31 May 2024

Leicester Progressive
Jewish Synagogue:
a modern community
with a 75-year history

Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation dates from 1948-1949, and has been located in a former school on Avenue Road since 1995 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

All my life I have known Dublin Jewish Progressive Synagogue on Leicester Avenue, Rathgar. I knew it as a child because an uncle lived and worked nearby; I first attended a service there over 50 years ago; and over the years I brought students there on ‘field trip’ visits. In more recent years, I have also received spiritual support and solace there.

It seemed natural, therefore, that when I was back in Leicester last week, I should also visit the synagogue of the Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation on Avenue Road, close to Victoria Park.

During a visit to Leicester the previous week, I had visited the Jewry Wall and the site associated with the mediaeval Jewish community (17 May 2024) and the synagogue of Leicester Hebrew Congregation on Highfield Street (24 May 2024). But Leicester also has a Progressive Synagogue, formed in 1950, and since 1995 it has been located in a former school on Avenue Road.

The synagogue dates back 75 years to 1948-1949, when a small group of Jews of Leicester were seeking an alternative to Orthodox Judaism. In 1950, the Liberal Jewish Group affiliated to the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, later renamed Liberal Judaism.

Services were first held in members’ homes and in hired halls. The name was changed to the Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation in the 1960s and bi-weekly services were held in the Friends’ Meeting House or Quaker Meeting House on Queen’s Road, which I was writing about last week. The congregation was joined by members of the Leicester Reform Group when that congregation disbanded in 1976.

The community bought its premises on Avenue Road in 1995. The building dates from 1885 and was used as school until the community bought it. It has been refurbished as a synagogue and adapted to be fully accessible, with a ramp for wheelchairs and a loop system for the hard of hearing.

Neve Shalom (נְוֵה שָׁלוֹם) means ‘Oasis of Peace’ … the name is a tribute to a village where Jewish and Palestinian-Arab residents live together (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The community name, Neve Shalom (נְוֵה שָׁלוֹם), means ‘Oasis of Peace’ and is a tribute to the village of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Jewish and Palestinian-Arab residents live together in Neve Shalom, committed to harmony and diversity, and seeking to inspire hope for peace.

Leicester Progressive Jewish Community is an affiliate of Liberal Judaism and the members value the continuity of their Jewish heritage. They also reinterpret Jewish traditions to keep pace with modern society while they believe in preserving all that is good in tradition.

Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, sincerity above conformity, and all human needs above legal technicalities. It promotes pluralism and engages in dialogue with other streams of Judaism, other religions, cultures and philosophies. Practices are a blend of both the traditional and the modern, and the community supports gender equality in taking part in services and children are encouraged to be fully involved.

One of the Torah scrolls used regularly for Shabbat morning services in Leicester is a late 19th century Czech scroll. When the community acquired the scroll, it was badly in need of repair and little was known about its background. But the history of the scroll was slowly pieced together and it is a deeply moving story.

Westminster Synagogue, London, told the congregation in Leicester in 1966 that a scroll was available through the Jewish Museum in Prague from its collection of relics saved after the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. The Nazis planned a permanent exhibition of the works of ‘an exterminated ethnographical group’ in Prague. They gathered the gold and silver ornaments, vestments, pictures, books and manuscripts from the desolated synagogues of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, including a huge number of Sifre Torah.

For many congregations, these scrolls, are powerful symbols of the Holocaust. The scroll on permanent loan to Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation is No 228 of 1,564 Czech Memorial Sifre Torah. It is from the synagogue in Ostrava, the third largest city in the Czech Republic, close to the Polish border. About 8,000 Jews from the Ostrava district were murdered in the Holocaust.

Rabbi Larry Alan Tabick was part-time rabbi of Leicester Progressive Jewish Community in 1994-1998. He led the first service for Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue back in 1978.

He is the husband of Rabbi Jacqueline Tabick, who was born Jacqueline Hazel Acker in Dublin in 1948 and who has close links with the Dublin Jewish Progressive Synagogue on Leicester Avenue, Rathgar.

When she was ordained in 1975, Rabbi Jackie Tabick became first female rabbi in Britain. She is now one of the joint chief executives of Progressive Judaism, the union in the making between Reform and Liberal Judaism.

The Progressive Synagogue on Avenue Road, Leicester, opened its doors in 1995 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Rabbi Mark L Solomon is the present, part-time rabbi, and he shares his role with Edinburgh Liberal Jewish Community. He leads services, runs an educational programme and provides pastoral support and advice.

