The East London Central synagogue (Nelson Street) was founded in 1923.  On Sunday 29 September 2013 it celebrated its 90th birthday with a big party - many happy returns!  We were there

When I took my seat in this most beautiful and venerable of buildings I introduced myself to my neighbour, Andy Strowman.  I asked him if he had any special memories of the Nelson Street community.  He reminisced about Rabbi Szoszuah Szpetman, the Nelson Street rabbi of his youth some 60 years earlier.  He remembered that when the rabbi gave his sermon the children rushed to leave the sanctuary as quickly as possible.  The sermon was always in Yiddish and given from the box next to the ark.  On their exit from the sanctuary the children would detour via the wardens’ box in front of the bimah.  If the children had been good, chocolate would magically appear from the cupboard below the wardens’ seats and be handed to them.  The shul’s shamash, a gentleman by the name of Manashah Pugachow, had a particularly ferocious reputation.  If he heard you talking or otherwise misbehaving during the service he would give you a horrible scowl and bang loudly with his fist on his wooden bench, and if he really took a dislike to you, you were better off finding another shul!  His brother was Max Dove and he was a warden of the shul.  Max was married to the saintly Yiddie Dove, a lady who was a friend to all.  Simchat Torah was an especially enjoyable time for the children.  They would gather at the bimah and the women from the ladies guild in the upstairs gallery would throw them sweets.Sometimes the sweets would hit the children but this was considered a small price to pay for the prospect of filling your pockets with goodies.  Andy’s great Aunt, Rachel Cohen, was an accomplished piano player who had the job of playing the piano at community simchas.  In earlier times Rachel also played the piano at local cinemas providing background music to silent films.  She specialised in playing along to Charlie Chaplin films.  While Andy was speaking, former Board of Deputies president and Nelson Street member Henry Grunwald O.B.E. Q.C. sat down next to us.  He was very particular about where he sat and explained that he was sitting in his father’s former seat.

The celebration was introduced by Nelson Street President, Leon Silver.  Leon began by passing on the good wishes of the two local MPs.  Leon then related how his grandfather had been one of the founder members of the synagogue at a time when there were close to 150 synagogues in and around the East End.  Leon went on to explain the origin of the synagogue’s first name and its evolution into the East London Central Synagogue.  At its founding the shul was called Nelson Street Sfardish synagogue, and there were other Sfardish shuls in the area, such as Philpot Street Sfardish synagogue.  Philpot Street eventually amalgamated with Nelson Street.  The name Sfardish refers to a style of service that differs slightly from mainstream Ashkenazi and is similar to Hassidic usage.  Sfardish is not to be confused with Sephardic.  The order of service and certain extra words to some of the prayers are similar to Sephardic tradition, but the Hebrew pronunciation and tunes are Ashkenazi, as are most of the congregation.  As time went by and people moved out of the East End to the suburbs, many synagogues closed.  This resulted in over 20 synagogues uniting with what had then become the East London Amalgamated synagogue.  In 1975 the synagogue was renamed East London Central Synagogue.Today it is the East End’s only surviving purpose built synagogue and one of just three remaining in the East End.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Rabbi Austin, then spoke. He reminded the packed building that Nelson Street was a bastion of spirituality and had been for 90 years.  He hoped it would remain so for another 90 years.  It was a remnant of the glorious Jewish history of Tower Hamlets and had to be preserved.

Jan McHarry of the London Buddhist centre was next.  She spoke of exiting events that took place in 1923, the year of the synagogue’s founding: the first refrigerator, the arrival on the scene of popular black musicians such as Louis Armstrong and more.  She said that 1923 was a good and auspicious year to have been founded.  She wished the community a very happy birthday.

Reverend Alan Green of St. John's-on-Bethnal Green church and chair of Tower Hamlet’s interfaith forum, then spoke. He thanked the community for 90 years of prayer, dedication and service to the local community.

Jeecs chairman Clive Bettington was next on his feet.  His message was that all of us have a duty to save buildings like Nelson Street in order to honour the Jewish past and protect the Jewish present.

