Russia brought a new generation to Birmingham. By 1900, the city’s Jewish population had increased to around 3,200.
The newcomers found Singers Hill ‘cold and unfriendly,’ referring to it as the englische shul. They wanted a building where they could worship in a different style. Around 1901, a group of about 90 people set up the Wrottesley Street Beth haMedrash (house of study).
Another Beth haMedrash in Holloway Head had been registered for worship in 1894 and became known as the New Synagogue.
The governing council of Singers Hill was keen to retain its influence over the community, however. Its archive contains several versions of agreements between Singers Hill and the Wrottesley Street Beth haMedrash, which require the Beth haMedrash to apply annually to Singers Hill for the right to hold services, among other conditions.
The new synagogues reflected the class divisions within the community. The area between Hurst Street and Holloway Head was known as the working class Jewish area of the city. But by this time, some of the more prosperous members of the congregation had moved out to the fashionable areas of Edgbaston and Moseley.
A member of the community interviewed for an oral history project in the 1980s recalled , ‘There was east side Birmingham and West Side Birmingham, believe me there was! There was the ‘Hagley Rd’ set and the rest of Birmingham Jews. The Hagley Rd set had got ‘it’ and the rest were nobody. There wasn’t any mixing, none.’
The Birmingham Beth haMedrash and Talmud Torah used the Wrottesley Street building for worship from 1901 to 1928. It was the precursor of the present-day Birmingham Central Synagogue, which acquired its own purpose-built home at 133 Pershore Road, Edgbaston. This was designed by the architects Hurley, Robinson & Son in 1959-1961.
The congregation sold the synagogue for redevelopment in 2013, and downsized to the remodelled communal hall. Only a few of the important series of 44 frosted and etched glass windows designed by RL Rothschild and made by Coventry Glass could be reused. The rest were dispersed.
Meanwhile, the former Wrottesley Street Synagogue is the Chung Ying Chinese Restaurant, in the heart of Birmingham’s China Town. It was opened in 1981 by husband and wife team Siu Chung and Yuk Ying Wong. It was the first Chinese restaurant in the area now known as China Town.
China Town is now one of the most popular and thriving parts of Birmingham and Chung Ying Cantonese was the catalyst in this development. Today, it one of the best-known restaurants in Birmingham.
We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIII, 3 September 2023). The calendar of the Church of England today (8 September 2023) celebrates the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.
This week, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:
1, Looking at a church on the route of the annual Ride + Stride, organised by Buckinghamshire Historic Churches Trust and taking place tomorrow, 9 September 2023;
2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.
Saint Mary’s Church, Shenley Church End:
The annual Ride + Stride organised by Buckinghamshire Historic Churches Trust takes place tomorrow, 9 September 2023. Participants may be cyclists, walkers, horse-riders or drivers of mobility scooters. They can be of any age, but under-13s must be accompanied by an adult. All denominations are welcome.
Participants may visit as many churches as they like, planning their own route, and are asked to seek sponsorship from friends, relations and colleagues: so much per church visited or a lump sum. https://ridestride.org/
Ride + Stride offers opportunities find out what lies behind the churchyard gates of Buckinghamshire’s many churches and chapels.
Ride + Stride is open to walkers as well as horse-riders and cyclists. It always takes place on the second Saturday of September, between 10 am and 6 pm, and aims to raise money for the repair and restoration of churches and chapels of any Christian denomination in Buckinghamshire.
Half the money raised goes to the church or chapel of the participant’s choice, and the other half is added to a general fund administered by the Buckinghamshire Historic Churches Trust.
Churches are encouraged to make applications to the trust for grants to help with church repairs and restoration. Last year’s Ride + Stride event raised more than £26,610. Last year, the trust awarded grants totalling £28,000 to 11 churches that applied for funding to assist with both major and minor works.
My photographs this week are from some of the churches taking part in this year’s Ride + Stride tomorrow. Today is the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and my photographs this morning of a participating church are of Saint Mary’s Church, Shenley Church End.
The parish belongs to the Watling Valley Ecumenical Partnership, including Shenley Church End, Loughton, Tattenhoe, Two Mile Ash and Furzton. The church is Grade I listed.
The Revd Sharon Grenham-Thompson was the Lead Minister at Saint Mary’s until recently. The Revd Ruth Harley is the curate. Sunday Services are: 10 am Holy Communion, first and third Sundays; Morning Worship, second Sundays; All-Age service, fourth Sundays.
Matthew 1: 1-16, 18-23 (NRSVA):
1 An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
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 ‘Harvest.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday. To find out more, visit www.uspg.org.uk
The USPG Prayer Diary today (8 September 2023) invites us to pray in these words:
We pray for the work, ministry and people of the Diocese of Kurunagala in Sri Lanka.
Almighty and everlasting God,
who stooped to raise fallen humanity
through the child–bearing of blessed Mary:
grant that we, who have seen your glory
revealed in our human nature
and your love made perfect in our weakness,
may daily be renewed in your image
and conformed to the pattern of your Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
The Post Communion Prayer:
God most high,
whose handmaid bore the Word made flesh:
we thank you that in this sacrament of our redemption
you visit us with your Holy Spirit
and overshadow us by your power;
strengthen us to walk with Mary the joyful path of obedience
and so to bring forth the fruits of holiness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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