It began with the phone book 50 years ago. Imre Horvath, a Hungarian refugee who had settled in Weybridge, combed its pages to find Levys, Cohens, Abrahams — anyone who could be Jewish living nearby. The intention was to get them to join a new congregation.
Today, North West Surrey (Reform) Synagogue has grown to a community of 300 families, accounting for around 500 adults, and a cheder of 50. A record 300-plus people attended its golden anniversary celebration on Sunday, which incorporated the induction ceremony for new rabbi Kath Vardi, who praises the congregation’s welcoming spirit.
“It was only ten families at the beginning,” recalls Lorna Unger, one of the founders, who had moved to the area from Lancashire in the 1960s.
Back in 1968, the founding families met in Finnart House, originally a school for “Jewish delinquents” run by local councillor Harry Cohen, who was keen for the building to remain in Jewish use.
“We knitted so well together as a group of virtual strangers,” recalls Dorothea Cave, another original member. “We had just moved to the area and were looking for a local shul.” Then one day she received a phone call advising her that a new synagogue was being established.
Jennifer Jankel — daughter of band leader Joe Loss and chair of the Jewish Music Institute trustees — had been involved in the Orthodox shul in Kingston but found a home in the small synagogue. There was “really bad, tuneless singing but lots of enthusiasm”, she remembers.
In the early period, the community was “a real group of wandering Jews”, moving from school house to Portakabin to church hall as it sought a permanent home.
A number of the early congregation were refugees from Hungary who had fled the 1956 revolution. Mrs Cave’s husband Ian remembers that “several had suffered in Hungary but never spoke about their experiences”.
Mrs Unger explains that when the community was without a minister, Cyril Gee led services.
“He was very interested in Yiddishkeit and had a wonderful voice.” At 90, Mr Gee can still sing sweetly. He also had a voice in the renaming of the street in which the synagogue is located. The converted church hall was in Convent Close until he enlisted the help of Harry Cohen in his council capacity.
“You couldn’t have a shul on a street with a name like that. We called it Horvath Close after Imre Horvath, who had done so much for the community.”
Many founding members and their families were among the congregation on Sunday.
Rabbis involved in the induction ceremony included former NWSS ministers Tony Bayfield and Jacqueline Tabick.
Rabbi Vardi describes the current congregation as “warm, enthusiastic and enormously creative. There is a real passion for what it means to live Jewishly.
“We’re not in the mix of a larger Jewish community so we have to be there for one another. If we weren’t, there isn’t anyone else.
“The challenge is how we keep ourselves personable and relevant when people are geographically further apart and when they have far more demands on their time.”