Rabbi Mark Solomon was born in Sydney, Australia, where he was a chorister, and later reader and deputy cantor, at the Great Synagogue. He studied for the rabbinate at the Lubavitcher Yeshivah Gedolah in Melbourne and Kfar Chabad in Israel, and holds a BA in English from Sydney University. He came to Britain in 1988 to study at Jews’ College, London, the modern Orthodox seminary where he was ordained in 1991. He then joined Liberal Judaism, and completed his MA in Jewish Studies at Leo Baeck College.

He has served at Watford United Synagogue (1990-1992), West Central Liberal Synagogue (1992-2000) and the Liberal Synagogue in St John’s Wood (2000-2009). He was appointed the first Interfaith Consultant for Liberal Judaism in 2009 and part-time rabbi of both Edinburgh Liberal Jewish Community and Manchester Liberal Jewish Community in 2010. He left Manchester in 2014 and became part-time rabbi of the Leicester Liberal Jewish Congregation.

He teaches at Leo Baeck College, where he is the senior lecturer in Talmud, Rabbinics and Jewish philosophy, and has been a visiting lecturer at University College, London, and Heythrop College. He is Associate Chair of the Beit Din of Liberal Judaism, co-chair of the London Society of Jews and Christians and has been involved in the Council of Christians and Jews.

Rabbi Solomon is an honorary rabbi of the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group, and one of the rabbinic team of BKY (Beit Klal Yisrael). He was the editor of Covenant of Love: Service of Commitment for Same-Sex Couples, published by Liberal Judaism in 2005 – the first such liturgy published by any Jewish movement.

The community is actively involved in the multifaith life in Leicester, and is represented on the Leicester Council of Faiths and the Leicester Faith Support Group for Asylum Seekers and Refugees.

Shabbat Shalom

The community is actively involved in the multifaith life in Leicester, including the Leicester Council of Faiths and the Leicester Faith Support Group for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
23, 31 May 2024, the Visitation

The Monastery of Agia Triada Tsangarolon is 3 km from Chania Airport in Crete (Aconcagua, GFDL, Cc-by-sa-4.0, Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with Trinity Sunday (26 May 2024), and in this week after Trinity Sunday, I am illustrating my prayers and reflections with images of six churches, chapels, cathedral or monasteries in Greece I know that are dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

In the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship, today (31 May) is the feast of the Visitation, or the Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth.

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The Monastery of Agia Triada Tsangarolon near Chania was built in the early 17th century by the brothers Ieremias and Lavrentios Zangaroli (Aconcagua, GFDL, Cc-by-sa-4.0, Wikipedia)

Luke 1: 39-49 [50–56] (NRSVUE):

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowly state of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name;
[50 indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.]

The Monastery of Agia Triada Tsangarolon near Chania is a prime example of Cretan renaissance architecture (Davric, GFDL, Cc-by-sa-4.0, Wikipedia)

Agia Triada Tsangarolon:

In my visits to Crete, I regularly pass the monastery of Saint John the Merciful (Agios Ioannis Eleimon), on my way to and from Chania Airport. The monastery is familiar to many tourists, although few may know its name or its story, although it is a mere three minutes (2.3 km) from Chania airport and close to the village of Pazinos or Gagalado on Cape Akrotiri.

I passed by Agios Ioannis Eleimon twice again last month (April 2024), and thought of how often I have promised myself I would visit it one day. But there are other impressive and historic monasteries in a cluster on the Akrotiri peninsula and near the airport, including Gouverneto Monastery, and the Monastery of Agia Triada Tsangarolon, which once had Agios Ioannis Eleimon as a dependency.

Agia Triada Monastery (Μονή Αγίας Τριάδος) or the Monastery of Agia Triada Tsangarolon (Η Μονή της Αγίας Τριάδας των Τζαγκαρόλων) is 15 km outside Chania and 3 km from the airport. The monastery is one of the most important religious complexes of the late period of the Venetian occupation of Crete.

It is a prime example of Cretan renaissance architecture, which became a model for many other monasteries in the area. It was built in the early 17th century on the site earlier, smaller monastery by Ieremias and Lavrentios Zangaroli, two brothers from the Venetian-Cretan Zangaroli family that had considerable influence among both Orthodox and Catholic people in the area.

