Taken to the cleaners in multifaith East End project

A Muslim charity brought in Jews and Christians for a bridge-building project at a synagogue and church


To combat the “misconception of hate” between faiths, Jews, Muslims and Christians have joined forces to clean an East End synagogue and church.

The clean-up was organised through the Abraham Initiative, a project overseen by Muslim Aid. The charity said it was the first time many of its 70 volunteers had stepped foot in a different place of worship — or even met people from another religion.

East London Central Synagogue in Whitechapel and St John on Bethnal Green Church were the project’s beneficiaries.

Beverley Cohen, a Muslim Aid interfaith worker, said it was moving to see young Muslim children taking a tour of the shul — and members of the three faiths “scrubbing away side by side, working on our holy places, building community cohesion and focusing on our similarities rather than our differences”.

Synagogue president Leon Silver, 68, said cross-communal relations had “improved enormously” in the borough in recent years.

“Our communities have got to know each other more. There are a lot of people around here who are very dedicated to that.

“The rabbi here — he’s Lubavitch —has worked here for 20 years. A number of years ago I would have to escort him on Shabbos as far as Bethnal Green Road. A few times a year, we’d get abused.

“But in the past four or five years there has been only one incident, when someone threw an egg at him. He even takes his 13-year-old boy and he wouldn’t do that if it wasn’t safe. So things have improved.

“There’s always a peak when tensions are high in the Middle East,” Mr Silver added. “But during the last Gaza war, when there was a big increase in antisemitic incidents across the country, there was no increase here in Tower Hamlets.”

Muslim Aid officer Zakaria Hussain came up with the idea for the Abraham Initiative. He said the point of the day had been getting people to know one another in a positive cause.

“The religious element is not going to define them but their humanity instead.”

But he had also been keen to help maintain the synagogue building, a focal point for the dwindling local Jewish community.

“The story behind the people who lived here and what they stood for represents what Tower Hamlets is all about,” Mr Hussain, 27, reflected. “There is a real sense of community spirit and care here.”

Mr Silver has lived in nearby Commercial Road for almost his entire life. He said that by the 1980s, many Jews had moved away.

“The area has changed enormously. There are closed synagogues on almost every street corner — there were so many that existed. Our membership is ageing and we could do with younger members.”

Before the removal of Lutfur Rahman as Mayor of Tower Hamlets over electoral fraud, the synagogue had been in line for a council grant of up to £350,000 for restoration and refurbishment.

The money had not been forthcoming and the congregation was still seeking funding for the “essential” work.

“At least 20 other shuls have closed or amalgamated,” Mr Silver said.

“There’s no longer a Jewish butcher or a baker here — nothing. If we close, what sign will there be that we were ever here?”

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