story icon The Synagogues of the West End

Contributed by: Jewish Museum, London



The Western Synagogue, established in 1761, was the elder among synagogues and said to be 'a lighthouse of Judaism to many that otherwise might have been swallowed up by the waters of assimilation'. A secessionist group formed the Maiden Lane Synagogue in 1821.

In 1840, members of the established families such as the Mocattas, Montefiores and Goldsmids - whose interests covered law, commerce and banking - joined forces to form the West London Synagogue of British Jews, the forerunner of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. Subsequently, in 1853, the Sephardim opened a branch of Bevis Marks in Wigmore Street prior to the establishment of the Lauderdale Road Synagogue in Maida Vale. In 1855, the Ashkenazi community also established a branch of the Great Synagogue (Duke's Place) in Great Portland Street, which in 1870 became the Central Synagogue. It was considered the most anglicised amongst West End synagogues and referred to as a place for 'those who have forgotten - or would like to forget - their native Yiddish'.

In 1842, the West London Synagogue of British Jews was founded in Bloomsbury, moving to its present location in Upper Berkeley Street in 1870.

"When we were young, most old Jewish families lived between Gloucester Square and Portland Place, and they all went to synagogue on Saturday - either Upper Berkeley Street or Great Portland Street. Everyone walked there, dressed in black, and the men wore top hats."

"The magnificent and prestigious Central Synagogue was considered too posh for many Sohoites. Despite that, many chose it as the venue for their weddings."

In nearby Soho and Fitzrovia, for the predominant immigrant community, the established West End synagogues were seen as too formal, too anglicised or too far away to reach by foot. Wanting to preserve the intimate style of worship familiar from life in Eastern Europe, they started the West End Talmud Torah in 1880. Situated above a shop in Green's Court for many years, By 1903, the new congregation had 283 members, and in 1910 it merged with the 'West London and Bikkur Cholim Burial Society' and became the 'West End Talmud Torah and Bikkur Cholim'. In 1916, the community acquired new premises at 13 Manette Street. In 1910, the Beth Hasepher Synagogue was founded in Soho Square, and became a centre of Zionist activity and education, with cheder classes taught in modern Hebrew. The two synagogues later merged in 1948, assuming a new name - the West End Great Synagogue -, and its last site was in Dean Street until it closed in the 1990s.

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Ferber the leader of the West End Talmud Torah, was born in Kovno, Lithuania, and came to England as a young man. He was known as a rabbi of the old school, a scholar and writer of commentaries. Taking advantage of his location in the West End, he visited the Oriental Room of the British Museum every day. Reverend Saul Amias served as hazan (cantor).

"Preaching his sermons in Yiddish, Rabbi Ferber could bring his congregation to tears of nostalgia. Then he would turn to English and joke, and get everyone laughing within the space of two sentences."

"All my contemporaries - hundreds of boys and girls from both sides of Oxford Street - attended the cheder at the tiny Manette Street Synagogue. Our respective Bar Mitzvahs took place on the small bimah, flanked by the wardens, Mr Cohen and Mr Raphael, and facing the saintly Rabbi Ferber, whose gentle, high-pitched voice I can hear in my mind today."

"He was one of the best Jewish orators of the day. When he left his seat, everyone stood up and bowed towards him as a sign of respect."

"Anything that went wrong, my grandmother would go to Rabbi Ferber. She used to think that he was God. Any money she could collect she would pass on to him to give to the poor."

"Reverend Amias had a neat beard, flowing hair and a wide-brimmed black hat. He was known as the 'Bishop of the West End' and was very popular. Every year he led the overflow services for High Holydays at the Scala Theatre in Charlotte Street."

The West Central Liberal Synagogue was established by Lily Montagu and Claude Montefiore in 1928. with the objective of making prayers accessible to a wider community - particularly the young men and women who attended the Clubs. Sabbath services were held in the afternoon to accommodate those obliged to work on Saturday mornings, both English and Hebrew were used, and men and women sat together.



downloads (JML) 688.1
Western Synagogue

Catalogue Reference:
(JML) 688.1

In nearby Soho and Fitzrovia, for the predominant immigrant community, the established West End synagogues were seen as too formal, too anglicised or too far away to reach by foot. Wanting to preserve the intimate style of worship familiar from life in Eastern Europe, they started the West End Talmud Torah in 1880. Situated above a shop in Green's Court for many years, By 1903, the new congregation had 283 members, and in 1910 it merged with the 'West London and Bikkur Cholim Burial Society' and became the 'West End Talmud Torah and Bikkur Cholim'. In 1916, the community acquired new premises at 13 Manette Street. In 1910, the Beth Hasepher Synagogue was founded in Soho Square, and became a centre of Zionist activity and education, with cheder classes taught in modern Hebrew. The two synagogues later merged in 1948, assuming a new name - the West End Great Synagogue -, and its last site was in Dean Street until it closed in the 1990s.

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Ferber the leader of the West End Talmud Torah, was born in Kovno, Lithuania, and came to England as a young man. He was known as a rabbi of the old school, a scholar and writer of commentaries. Taking advantage of his location in the West End, he visited the Oriental Room of the British Museum every day. Reverend Saul Amias served as hazan (cantor).

"Preaching his sermons in Yiddish, Rabbi Ferber could bring his congregation to tears of nostalgia. Then he would turn to English and joke, and get everyone laughing within the space of two sentences."

"All my contemporaries - hundreds of boys and girls from both sides of Oxford Street - attended the cheder at the tiny Manette Street Synagogue. Our respective Bar Mitzvahs took place on the small bimah, flanked by the wardens, Mr Cohen and Mr Raphael, and facing the saintly Rabbi Ferber, whose gentle, high-pitched voice I can hear in my mind today."

"He was one of the best Jewish orators of the day. When he left his seat, everyone stood up and bowed towards him as a sign of respect."

"Anything that went wrong, my grandmother would go to Rabbi Ferber. She used to think that he was God. Any money she could collect she would pass on to him to give to the poor."

"Reverend Amias had a neat beard, flowing hair and a wide-brimmed black hat. He was known as the 'Bishop of the West End' and was very popular. Every year he led the overflow services for High Holydays at the Scala Theatre in Charlotte Street."

The West Central Liberal Synagogue was established by Lily Montagu and Claude Montefiore in 1928. with the objective of making prayers accessible to a wider community - particularly the young men and women who attended the Clubs. Sabbath services were held in the afternoon to accommodate those obliged to work on Saturday mornings, both English and Hebrew were used, and men and women sat together.

Taken from interviews compiled by the Jewish Museum London for the temporary exhibition: Living Up West: Jewish Life in London's West End, first shown in 1994. It is also available as a touring exhibition, and also an accompanying 332-page book written by Gerry Black. The full interviews and transcripts are available for consultation in the Oral History archive at the Jewish Museum, London. To find out more about the Jewish Museum, London visit www.jewishmuseum.org.uk.

(JML) 688.6
Western Synagogue Appeal Brochure

Catalogue Reference:
(JML) 688.6
(JML) 862.1
West End Barmitzvah

Catalogue Reference:
(JML) 862.1


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