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Changes at Sandys Row Synagogue

October 24, 2011
by the gentle author

Spitalfields Life contributing artist Lucinda Rogers began this picture of the interior of Sandys Row Synagogue almost a year ago – just a week before major structural renovations commenced – and it bears testimony both to the scrupulous nature of the restoration and also to the precision of Lucinda’s drawing that, to the untrained eye, if you were to stand at this spot in the women’s gallery and look down upon the view now there would appear to be have been no change.

Yet in the past year, the roof of the synagogue – built originally as a Huguenot chapel in 1766 – has been entirely reconstructed, following the alarming discovery that as a result of vibrations caused by exploding bombs in 1942, the timbers had shifted and the entire structure was resting upon no more than lathe and plaster, leaving it in danger of collapse at any moment.

As both the last synagogue operating in Spitalfields and the oldest Askhenazi synagogue in London, the meaning of the building is composed of the many layers of its usage, which means this was could never be one of those speculative renovations taking the structure back to how it might have been. This project was about preserving Sandys Row with all its history intact for the future. Consequently, once the roof had been secured, the former colours of gloss paintwork dating from the nineteen-fifties improvements were reinstated, and now the synagogue has regained its distinctive pink and coral paintwork, highlighted by touches of gold. For those who have been coming here their whole lives, like Henry Freedman, the synagogue is as it has always been – the soul of the place remains.

“My first visit to the shul was probably as a baby in 1956 when my parents lived in Petticoat Lane,” he told me when I went to take a look recently and we sat to enjoy a quiet chat in the peace of the empty synagogue. Henry’s ancestor’s were Dutch tobacco dealers and even though he is a fifth generation immigrant, Henry still has relatives living in Amsterdam who escaped the prison camps of World War II. “I was Bar Mitzvahed here and so was my father, grandfather and great-grandfather – and my ancestor was one of the founders,” he confided, casting his eyes around this charged space that carries so much signficance for his family.“It’s the only place I have ever felt any spiritual connection.” he continued, thinking out loud, “I’ve got memories of people, I can see their ghosts in the places where they used to sit.”

“My father was president of the shul for twelve years and when he was dying, I said, ‘What’s going to happen to the place when you’re not here?’” Henry revealed to me, “That generation were content to let things tick over.” Throughout the second half of the last century, Jewish people left Spitalfields and the synagogue went into decline but, after his father’s death, Henry decided to become involved as a Treasurer & Trustee, working alongside the other board members to secure a future for the shul. Undaunted when the surveyor revealed the potential collapse of the roof, whilst assessing the meaning of a large crack, they raised half a million pounds to address the problem, partly funded by one of the largest grants to a Jewish organisation from English Heritage and with the help of numerous private donations.

Meanwhile, an assessment of the contents of the building has thrown up some hidden treasures, including a two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old iron strong box, which had not been unlocked in living memory but opened first time when the genuine keyhole had been distinguished from the false ones. A mysterious object, evoking an unknown past, it reflects both aspects of the history of the building since it could equally have come to Spitalfields with the Huguenots as with the Askhenazi Jews. When Henry showed me the cellar, dominated by huge roof beams creating the atmosphere of being below deck in a eighteenth century man’o'war, I leaned against a timber which should have been supporting the floor above only to have it swing out of position. Clearly, there is both scope for further renovation and additional space here, offering the possibility of a gallery or centre for  visitors.

Throughout the last year, services continued uninterrupted by the scaffolding that was finally removed from the building in time for a dinner on 28th September, the eve of Rosh Hasanah, the Jewish New Year. “We want to continue as a full-time shul, now that Jewish people are moving back into Spitalfields,” Henry confirmed for me, able to speak with an assured optimism, now that the largest renovation in its history has secured the future of Sandys Row.

The cellar, like the lower deck of an eighteenth century man’o'war.

The mysterious eighteenth century strongbox discovered in the cellar.

Eighteenth century ceiling rose before restoration…

…and after.

The scrolls are returned to the synagogue after the restoration.

Henry Freedman

Dinner at sundown on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman

Lucinda Rogers’ drawing of Sandys Row Synagogue is available as a limited edition print in support of the restoration fund from www.lucindarogers.co.uk. The synagogue is now open again and tours can be arranged by contacting www.sandysrow.org.uk

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. October 24, 2011

    Thanks very much for writing about this restoration. My great-grandfather was born in Sandys Row in 1871 so it’s great to see contemporary pictures.

  2. Ros permalink
    October 24, 2011

    Lovely pic of the scrolls returning. Must pay another visit now it’s been restored. But what was in the box??

  3. Chris F permalink
    October 24, 2011

    The Scrolls returning has the look of a still from a Tarantino film….

  4. October 25, 2011

    It is lovely to see the photos of Sandys Row – according to Sharman Kadish it was my great-grandfather who converted it from a Chapel for the Dutch congregation and I did not realise how charming it was.

  5. helen shapira permalink
    October 26, 2011

    I am so happy to hear about the renovation of Sandys row synagogue and see the pictures. Thank you! it feels like a new beginning in my own life!

  6. Irene & Ivan permalink
    December 8, 2011

    WONDERFUL!!

    An amazing piece of history, and the artwork is remarkable.

    LONG MAY THE SHUL PROSPER AND GROW.

  7. Irene & Ivan permalink
    December 8, 2011

    It is wonderful to be able to see what actually took place in the roof renovation and the artwork
    is superb. Long may the Shul continue to thrive.

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