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At Sandys Row Synagogue

March 22, 2022
by the gentle author

Author and artist Rachel Lichtenstein writes about Sandys Row Synagogue, accompanying Morley Von Sternberg‘s photographs of one of Spitalfields’ magnificent hidden wonders.

There were once nearly one hundred and fifty synagogues operating in East London, yet today Sandys Row is the last functioning Ashkenazi synagogue in Spitalfields, situated at the heart of the former Jewish East End. Dutch Jewish migrants, who began arriving in London from Amsterdam in the 1840s, established the synagogue in 1854. They were economic migrants seeking a better life, rather than refugees fleeing persecution like the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who came after them in the 1880s from the Pale of Settlements.

The majority of the Dutch Jews settled in a small quarter of narrow streets in Spitalfields known as the Tenterground. They continued to practise the trades they had bought with them from Holland, which were predominately cigar making, diamond cutting and polishing, and slipper and cap making. Many small workshops were established and businesses passed down through generations.

This small, distinctive, tight-knit Dutch Jewish community of a few hundred had their own traditions and customs which were different from other Ashkenazi Jewish groups. To the frustration of the more established Anglo-Jewish population living in London at the time, the Chuts (as they were known locally) refused to join any of the larger existing synagogues. They wanted their own establishment.

In the early years of the community, they met in a house on White’s Row which served as a makeshift house of prayer, while for festivals and high holy days they rented Zetland Hall in Mansell St. In 1854, fifty families from this community formed the Society for Comfort of the Mourners, Kindness, and Truth, which originally functioned as a burial and mutual aid society and later became a way of raising funds to purchase their own building. By 1867, the Society had amassed enough money to acquire the lease on a former Huguenot Chapel in Sandys Row, a small side street in Spitalfields. The chapel was particularly suitable to adapt into a synagogue because it had a balcony (where women worship in many orthodox synagogues) and was on an East-West axis (Jewish people in this country pray facing east towards Jerusalem).

The community employed Nathan Solomon Joseph, one of the most famous synagogue architects of the time, to remodel the chapel. He kept many original features of the Georgian interior, including the roof and the balcony and added a new three-storey extension onto the building, creating a vestry and accommodation for the rabbi and caretaker. He also designed a beautiful mahogany ark, which can still be seen recessed into the eastern wall of the building framed by neo-classical columns. Since it was consecrated in 1870 with ‘an immense throng of Jewish working men assembled – with devotion, enthusiasm and solemn demeanor – to join in dedicating the humble structure to the worship of God’ Sandys Row Synagogue has never closed its doors.

Apart from some pine wood paneling, which was added in the fifties along with some pine pews, the synagogue today looks much the same as it did when it opened in the nineteenth century. It was described in the Jewish press in 1870 as ‘a sacred place…simple, yet charming,’ a building that ‘invites the worshipper to religious meditation.’ The same holds true for the interior of Sandys Row today, it is an oasis of calm from the bustle of the City outside. The building still evokes the sense of awe and quiet meditation described by the journalist who witnessed the consecration ceremony nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.

During the last few years, I have fallen in love with the place and its unique history, which is connected to my own family heritage. My paternal grandparents were Polish Jewish migrants who met in Whitechapel in the thirties and married at the nearby Princelet St Synagogue.

I have been collecting oral histories of past and present members of Sandys Row. We have recorded interviews at member’s homes in Pinner, Golders Green, Redbridge and other places on the outskirts of London, where most of the former Sandys Row community now live, as well as locally with the few elderly members who remain in East London. These people spoke of a neighbourhood once bursting with life, filled with kosher butchers, bewigged women, friendly societies and Yiddish speaking traders. They told of a time when there was a synagogue or house of prayer on nearly every street in the area and the vicinity of Sandys Row was filled with Jewish shops, workshops and thousands of stalls from Petticoat Lane.

