Growing shul is full of Eastern promise


It's a midweek morning and Ghassan Cohen has a business meeting to attend. But first, he has to supervise some home improvements at the Ohel David Eastern Synagogue in Golders Green.

As chairman, Baghdad-born Mr Cohen is responsible for the budget and development of the Sephardi congregation, which has members from Iraq, India, Iran, Lebanon and Syria. Drill in hand, he oversees work being carried out by three builders around the ark.

Pushing a stool aside and stepping over a Hoover trailed across a Persian rug, he opens the ark, highlighting to a workman a missing screw in one of its doors. Only then does he stop to admire three very special Sifrei Torah. Two have been brought over from Baghdad; the third is from India and more than a century old. Nearby, he points out a high chair used for brit milah ceremonies and a grand silver chanuchiah, both from Iraq.

"They are all priceless," Mr Cohen says. "They were brought to the UK just after 1948." Many of the congregation came to Britain to escape persecution in Arab lands after the establishment of Israel. "At this synagogue, 90 per cent of prayers are still said in an Iraqi tune," he explains. "The Shema and the Amidah, for example. It's the songs and prayers that we grew up with."

Now 450 strong, and with Rabbi Asher Sebbag as minister, the congregation dates back to 1959, when the site was bought from the bastion of German-Jewish Orthodoxy, Munks, which considered the building not fit for purpose in its then state.

Before Mr Cohen's chairmanship - he took over in 2000 - it measured just 14x10 metres, the walls were cracked and it was riddled with leaks. The board has since found the funds to buy the freehold and the building is now double the size. A lift has been installed and a succah built. There is parquet flooring and the synagogue has received a much-needed lick of paint.

"When the Jews came here from India and Iraq, there was no synagogue for them. Places like Bevis Marks and Lauderdale Road were all the way in town, but many Sephardim lived in north-west London. So they took this synagogue. But the place we were praying in was far too small," adds Mr Cohen, a member since 1975.

"It was run down and we had neon lights. We were paying a peppercorn rent but there was a barber, photography studio and laundry business on the premises.

"I knew we had to own the freehold if we were really going to develop the synagogue. That was my first decision as chairman.

"At one stage I found out that other people wanted to buy the property and convert it into flats, so we moved fast.

"Why? A synagogue is a religious place. We can't just move to a different building. What was I going to tell people if we did not buy the property? People pray here, they have weddings and barmitzvahs here.

"So in 2001 we got the freehold. Members donated money and we did it.

"Just a few weeks ago, some Israelis walked into the synagogue, had a look around and walked out. One hour later, they were back.

"At the kiddush, I asked them: 'Why did you leave?'

"One man told me he had not been to the synagogue for 20 years. He didn't recognise it. He remembered the water leaks, lights and metal windows and thought he had come back to the wrong place."

Today, the community is growing - but as with many synagogues, young members are in the minority. Mr Cohen attributes this to rising house prices rather than disengagement with Judaism.

"Getting young members to Golders Green is very difficult for the simple reason that it is very expensive. They are now living further out of London in places like Borehamwood.

"Some still come here on Shabbat and stay with their parents who are members."

So why does the father-of-four - now frantic over his stained shirt and likely to be late for his meeting - do what he does?

"I don't know. I just love it. Us Jews, we only have our Torah in this world." And with that he's off.

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