Julie Begum, co-chair of the Bengali Swadhinata Trust spoke after Clive.  She praised the Nelson Street community for playing a pivotal role in enhancing relationships between different faith groups and for helping to facilitate the ability of all faiths in the area to celebrate life affirming events together.

Father Tom O’Brien of Our Lady of the Assumption Roman Catholic church, reminded the audience of Nelson Street’s historic assistance to local poor with the setting up of soup kitchens and other charities.  It had also provided a welcoming haven for refugees fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.  He described Nelson Street as a jewel in London’s East End.

Ram Chandra Saha of the Hindu Vivekananda Human centre said he was proud to be amongst a community that promoted respect for all.

The Reverend Sigrid Werner of the United Reformed Church spoke of the need to preserve Nelson Street shul as one of the few remaining bastions of Judaism in the East End, and along with the other speakers, wished Nelson Street a very happy birthday.

Dilowar Khan, executive director of the East London Mosque/London Muslim Centre, spoke of how much Jews and Muslims have in common, and how happy he was to have Jewish neighbours.  He was especially grateful to Nelson Street for its assistance in combating local racism, a threat against which all decent people must remain vigilant.

Jeecs member and chairman of the charity Firemen Remembered, Stephanie Maltman was next.  She explained that her charity was dedicated to preserving the memory of the brave firefighters who gave their lives protecting London’s East End during the War.  She reminded us that at that time some 90 per cent of local fire fighters were Jewish and many of them would have been members of Nelson Street shul.

Former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Professor Maxwell Hutchinson, followed Stephanie.  Professor Hutchinson is Nelson Street’s project manager for interaction with Tower Hamlet’s recently introduced Mayor’s Faith Buildings Fund.  The Fund has granted Nelson Street £10,000 to commission a structural survey of the building.  When completed, Professor Hutchinson anticipates applying to the Fund for a further grant to renovate the building.  He spoke with great passion as he explained that Nelson Street’s building was more than just a shell: it was a place of joy, celebration, simchas and so much more and that it was his mission to preserve and protect all that it represents for the benefit of future generations.

Henry Grunwald O.B.E. Q.C. spoke of the proud Jewish history of Tower Hamlets.  When he was a boy his family belonged to Dunk Street synagogue. When that closed they joined Grove Street synagogue, and when that closed, New Road synagogue. When New Road closed in 1974 the family moved to Nelson Street synagogue where he has been a member ever since.For him Nelson Street was full of precious memories.  He recalled on Simchat Torah how he and his friends would tour the 15 or so adjacent synagogues and come away with a bag of sweets from each one. Happy days!  He spoke of Jewish aspiration and how this resulted in so many of the tiny East End synagogues prefixing their names with the title ‘Great’:as in Great Alie Street synagogue, Great Garden Street synagogue - hope for the future and pride in the present. Henry joked about a Yiddish translation of the complete works of Shakespeare that had appeared in his youth and was subtitled in Yiddish with a phrase which translates to: ‘translated and improved upon’.  This was not meant as a joke!  Henry finished with the thought that though so much has gone, Nelson Street remains, and please God it will remain here for many more years.

The Bishop of Stepney, the Right Reverend Adrian Newman, spoke next saying how glad he was to be here on such a happy day.  The community was a witness to the value of Judaism in London’s East End.  Its presence had eased the way for later immigrants and was a living part of the history and culture of the East End.  He described Leon Silver as a wonderful ambassador for his faith, an asset to Tower Hamlets and an absolute star.

The final speaker was Lutfur Rahman, Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets.  He wished everyone Salaam/shalom and said how glad he was to be able to play a role helping to protect Tower Hamlet’s faith buildings.  The continuance of all faith communities in Tower Hamlets was precious to him, with none more so than the community at Nelson Street.  He wished all present ‘Happy Birthday’ and was warmly applauded.

With the speakers finished, the eating and drinking began as we enjoyed the magnificent spread Leon Silver had arranged for this joyful occasion.  Here’s to the next 90 years!

Philip Walker


The left hand photo is of three friends of Nelson Street, and the right hand photo is of shul President Leon Silver with Lutfer Rahman, the Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets.


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