Family & Education

Perfect places for chupahs - but beware snags

Looking for a gorgeous historic synagogue for your wedding? It might not be a straightforward search. Amy Schreibman Walter reports


For many engaged couples, the process of choosing a wedding venue is fairly straightforward. Marrying in the synagogue attended by the bride or groom when they were younger or having a chupah at a hotel or country club are two roads often taken. However, some couples have a priority of a different kind. They want to marry within a space that is both historic and atmospheric. Making the choice to marry in an older synagogue, as beautiful a backdrop as that is, can come with a unique set of challenges.

In August 2007, a photograph of bride and groom Jess and Sam Baum, just married, appeared in the news section of the JC. When the newlyweds stood under the chupah in the Grade 2 listed Montefiore Synagogue in Ramsgate, Kent, theirs was the first wedding that the Victorian shul had seen in over 60 years. “We chose to get married there for many reasons: it is an utterly beautiful building and a wonderful example of British architectural design, and set within a small nature reserve. At the time, it was our local synagogue: it felt completely romantic and perfectly beshert,” Jess recalls.

“Moses Montefiore built the mausoleum attached to the synagogue for his beloved wife, so the whole place exudes love and longevity. The synagogue was just as it always was, with the candelabras lit.”

Despite the romance of the venue, there has not been a wedding at the shul since. A dwindling Orthodox Sephardi population in this region of Kent means that the shul is not regularly opened for services; there aren’t usually enough men to make a minyan. Like many other historic synagogues in the UK, the future of Montefiore Synagogue is uncertain. Jess says that “those people who have been looking after the building and the memory of all of those who have celebrated within its walls should be celebrated themselves. Historic and listed synagogues are monuments to communities who have been through incredible journeys, and the current caretakers and gatekeepers are doing such an important job.”

Harvey Rifkind is president of Sandy’s Row Synagogue in the East End of London, the oldest surviving Ashkenazi synagogue in London, constructed in 1766. He is one of the men that Jess describes — a caretaker and a gatekeeper. He recounts how he has shown engaged couples around, how some were smitten with the space at first sight, but that several were disappointed to learn from the Chief Rabbi that they weren’t able to marry within its walls, because they simply didn’t fit the criteria needed for marriage within the United Synagogue.

“On average, we have just four or five weddings a year at Sandy’s Row. When you get married here you have to prove that your parents or grandparents had a United Synagogue or a religious wedding. If it were up to me, I would let our rabbi marry these couples, as long as it’s an Orthodox service. We have to turn people away because they don’t fit the stipulations for marriage in an Orthodox way.”

Other historic synagogues across the UK, like Sandy’s Row, bear witness to a mere handful of weddings, if any, a year.

Danielle and Gideon Sher, of Borehamwood, married in August 2015 at Middle Street Synagogue in Brighton, a Grade 2 listed building with a striking interior.

Danielle says that Middle Street shul, built in 1874, is opened only for special events, the Brighton Festival, and the occasional wedding. “I did an art project on the building when I was in school, and its beauty and fading grandeur stuck with me.

“We considered ourselves really lucky to be married in such a uniquely beautiful and enduring setting. The original design and architecture of the synagogue created the perfect cultural backdrop, and we felt privileged that our Jewish heritage permitted us to marry in such a beautiful building.”

Bevis Marks, a short stroll from London’s Liverpool Street station, built in 1701, is another listed building (Grade 1); it has the distinct honour of being the oldest synagogue in the UK. Well-funded and with a growing congregation, Bevis Marks is in a unique situation among the UK’s most historic synagogues.

Pamela Jackson, 72, of Edgware, has a long-standing connection with the shul. “My great-grandparents were founding members of Bevis Marks; they were married there in 1865, my parents were married there in 1925, I married my husband Paul at Bevis in 1966, and our daughter Caroline married there in 2007.

“There are other families who share this story of people getting married at Bevis. So many people have gone before us and they are all there, looking down. The continuity of it – we’re sitting on seats where men in top coats in 1701 and ladies in large gowns used to sit – it’s an amazing feeling.”

Nelson Street Synagogue in London’s East End, just 20 minutes on foot from Bevis Marks, faces a different reality – the shul hasn’t seen a wedding in over a decade. Founded in 1923, the synagogue looks humble from the street but, once inside, visitors frequently gasp when they see the understated deco grandeur of the shul’s interior.

Leon Silver, the synagogue’s president, told me that engaged couples who visited were often awed by the shul’s space and serenity but decided ultimately to choose a different wedding venue — perhaps somewhere with more facilities – the bathrooms and roof at Nelson Street are in urgent need of repair.

This situation is not exclusive to Nelson Street: according to Synagogues at Risk, a 2010 survey of England’s historic shuls, conducted by Jewish Heritage. The condition of the building in 32 per cent of all shuls surveyed was “poor” or “very bad.” Mr. Silver says that one couple considering marrying at Nelson Street offered to pay for some repairs to the building in order to marry there but these plans never came to fruition.

The tiny Exeter Synagogue, built in 1763, has some similar woes. Like Nelson Street, the shul does not suffer from lack of love or commitment from its team of volunteers.

Richard Halsey, 71, the synagogue’s president, reveals that “our rabbi’s house and meeting room were demolished in 1960 by the City Council. “The reason given was metropolitan improvement. They pulled down the whole area of 16th- and 17th-century cottages, and now there’s just a car park.

“The synagogue was kept only because it was a listed building. But, on the positive side, we have been in continuous use since 1763, and we’ve had about six weddings in the last six years, which isn’t bad for such a small community – we only have about 120 members. We have room for just 45 people on our ground floor, and more in the gallery. We don’t have a separate hall for a wedding reception — so it’s difficult for young people who have a big group of friends and family to marry here, as is the case with other small, historic shuls that lack facilities.”

Back in London, it’s a different story at the New West End Synagogue in Bayswater, opened in 1879. This grand space was described by Jewish Heritage as “the architectural high watermark of Anglo-Jewish architecture,” and is a Grade 1 listed building. Lauretta and Scott Bernstein of Borehamwood chose to marry there in 2005. “Neither of our home shuls were shuls that we wanted to marry in. When we walked into St Petersburgh Place, we said – this is it. This is where we want to get married.”

Karen Cinnamon, London-based founder and editor of the world’s biggest Jewish wedding blog, Smashing the Glass, says “Every couple is different, of course, but when you marry in an old synagogue, you can choose to really bring a focus to the ceremony – it’s such a sacred part of the wedding.

“People sometimes forget that the ceremony is what a wedding is really all about. I get about 50 wedding submissions a week for Smashing the Glass — the first thing I look at is the chupah. I look at the design of it as well as what’s going on underneath. That’s how special our Jewish traditions are – there’s a creative element incorporated into the ceremony.”

Natalie Macatonia, of South Woodford, whose 2017 wedding at Bevis Marks was featured on Karen’s blog, says, “We used their chupah; the same one that has been used by so many couples over the last 300 plus years. And the setting actually helped non-Jewish guests to be interested in the religion — there’s a wow factor as soon as you walk in. Some of the guests asked me, “are all synagogues this beautiful?”

In the words of Exeter Synagogue’s Richard Halsey, “I think it’s lovely if people can have their wedding in a historic synagogue, because it is continuity — continuity of use.

“Of course, some people will have had several generations of weddings in the same shul, and those people are very lucky. Otherwise, marrying in a historic synagogue is about continuity of the religion and of the building itself — these are just so important.”

Planning your own wedding? Make sure to check out our simchah directory, with all the latest listings for your event.

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