24 May 2024

Leicester’s late Victorian
synagogue is a mixture
of Byzantine, ‘Oriental’
and Romanesque styles

The synagogue of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation on Highfield Street was designed by by Arthur Wakerley and opened in 1898 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

After visiting the Jewry Wall and the sites associated the mediaeval Jewish community in Leicester last week, I visited the synagogue of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation on Highfield Street, which dates from 1898.

After the persecutions and expulsions led by Simon de Montfort, few Jews lived in Leicester in the Middle Ages, and there is no reliable indication of the presence of even a handful of Jews in Leicester until 1849.

It is only in the mid 19th century that the Jewish presence became more important in the city. By 1850, Leicester had a small Jewish community, working mostly as shopkeepers or market traders, and often associated with clothing manufacture or tailoring.

Highfield Street Synagogue succeeded earlier synagogues on Regent Street, off London Road, and on on Crafton Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The early figures in the Jewish community in Victorian Leicester included Joseph Levy, who married Cordelia Hart in 1855. Joseph Levy was joined in 1859 by Codelia’s cousin, Israel Hart ((1835-1911), a brother of Henry Hart of Canterbury and Dover. Hart and Levy soon became involved in the growth of the mass-produced clothing trade in Leicester.

A report of the Leicester Domestic Mission Society in 1860 notes that ‘amongst the new denominations that have appeared – may be named the Spiritualists and Jews.’ That year, there was an early attempt to launch a Jewish congregation in Leicester, when a building site was bought and an appeal was issued in June 1860, seeking assistance to build a synagogue.

A year later, the Leicester Directory in 1861 refers to a ‘Jews’ Synagogue’ at Regent Street, off London Road. The Revd Israel Leventon (1841-1899) may have served the community ca 1870.

Leventon later became the reader, baal koreh, shochet, mohel, secretary and registrar of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation from 1881. He was the last minister to serve in Mary’s Abbey Synagogue in Dublin and the first minister to conduct the services at the new synagogue on Adelaide Road when it opened in 1892. He died in office in 1899; 120 direct descendants of Leventon gathered in Dublin in 2002 for a family reunion.

Leventon’s move to Dublin indicates how attempts to form a Jewish congregation were only, at the best, short-term, even in the early 1870s. Although there was a steady increase in the number of Jews in Leicester, there was no organised congregation, and it was not until the mid-1870s that the congregation finally became a reality.

Inside Highfield Street Synagogue (Photograph: Leicester Mercury/Chris Gordon)

The congregation was formally established in 1874, mainly through the efforts of Israel Hart (later Sir Israel Hart), who was a towering figure in Jewish life in Leicester.

The Jewish Chronicle reported on 6 November 1874 that Israel Hart, President of the Leicester Congregation, had been elected a town councillor in Leicester. Seven months later, it reported on 4 June 1875 that Dr Hermann Adler had visited Leicester on behalf of his father, the Chief Rabbi, Dr Nathan Adler.

Dr Adler visited the synagogue and dedicated the new residence of his host, Israel Hart. The Leicester Hebrew Congregation was formally recognised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews that autumn in 1875.

A converted warehouse on Crafton Street, Leicester, was used by the congregation from its founding until 1898. It could accommodate 90 people, including 60 men and 30 women.

By then, Sir Israel Hart had become an important figure in both Jewish community life and civic life in Leicester and went on to become the Liberal Mayor of Leicester four times (1884-1886 and 1893-1894). He encouraged urban development and gave the city a fountain and a free library.

Hart came to the rescue of the fledgling Jewish congregation in Leicester on several occasions, including a crisis in 1886 that could have brought about its virtual collapse.

The community survived, grew, and outgrew the rented premises it was using, and a new synagogue was built on the corner of Highfield Street and Upper Tichborne Street. It was funded mostly funded by donations from Israel Hart and other local Jewish business figures.

The foundation stone laid by Sir Israel Hart on 20 July 1897 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The new synagogue was designed by Arthur Wakerley (1862-1931), a celebrated local architect and politician who had been the Liberal Mayor of Leicester in 1897. Much of his work was inspired by his love of ‘the Orient’, an influence reflected in the Byzantine-style dome on top of the synagogue tower as well as the decorative details of the Turkey Café on Granby Street.

Arthur Wakerley was an enthusiastic Wesleyan lay preacher and ardent temperance worker as well as being interested in archaeology and poetry. He used the role of mayor to support a wide range of charitable and religious works and attempted to position the role of mayor as a non-party political one.