The Zangaroli brothers were strongly influenced by the Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio and his ideas in the Libro Estraordinario. This is reflected in the design of the main gate and in the way they handle the sloping incline of the site. The sloping surface is transformed into an artificial flat courtyard, and the west part of the building is three-storeyed on the outside and two-storeyed on the inside, as the ground floor becomes the basement.

Ieremias Zangaroli had received extensive Greek and Classical education and also studied architecture. He decided to build a bigger complex, which he designed himself. After he died in 1634, the project was continued by his brother, Lavrentios Zangaroli, also a monk.

However, work was interrupted in 1645 by the Ottoman occupation of Chania, and he monastery was extensively damaged during various conflicts with the Turks. When it was burned down by the Ottomans during the Greek War of Independence in 1821, many of its treasures were destroyed. Yet, nine years later, permission was given to resume work.

The monastery was an important theological school from 1833, the domes and the chapels were completed in 1836, and the belfry was added in 1864. From 1892 to 1905, it was a seminary, while during the 1896-1897 Cretan revolt, it served as a hospital and as headquarters for the insurgents.

During World War II, it was first used as a supply depot by the Greeks, and then by the Germans, who set up an anti-aircraft artillery school there in 1942.

The first thing visitors see is a monumental staircase leading to the imposing front gate and the bell tower. On either side of the gate is a pair of high Ionic pillars supporting the entablature, while above there are two more pairs of Corinthian pillars forming a semicircular arc. At the top, a large pediment bears an inscription in Greek, with two smaller sculpted pediments above the Corinthian columns.

An arched corridor leads to an open patio. Few monasteries in Crete have such a beautiful and tastefully decorated courtyard, with lush bougainvillea, oleander and other seasonal plants that climb on the wells and the staircases.

The main church (katholikon) is dedicated to the Holy Trinity and is built in the Byzantine style, with a cruciform shape, a narthex and three domes. The elaborate stone façade has double columns of Ionian and Corinthian style and bears an inscription in Greek, dated 1631. There are two large Doric columns and one smaller, Corinthian column on either side of the main entrance.

Inside, the ornately carved wooden icon screen or altarpiece, which is plated with gold, was crafted in 1836. Most of its icons seem to be the work of Merkourios Sigalas from Santorini.

The katholikonis flanked by two smaller domed chapels, with beautiful 17th century icon screen. One dedicated to the Life-Giving Spring (Zoodochos Pigi), the other to Saint John the Theologian. There is also an elegant small chapel dedicated to Christ the Saviour in the courtyard.

The monastery also has a library with a collection of rare books and a museum with a collection of icons, codices and wood carvings.

The exhibits include a portable icon of Saint John the Theologian dated ca 1500, the Last Judgment, 17th century works by Emmanuel Skordilis, icons of Saint John the Precursor (1846), the Tree of Jesse (1853), the Hospitality of Abraham and the Harrowing of Hell (1855), and a manuscript on a parchment roll with the Liturgy of Saint Basil.

The east wing includes a large building that once housed the theological seminary, while the north side has a new oil mill. Other points of interest include the underground domed ossuary, the refectory, the former abbot’s quarters, the underground domed oil mill, the large water tank and the wine cellars.

Today, the monastery is engaged in organic farming and produces wine, raki, olive oil, honey, vinegar and olive soaps. Many of the products have received international awards and are available in the monastery shop.

The produce of the Monastery of Agia Triada Tsangarolon Crete has received many international awards (Davric, GFDL, Cc-by-sa-4.0, Wikipedia)

Today’s Prayers (Friday 31 May 2024, the Visitation):

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 ‘Renewal and Reconciliation.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a Programme Update by Rachael Anderson, Senior Communications and Engagement Manager, USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (31 May 2024) invites us to pray:

O Lord, let us remember that through you, anything is possible. Bless our sisters and brothers in their Kingdom work.

The Collect:

Mighty God,
by whose grace Elizabeth rejoiced with Mary
and greeted her as the mother of the Lord:
look with favour on your lowly servants
that, with Mary, we may magnify your holy name
and rejoice to acclaim her Son our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Gracious God,
who gave joy to Elizabeth and Mary
as they recognized the signs of redemption
at work within them:
help us, who have shared in the joy of this eucharist,
to know the Lord deep within us
and his love shining out in our lives, that the world may rejoice in your salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.