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At Sandys Row Synagogue

July 9, 2010
by the gentle author

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

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Sarah permalink
    July 9, 2010

    I stumbled upon your blog a few weeks ago and as with all things internet I can’t quite remember how I got here. Just wanted to stop lurking and come clean and say I really enjoy it. You and Jeremy make a fabulous team.

  2. Oliver Bird permalink
    July 12, 2010

    Its makes me so happy to see the Jewish Community reestablish itself in this area. I wish this synagogue the best of luck with its endeavours. Jeremy’s photographs have really touched me and I look forward to seeing the rest this story in years to come.

  3. July 12, 2010

    Beautiful images.

  4. Jo Massey permalink
    August 24, 2010

    After my first visit last Saturday to sandy’s row with my husband,three sons and brother I am delighted to be able to re visit through your blog and Jeremy’s photography. Thank you

  5. Lesley Greer permalink
    August 30, 2010

    My mother was born in Bethnel Green in 1920. Her father was Alfred Freedman, brother, Harry Friedman, sister, Lillian Freedman. They lived at Evelyn House in Whitechapel on Greatorex St. East End London after being bombed out during the war. I wonder the names of my mother’s grandparents She says they were furriers on Bow St. Who has more information? Alfred Freedman had a sister who died at a young age. Alfred died in about 1932 and his funeral was on Lemon St. Thanks. Lesley

  6. Clare permalink
    January 12, 2011

    Amazing story and great pictures!

    I walked past this place just the other day.
    It is covered in scaffolding but its doors were still open.
    I hope to visit one day when I have time.
    Thank you for the insight.

  7. Charlotte permalink
    March 9, 2011

    beautiful photos, thank you

  8. L. Feld permalink
    January 30, 2012

    Dear Shul Members
    I am a fundraiser for Ohel -Sarah in Israel.I was fascinated with the beautiful photos and the renewal of your membership at your shul. My grandfather was a Shochet in Brick Lane in the 50s 60s and 7os.
    On behalf of Ohel-sarah can I send you more imformation Would you be able to help/promote us in any way
    Best wishes L.Feld

  9. Jeff Franklin permalink
    February 6, 2012

    My mothers family way back all lived in what was called the Dutch Tentergroud and they had connection with the Shul name of Springer and Bebber(Beber) would love to find out more about my heritage and the connection to this beautiful shul

  10. Sheila butt permalink
    February 11, 2012

    My grandfather George Keppel was born in the Dutch tenter ground I was born in Stepney and lived all my life in Great Eastern Bldgs opposite the famouse Trumans where my mother worked my father worked in Barnets the smoked salmon place in frying pan alley, my parents were married in Sandys Row shcul in 1942 and my great grandperants married in Bevis Marks what beautiful synagogues they are I left the east end in 1968.

  11. joan fazio permalink
    February 19, 2012

    Hope to visit this wonderful Synagogue on my next visit to the UK.
    I am interested in an ISAAC MYERS who in the 1800′s was sexton of this place of worship, he was born in Holland, would like to trace his journey from Holland to his life in the East London area, but have no idea how to go about it. I believe his son an ASHER MYERS became the editor of The Jewish Chronicle, in the 1800′s.

    joan fazio

  12. hugo cavendish permalink
    August 6, 2012

    Am chai Yisroel!

  13. Jacqueline Golstein permalink
    September 15, 2012

    I went to Sandys Row every shabbos with my Zeida Benny Berman when I was a little girl.
    The photos Brought back such fond and wonderful Memories of all the yomtovs we spent there.
    Thank you

  14. Jean cohen Eldridge permalink
    February 16, 2014

    I lived in artillery lane, my dad o.s. had a paper shop. I went to deal st school. My best friend was Ann cheaveau, her. Parents has a sweet shop. My dad was a member of sandys row. His name was Abraham cohen. I now live in California.

  15. Daniel Feingold permalink
    October 15, 2014

    Hi,

    I am looking for any information about Rabbi Elias Regensberg, who was apparently the Rabbi of this Synagogue in 1895.

    Can anyone help me?

    Thanks

    Daniel

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