‘Everybody was so friendly, you could leave your doors open. Mum left a jug of milk on the table so the neighbours could come in and help themselves,’ recalled Minnie Jacobson. She also spoke of visiting the baths in Goulston St, ‘Three times a week, Mummy would take me over. You had this green soap. You had room numbers and if the temperature wasn’t right, you’d call out: “Hot water number 9,” or “Cold Water for number 7.”

All of our interviewees had fond memories of Sandys Row Synagogue, some like Pamela Freedman and board member Rose Edmands are directly related to the Dutch founding members. ‘It was a family shul, they used to call it the Dutch shul. All my late husband’s family were members. He was the president, his uncle was the president, I think the grandfather was president,’ said Pamela.

Rose, whose original Dutch surname was Engelsman, remembered high holy days as a child: ‘There used to be the wardens who sat in the box in front of the bimah (reading desk) with top hats on. We used to have a great time on Simchat Torah (A Jewish holiday celebrating the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings) where we’d have apples and flags and march around the bimah.’ Her entire family were members, ‘my great aunts used to sit in the front row and my mother’s generation sat in the row behind, and we kids sat in the back. And, now I sit in the front row – there’s nobody. So the reminder of time passing is very poignant there.’ I loved hearing their stories of this lost world.

The current president of Sandys Row, Harvey Rifkind, told me ‘during the fifties and sixties, the synagogue flourished. On Shabbat there were one hundred to two hundred people there and on the high holy days you could not get a seat. People literally sat on the floor in the aisles.’

Today it is almost impossible to get any sense of a Jewish presence in the neighbourhood. Spitalfields has changed beyond recognition but Sandys Row Synagogue remains as both a reminder of a bygone era and a living example of Jewish culture and religion, where every weekday the building is open for afternoon prayers.

Photographs copyright © Morley Von Sternberg

Rachel Lichtenstein‘s  books include Estuary, Diamond St, Rodinsky’s Room (with Iain Sinclair) and On Brick Lane.

You may like to take a look at these other pictures by Morley Von Sternberg

At Princelet St Synagogue

8 Responses leave one →
  1. March 22, 2022

    *What* exquisite pics! Brings out the warmth and history so poignantly Thanks

  2. Andy Strowman permalink
    March 22, 2022

    I pay homage to one man I knew thete.
    Rabbi Malcolm Gingold.
    The personification of kindness was inside him.
    Let his soul rest in peace.
    He did so much for the poor and forgotten.
    Buried at Rainham Cemetery Essex.
    A humble man who never got his just reward.
    In Yenevelt, the world to come, may he now receive it.

  3. Adele Lester permalink
    March 22, 2022

    Wonderful to see this Grade 2 listed building, the oldest standing Ashkenazi shul (synagogue) in London, in all it’s glory.

  4. March 22, 2022

    Wonderful photos. Something I also learnt was that cigar manufacture was a typical Jewish immigrant trade of the time. One of my g-g-grandfathers was for a time a ‘tobacconist’ and his brother-in-law and another of my g-g-grandfathers was this synagogue’s ‘repurposer’, Nathan Solomon Joseph

  5. Susan permalink
    March 23, 2022

    So lovely – the building, the people and the article.

  6. Cherub permalink
    March 23, 2022

    What a beautiful and inspiring building.

  7. Gillian Tindall permalink
    March 24, 2022

    I recall that some years back, when this lovely building held an open day, we heard how, at a crucial point in its modern decline of use, a body of elderly male supporters got together to try to secure enough worshippers at regular intervals to make a minyan [the required number for a proper service]. I think they advertised around City offices, and got enough Jewish men signed up to agree to attend once a month, for old times’ sake. I wonder if this initiative has continued?

  8. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 25, 2022

    Many years ago I did a degree with the Open University, and as I’d opted for History, recall doing a Case Study on the Brick Lane area from the 1850s onwards. I visited Brick Lane at the time. I did eventually achieve a BA Hons, but only wished I’d kept all my papers from that time!!! I was downsizing, so got rid of so much, including all my OU stuff. I regret it to this day.

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