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It's getting better for heritage shuls

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Historic synagogues are in better shape than was the case five years ago, a Jewish Heritage report has found.

"Things are looking up" for communities with listed buildings said Jewish Heritage director and report author Dr Sharman Kadish. The number receiving grants has increased and there is "better awareness about maintenance". Success stories "demonstrate that well-maintained buildings stimulate more activity inside them".

For example, Singers Hill in Birmingham, Britain's oldest "cathedral" synagogue, has recently undergone a major interior renovation funded by donations from private members who raised more than £80,000. Synagogue president Keith Rowe said it was the first major refurbishment project in 60 years.

"There is always something to be repaired", he said of the Grade II-listed building which was consecrated in 1856. Maintenance of a listed building was costly due to the restrictions placed on the kinds of materials and methods that could be used.

The renovation was part of a revitalisation programme that has been ongoing for 10 years and had seen the appointment of a new rabbinical couple and a fresh programme of community events.

Well maintained buildings stimulate more activity inside them Dr Sharman Kadish

"I don't think the building by itself can stimulate things," said Mr Rowe, "but it is part of the package you offer members. We fought very hard to preserve the community and the building. They go together. We cannot have one without the other," he stressed.

Leicester Hebrew Congregation opted to keep its Victorian synagogue and sell off its 1950s shul hall. The community has received three heritage grants amounting to around £145,000 for repairs and development. One of the biggest repairs was fixing leaks in the dome of the shul. The congregation now has plans for an atrium to join the two wings of the synagogue, allowing for disabled access and a Shabbat lift.

LHC chairman Gary Kramer said the community had worked hard with English Heritage to ensure that grant applications would be approved. "By achieving success with this project, we will, I hope, bring in more members."

Jewish Heritage promotes the conservation of listed synagogues, from 18th-century buildings - the oldest being Bevis Marks in London - up to shuls constructed in the 1960s. The report is its second five-yearly survey. Seven of the 45 heritage buildings are no longer in use.

Despite the overall improvement, Dr Kadish said challenges remained, particularly for "at risk" northern shuls. In recent times, listed synagogues in Sunderland, Blackpool and Liverpool have closed.

Communal donors needed to be more prepared to support heritage projects as grants often did not cover the full cost of repairs. "It is an uphill struggle. We would really like to create some kind of cultural conservation fund," she added.

"When it is the only synagogue in town, it has relevance to contemporary concerns, such as inter-community relations. It is not just the past, but about now and the future. We do have a responsibility. Non-Jews are often very complimentary and appreciative about them [the buildings] whereas we take them for granted."

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