At Sandys Row Synagogue
Here is Mr Sender Chaim, always the last to leave after the lunchtime service at Sandys Row. On his way out he touches the box on the door frame which contains the Mezuzah, a scroll with two chapters of the Torah written in Hebrew to be recited daily.
This is one of thousands of intimate photographs taken by Jeremy Freedman over the last five years, documenting his growing involvement with Sandys Row, the oldest surviving Ashkenazi community in London and the only remaining synagogue in Spitalfields. Jeremy’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was one of the founders of the synagogue in 1854, but it was the death of his grandfather Alfred Freedman, the last president of the synagogue, which brought Jeremy back here in July 2005 – where five generations of his family have been before him.
A week after the funeral, Jeremy’s father Henry Freedman called an Extraordinary General Meeting to discuss the future of the shul which had dwindling attendances and a decaying building, and it was at this sombre gathering that Jeremy took his very first photograph in the synagogue, which you can see below. Henry Freedman is at the centre of the photo, and to the left in the dark cap is Jimmy Wilder who had been treasurer of the synagogue for seventeen years. “It was a catharsis,” admitted Jeremy, “As I took pictures, I realised that the majority of the board members were over sixty, many much older, and that nothing could happen unless a new generation got involved.”
Seeking to explore his own family’s past, Jeremy went down into the cellar, his feet sinking into the dust gathered like sand on the beach, making the first footprints in a generation. There he discovered a forgotten vault for the burial of religious documents containing Torah scrolls from the beginning of the community and, under debris, Jeremy found a relic that halted his photography. It was a forgotten vellum commemorating those who paid for the refurbishment of the synagogue a century earlier, in the promise that the acknowledgement of their work would always hang in the vestry.
Six months later, a broken water tank in the caretaker’s flat caused a flood that almost brought down the vestry ceiling. An accident which hastened the imperative for renewal, yet also revealed more of the history of the shul, as Jeremy explained,“We had to empty out the vestry before it was refitted. It took several weekends to clear the contents accumulated over a hundred years, books, letters, ledgers – some written in Dutch, indicative of the origins of past members of the shul. We even found a prayerbook dated 1680, produced by appointment to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor.”
Now the vestry has been refurbished and the vellum’s place is secured, indicative that the reins have been passed to a new generation – as the synagogue looks to the future, celebrating weddings and barmitzvahs with increasing attendances, and anticipating the renovation of the roof funded by English Heritage in time for the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the building’s construction. With a quiet emotionalism, Jeremy’s subtle photographs record this transition through the eyes of a participant, while also honouring those senior members, many of whom have passed away in these five years, yet remembered today for keeping the Sandys Row synagogue open when all the others in Spitalfields closed.
The crisis meeting at the synagogue in July 2005.
Barry Pash is the fourth generation of his family to worship at Sandys Row. A gentle man, once a photographer for a London newspaper, Jeremy took this picture of Barry in the flat where he lives alone in Petticoat Tower, Petticoat Lane.
Michael Davidson, a scholar from an orthodox background, sifts through a century of accumulated books and documents in the vestry after the flood of 2006.
Stella Wilder (widow of Jimmy Wilder, the treasurer, whose picture is to be seen on the right) was the secretary of the Sandys Row synagogue for seventeen years until 2005. Born in Old St, she once worked for British Overseas Airways Corporation at their office there and, in spite of her fading sight, still takes huge pleasure today in watching the planes cross the sky, seen from the window of her flat nearby in the Golden Lanes Estate.
For the first time, Misha is summoned to carry the Torah that he will read at his Barmitzvah, as part of the ritual of becoming a man enacted by his forefathers.
Joe Listner, who used to run the shul, examining the vellum of 1905 discovered in the basement.
Many years ago, Milton who has resided and worked in the locality his whole life, celebrated his marriage here at Sandys Row.
For fifteen years there were no marriages at Sandys Row, then there were three in a year, and now young families are joining the synagogue, as Jewish people move back into the neighbourhood for the first time in a generation.
You can read further about Sandys Row Synagogue and see more of Jeremy Freedman’s portraits of the senior members of the shul here: Jeremy Freedman, photographer
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman