If you’re going to tell the story of an Anglo-Jewish institution, the 144-year-old New West End Synagogue, what better way to do it than through extracts from another venerable institution the 182-year-old Jewish Chronicle?
That’s what the shul’s composer-in-residence Benjamin Till decided when he wrote a new work to celebrate the shul’s history, Time, which will be performed at the Bayswater synagogue on January 14. Almost all of the libretto is taken from the JC’s archive. And there was certainly no shortage of material to choose from.
“On the afternoon of the Day of Atonement, towards the close of the Musaph Service,” reported the JC of October 17 1913, “the worshippers at the New West End Synagogue were startled by hearing three women in the gallery exclaim: “May God forgive Herbert Samuel and Sir Rufus Isaacs for denying freedom to women; may God forgive them for consenting to the torture of women.”
If the worshippers were startled by the suffragettes, the JC was appalled. It thundered: “If, as is said, these sirens were Jewesses, their outputs gives striking proof that there are really no lengths or depths to which these quasi-demented creatures these blackguards in bonnets will not go in their madness.”
Time will be performed by nine singers at the shul’s Grade I listed building in St Petersburg Place, Bayswater. It includes items such as the introduction of electric light in 1894, two world wars, rumours of a ghost of a young girl in white and the bomb with a swastika scrawled on it that was thrown through the shul hall’s window in 1965. The kitchen floor was “slightly disfigured” reported the JC.
Till wants to celebrate the “very special place” the New West End has had in Anglo-Jewish history, ever since an appeal for funds was placed in the JC in January 1876 for “contributions towards the erection of a synagogue in the West-end of London, within about a mile westward of the Great Western Railway Station at Paddington. The urgent want of such a synagogue has long been felt…”
Here during the First World War, Belgian refugees were housed. In 1936 the Liberal politician Herbert Samuel, a celebrated member, made an appeal for Anglo-Jewry to help Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.
The New West End has a radical past, says Till, with its congregants calling for change both within the Jewish world and outside it. As well as the suffragettes who protested in 1913, a shul member was the first to be imprisoned by the notorious ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act designed to foil suffragettes on hunger strike. He was Hugh Franklin, a male suffragist, nephew of Herbert Samuel and uncle of Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who helped discover DNA. In 1971, 2,000 women assembled at the shul to march to the Russian embassy demanding that Soviet refuseniks should be freed.
English politician, Liberal MP and philosophical writer, Sir Herbert Louis Samuel (1870 - 1963) (Photo by Vandyk/Getty Images)
In the 1960s the New West End, United Synagogue, was in the eye of the storm that split Orthodox Judaism when its rabbi, Dr Louis Jacobs, controversially cast doubt on the literal truth of the Torah. For that the Chief Rabbi sacked him, and he went on to form a new synagogue and Britain’s Masorti movement, along with half of his congregation. “The wind of change blowing through churches and religions has become a tempest,” commented the JC.
Till hopes the piece will give British Jews a feeling of pride. “So often British Jews look elsewhere for a sense of their identity, to America or Israel,” he said. “This wealth of stories tells us how much history we have here.”
Unusually, the synagogue has no clock. But a nearby church has a bell, which is rung every 15 minutes, and its chimes are incorporated into the piece, as are the numerous mentions in the JC over the years of the shul’s choir. Through two world wars, Till pointed out, regular adverts appeared in the JC seeking choristers.
The final extract from the JC’s pages come from the 2019 review by our Secret Shulgoer, the late Rina Wolfson.
She wrote: “I’d expected formality, and stiffness and a strict focus on decorum. What I actually experienced was genuine warmth. It was, without question, the most welcoming and friendly experience I’ve had at shul for a very long time. However impressive and stunning the physical surroundings, the real beauty of this synagogue is the people that make up its community.”
This, says Till, summed up perfectly what he loves about the New West End.