The foundation stone of the synagogue was laid on 20 July 1897 by Sir Israel Hart, with the Mayor of Leicester, Herbert Marshall, laying a second stone to mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria that year. The building was consecrated by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Hermann Adler, on 5 September 1898. By then, Hart had stepped back from many roles in the congregation, but he remained president until he died in 1911.

‘How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, thy dwelling places O Israel’ (see Numbers 24: 5) … the gilded Hebrew inscription over the entrance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

By the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Jewish community in Leicester was growing, partly thanks to the arrival of Jews refugees from the Russian empire. The 1891 census shows 12 Russians and 14 Poles, who may well have been Jews, living in Leicester and more Russian, Baltic and Polish Jews arrived in the years that followed.

The annual reports of the Board of Deputies record the number of seat-holders in Leicester. Between 1874 and 1893 the numbers varied between 21 and 31. But in 1894 there were 64, in 1895 there were 66. Although over the next 20 years the numbers dropped there were never fewer than 43, and on occasion the total reached 60.

School rooms were added to the synagogue and were named the Joseph Joseph Memorial School in 1901. The synagogue has its own mikvah. The Jewish cemetery in Leicester, dating from 1902, has 900 graves and an old prayer house, the Tahara house, built in 1928.

The Joseph Joseph Memorial Schools, also designed by Arthur Wakerley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The synagogue narrowly missed being hit during a bombing raid on 19 November 1940 when neighbouring buildings were destroyed. Among those who were killed that night were 19 members of the Jewish community, some of whom had recently arrived in Leicester to escape the London Blitz.

During World War II, a second orthodox minyan met in Leicester from 1941 until about 1947. The members of the Leicester Beth Hamedrash were mainly refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe and evacuees. It was led by Rabbi Joseph Hirsch Dunner (1913-2007), a distinguished rabbi who had escaped Nazi Germany after Kristallnacht, and who was briefly interned on the Isle of Man in 1940-1941. Services were held in his garage at St Stephen’s Road.

The Jewish population of Leicester gradually declined in the second half of the 20th century, from more than 1,000 in 1970 to about 400 at the beginning of the 21st century, including many university students.

The decorative carved corbel heads at the entrance represent the breastplate of the High Priest (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Despite its slightly exotic mixed ‘oriental’ and Byzantine appearance, the synagogue on Highfield Street was built in a less-ambitious style than Wakerley envisioned in his original plans. It is essentially a red-brick Romanesque building with a large recessed central doorway, flanked by pairs of round-headed windows.

The prominent central tower is topped by an onion-shaped dome and an octagonal lantern, all covered in copper.

The gilded Hebrew inscription over the entrance is the standard Ma Tovu, ‘How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, thy dwelling places O Israel’ (see Numbers 24: 5), a prayer by Bilaam that is used to express reverence and awe for synagogues and other places of worship, and the only prayer commonly used in Jewish services that was written by a non-Jew.

The entrance is decorated with carved corbel heads representing the hoshen or breastplate of the Cohen Gadol (High Priest), with its chains and 12 precious stones representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The vestibule has a chequer-board mosaic Star of David floor. The almost square-shaped prayer hall has a flat ceiling and a rear gallery, supported by two slender cast-iron columns with almost Egyptian-inspired capitals.

The classical Ark, of Spanish mahogany, is in a semi-octagonal apse under a round arch, decorated with stencilling in gilded Hebrew of the verse Ma Nora, ‘How awesome is this place …’ (see Genesis 28: 17). The bimah is immediately in front with brass lamps, and the pulpit is to the side.

The synagogue was listed with Grade II status in 2002. Recent grants and funding have been used to set up a visitor centre to preserve, celebrate and share Leicester’s rich Jewish heritage, to educate and to promote a greater understanding of Judaism in the multi-cultural city of Leicester.

In addition, a Progressive Synagogue was formed in Leicester in 1950. It first met in members’ homes and then in the Quaker Meeting House on Queen’s Road, before moving to its present home on Avenue Road. But more about that synagogue next Friday evening, hopefully.

• The Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer (ל״ג בעומר), also Lag B’Omer, begins at sundown tomorrow (Saturday, 25 May 2024) and ends at nightfall on Sunday (26 May 2024). According to some of the Rishonim, mediaeval rabbinical scholars, it is the day when the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 disciples came to an end. The day also marks the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, which is marked by lighting bonfires and pilgrimages to his grave in Meron. The holiday also commemorate the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans.

Shabbat Shalom

Sir Israel Hart’s legacy to community and civic life in Leicester includes the fountain in Town Hall Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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