Synagogues at risk, say English heritage

By Robyn Rosen, July 1, 2010
The women’s cloakroom at Higher Crumpsall

The women’s cloakroom at Higher Crumpsall

They're damp, crumbling and increasingly abandoned - that's the sad picture of our shuls that has emerged from the first Synagogues At Risk Survey, carried out by Jewish Heritage on behalf of English Heritage.

The survey, part of the first accurate inquiry into the state of Britain's 14,500 listed places of worship, looked at 37 synagogues in England and found that only three were in "good" condition.

English Heritage has awarded Jewish Heritage a grant worth £91,000 over three years to monitor synagogues and raise awareness.

Those in the "poor" or "very bad" categories include Hackney Synagogue in London, Greenbank Synagogue in Liverpool and Sunderland Synagogue, all Grade II-listed and out of use.

The synagogues in "good" condition are Hampstead, Bevis Marks and the Congregation of Jacob, and among the "fair" shuls are Exeter and the New Synagogue in Stamford Hill.

Out of 37 shuls, only three were in ‘good’ condition

The survey also revealed that more than 50 per cent of synagogues attract weekly congregations of less than 50 people and 20 per cent have less than 20 people.

Even historic synagogues attract, at best, 250 worshippers to an ordinary Shabbat morning service.

The survey also showed worrying trends in the regions, where nearly half of shuls are experiencing shrinking membership and 57 per cent do not have even a part-time minister.

More than £1 million has been given to synagogues over the past six years under the Heritage Lottery Fund repair grants, including Manchester's Higher Crumpsall, Liverpool's Princes Road and London's Sandys Row.

Dr Sharman Kadish, director of Jewish Heritage, said: "These buildings represent the public face of the Jewish community to the wider world. They should be seen as assets. People think it's expensive to repair them, but often small things can be done like regular maintenance work.

"It is sad to see small communities decreasing and disappearing."

The survey report said: "It is now recognised that redundancy can pose a threat to the survival of the special interest of a historic building equal to that posed by the deterioration of its actual fabric."

The report noted that Manchester's Higher Crumpsall Synagogue had "serious problems, damp, structural movement, corrosion of steel and concrete", despite £281,000 in grants.

But Eileen Somers, Higher Crumpsall's administrator, said: "The survey has been a surprise to us. We know a little cosmetic work is needed but it's not that bad." Dr Kadish said there was still hope for many buildings: "There may be ways to revitalise them. It's not all doom and gloom."

English Heritage officers will announce which synagogues will be placed on the At Risk Register next year, which will prioritise them for grants.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Grade II* listed Singers Hill Synagogue in Birmingham received an award from English Heritage for going from “at risk” to “most improved in the West Midlands”.

Last updated: 5:16pm, July 1 2010