The Victorian East London Synagogue, Stepney Green,
currently undergoing conversion into apartments.
Before the Second World War the East End of London was home to some 100,000 Jews, first and second generation immigrants who had fled the pogroms in the Russian Empire in the years between 1881-1914, and to Jews from Rumania and Galicia.
Today, there is little physical evidence of the Jewish presence in the East End situated close to the London docks, the traditional magnet for immigration. The French Protestants (Huguenots) and Irish were there before the Jews; the Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis followed them. Most of the dozens of synagogues, mikva'ot (ritual baths) chevrot and shtieblakh (prayer rooms) have gone. Batei Midrash, schools, clubs, Yiddish theaters, homes and workshops are now occupied by the newer immigrants, and what is left of the Jewish community is disappearing before our eyes. The last kosher restaurant, "Blooms," a landmark of the Jewish East End, closed its doors a few months ago. Upward social mobility and the move to the suburbs, which began before the Second World War and the German Blitz on London, led to the gradual dispersal of East End Jewry. Today an estimated four to six thousand Jews still live in the East End, Stepney and Whitechapel, mostly elderly, and only a handful of synagogues still function.
In August 1996, London born project coordinator, Dr. Sharman Kadish, together with architect Dr. Boris Lekar spent three weeks on fieldwork in the East End. In the first practical stage of the planned national survey of Jewish monuments in the UK and Ireland, they carried out emergency recording, using field questionnaires developed for the purpose, photography, and rapidly executed measured drawings of twelve East End synagogues. They began with the famous Spanish and Portuguese Bevis Marks Synagogue (1701), a grade-one listed building on the National Monuments Register, which has never before been fully documented from an architectural point of view. Two buildings which were converted from Huguenot chapels, Sandy's Row Synagogue (1766) and the Machzike Hadas Synagogue (1743) were surveyed, along with the Princelet Street Synagogue (1870) which was built onto the back of a Huguenot weaver's house (1719) and was once occupied by an ancestor of the Courtauld textile family. There are plans to convert this synagogue into a heritage center on the immigrant history of Spitalfields. Of these buildings only one, Sandy's Row, is still in use. The Machzike Hadas, once a church, then a synagogue, is now a mosque serving the Indian Muslims, the newest immigrants in the neighborhood.
Many of the synagogues surveyed by Kadish and Lekar are no longer in use and will probably disappear within the next decade. In the Great Garden Street Synagogue (1896) which has just been sold to developers, the researchers found abandoned archives and furnishings and alerted the Greater London Record Office and the Jewish Museum. Other synagogues documented were the Fieldgate Street Synagogue (1899), Nelson Street Synagogue (1922) and the Congregation of Jacob (1921- a chapel conversion) in which several hand-painted pinkasim (community records) books were found, typical of a Hasidic congregation of East European origin. Also found in this synagogue were remains of wall paintings, another characteristic East European feature. The researchers were almost too late for the once splendid East London Synagogue (1876-7) whose soaring space is in the process of being divided up to make fashionable apartments for the "yuppies" now moving into the regenerated parts of Stepney Green. Similarly, they were able to get to the Cheshire Street Synagogue (1890's) in Shoreditch before its imminent demolition and took photographs.
Kadish and Lekar ventured further afield to the New Synagogue in Stamford Hill, North London. The design of this synagogue, built in 1915, was based upon that of the old New Synagogue in Bishopsgate (1838) which was demolished in 1912. Some of the fittings of the Bishopsgate synagogue, the ark, bima, and candelabra, were brought to the Stamford Hill synagogue. Kadish and Lekar also documented the Hackney Synagogue (1897) which is celebrating its centenary next year and Willesden Synagogue, a 1930s building designed by the important central European emigré architect Fritz Landauer in association with Wills and Kaula. In this case, the researchers found that the original plans have been destroyed by the local authority. All that remain are poor copies on microfilm at the local history library. One of the aims of the project is to rescue original architectural plans and to deposit them in the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) which is sponsoring the survey. All the material will be part of the Index of Jewish Art.
Kadish was also approached by the Charlotte Street Association in Soho to help save the Westminster Jews' Free School, a fine 1880's facade with terra cotta decoration, from redevelopment. Lekar also made sketches and photographed this building. Thus the UK survey is already contributing to the practical preservation of the Jewish architectural heritage in London.