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Farewell to Crumpsall's cathedral shul

Jenni Frazer mourns the closure of one of Manchester's landmark synagogues

    A special service for schoolboys at High Crumpsall synagogue
    A special service for schoolboys at High Crumpsall synagogue Photo: Laurence Purcell

    Usually, when we hear of the closure of a synagogue, it is as a result of the fall in numbers of the community it served. Examples such as Sunderland, Grimsby, even most recently Nottingham, come to mind.

    But the decision of Manchester’s Higher Crumpsall and Higher Broughton Hebrew Congregation to close down, after more than 70 years as one of the city’s most iconic synagogues, has other factors in play — and they are to do with the shifting demographics of the neighbourhood.

    When Higher Crumpsall, as it was then, opened its beautiful white-domed building in 1928, it was a thing to marvel at both inside and outside. The building dominated Cheetham Hill Road, which stretched from the city centre out into the northern suburbs but, in 1928, the Ashkenazi Jews had not yet moved north to Prestwich and Whitefield — let alone gone to the south side of Manchester, which was strongly populated, in those early years, by Sephardi Jews.

    But Cheetham Hill was the focal area of Manchester Jewry, and the buildings that grew up around Crumpsall Synagogue reflected that — the Talmud Torah, the Zionist headquarters at Mamlock House, and neighbouring congregations such as Heaton Park and Higher Broughton. The latter was to be subsumed into Higher Crumpsall in the early 1960s.

    Higher Crumpsall was beautiful outside. But it is a listed building for its interior, which was different from almost every other synagogue in the city, with its cantilevered ladies’ gallery, meaning there were no pillars in the way to block the eye-line, and the women — particularly those on the front row — felt themselves full participants in the services.

    There were some anomalies in the decor, however. The gigantic central light fitting was strongly rumoured to have been bought, on the cheap, from an Odeon cinema that was closing down. Generations of caretakers muttered darkly about how difficult it was to replace the bulbs in this monstrosity, but that’s not what people went to Crumpsall for.

    They went for the spectacular services. Higher Crumpsall was famous for its chazan and choir, first Rev Solomon Hershman and then Rev Avraham Hillman. Rev Hershman, who died in 1971, was fond of inserting operatic melodies into Yom Tov liturgies, and the trick was to see if you could recognise which opera he was singing.

    Chazan Hillman had a symbiotic relationship with the choir which enabled him, apparently by magic, to know exactly where they were going with a chorus — even if he had his back to them. He died in 2016 after serving Crumpsall for an astonishing 48 years.

    The rabbis were scarcely less starry: Rabbi Kopul Rosen, the founder of Carmel College, was Crumpsall’s minister in the early years of the Second World War, and was often accompanied by the leading scholar Dr Alexander Altmann, who served as the city’s communal rabbi. People flocked to the shul to hear what they had to say.

    But eventually, and inevitably, the demographics of the area changed. Crumpsall was marooned on the fault line between Jewish and Muslim north Manchester, and its more well-heeled members had either moved north to affluent suburbs, or south.

    Instead, the area became dominated by the Strictly Orthodox community, who will take over the premises to use as a yeshiva.

    For at least the last ten years, Crumpsall has been hanging on by its fingertips, closure always on the horizon and the members that remained, together with minister Rabbi Arnold Saunders, defiantly determined to keep the shul open. An English Heritage Lottery grant did not help as the sheer scale of building and maintenance work proved overwhelming.

    And so Crumpsall held its last Shabbat service last weekend, going out in style with a celebratory Kiddush. Grand cathedral-style shuls are no longer fashionable but in its day Crumpsall was a magnificent creation, and will be remembered with warmth and affection.

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