The Beginning - Services at the Institute
In the vestibule of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue (hereafter called 'HGS') the Tablet in honour of the founders is dated 1934 and indeed the United Synagogue (hereafter called 'U.S.') Council Resolution for the Affiliation of the HGS community was passed on 12th February 1934. These dates are, however, misleading. On the one hand the first Synagogue at Norrice Lea was not built until the Autumn of 1935, and on the other hand the Hampstead Garden Suburb Hebrew Congregation, as it was then known, had existed since at least 1932.
In 1930 there was no Synagogue and no Jewish community, and indeed much of the eastern area of the Garden Suburb, including what are now Kingsley Way, Linden Lea, Norrice Lea and Winnington Road, was open fields. The beginnings of the ommunity lie in the first years of the 1930s when a few Jewish families living in the Suburb decided to hold services for the High Holydays. Opinions differ as to the year in which they started but it was probably 1932. The services were held in a room at the Henrietta Barnett School, part of the Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute, and henceforth services took place regularly there on Shabbat mornings. Amongst those who attended services was Dr. Sydney Blackman,who was a major driving force behind the foundation of the community.
The man appointed to conduct the Services was Isaac Cohen (later Professor John Cohen], who was at that time a post-graduate student of psychology and physiology at London University. He had earlier attended Yeshivot in London and Manchester and was recommended for the position by his cousin Barnet Samuel. Professor Cohen remembers being interviewed by a committee at Dr Blackman's home and being appointed at 23 shillings a week. Living in Highgate he would walk over the Heath every Shabbat to the Institute to lead the sevices. He also started the Hebrew Classes for children aged 4 to 14, endeavouring to teach all of them in one class at the same time.
In the files of the U.S. there is a report (unsigned but presumably written by one of the honorary officers of
'Attended the Service which is held in Room 14 on the first floor of the HGS Institute. Arrived at 10.20 am: 6 men were present, one young girl and a small boy (one of the men present looked a positive beggar and his appearance was quite disgusting for a Shabbos].
'Shacharis had finished and a general talk was going on whilst waiting for a minyan ... The girl handed me a Singers Prayer Book ...
'The room was apparently used for some demonstration purposes during the ordinary school period. It had a platform against the wall, running from end to end, upon which the Ark stood. There was a picture of Mona Lisa on the wall, and another picture was reversed.
'A Mr Samuels spoke to me and asked me whether I lived in the locality. He told me that Minyans were very erratic. Generally managed to get a Minyan on Saturday. The maximum attendance of men was about 14.
'At 10.30 am Mr Cohen (Warden) arrived with a little boy, followed by a young man. A few minutes later Mr Webber (Barrister) arrived and the Reading of the Law commenced. They had one normal size Sefer Torah and a very small one in the Ark. A youngish man (Mr Cohen) conducted the service. He was apparently the general factotum. I was called up, and before the conclusion of the Reading another man arrived ... A " grannie" arrived followed by a young woman. Mr Webber read Maftir. Musaph which finished at 11.25 am. During Musaph a number of children arrived intermittently.
'Mr Cohen (?Minister) then motioned to a gentleman sitting on the left, who nodded back. Mr Cohen then gave rather a disjointed talk on the important features of the week's Sedra. (It struck me as rather a novel idea, if only well done. It gave one an insight as to the week's reading and of its religious and moral value). This talk lasted 20 minutes.'
Affiliation with The United Synagogue
Despite the small attendances at the Shabbat morning services, Dr Blackman had reason to believe that the embryonic congregation would grow. The cause of his optimism, and indeed one of the predominant factors in the growth of the congregation, was the opening up of large sections of the west and north areas of the Suburb for building purposes. New houses began to spring up in what was even then regarded as one of the choice areas of outer London. Young Jewish couples were among the steady stream of new residents.
The lack of a proper Synagogue did not deter Jewish settlers. Indeed since walking long distances was not in those days regarded as a hardship, Golders Green Synagogue and the small but growing community in Finchley were both within reach. Some early Suburb residents did originally attend Finchley services but naturally favoured a place of worship nearer to their own homes.
The relationship between HGS and the United Synagogue Honorary Officers was for many years far from smooth. From the outset considerable pressure was applied to stifle the emergence of the new community. The U.S. Honorary Officers and Finchley Synagogue pressed HGS to amalgamate with Finchley and in 1933 several meetings took place between representatives of both communities under the chairmanship of an Honorary Officer of the U.S.
In January 1934 Dr Blackman having resisted these initial pressures, applied to the U.S. to obtain Burial Rights for the members of HGS, but the U.S. refused to grant them unless HGS became affiliated to the U.S. and consequently on 12th February 1934 the U.S. Council voted for the affiliation of HGS. In March 1934 the Jewish Chronicle reported that at a Special Meeting of the HGS Hebrew Congregation held at the Institute, resolutions were passed for affiliation with . the U.S. and for the
acquisition of a site in Norrice Lea for a Synagogue, 'that over £300 was subscribed for the building fund and that after the meeting the members and their friends were entertained to tea by the newly formed Ladies Guild and the children of the Hebrew and Religion Classes presented a play'. It is evident that even before the Synagogue was opened in 1935 the HGS Hebrew Congregation was already a flourishing, albeit small, community. There were Building, Finance, Education and Social Committees and an active Ladies Guild, and Hebrew Classes which met three times a week.
Dr Blackman was reluctant to sign any agreement with the United Synagogue until it formally agreed to the purchase of the Norrice Lea site which it was reluctant to do. In May 1934 Sir Robert Waley-Cohen, to Dr Blackman that HGS should amalgamate with the Highgate community. He suggested that a site be found between the two areas for both congregations. The two men and a Highgate representative later met and toured the district looking for suitable sites, but the proposition was found to be impracticable.
It was not until 8th October 1934, when Sir Robert returned the Affiliation documents duly executed, that Dr Blackman felt satisfied that the U.S. would agree to a Synagogue in Norrice Lea.
The First Synagogue
On 29th November 1934 the United .Synagogue formally agreed to lend £1,000 of the £1,500 needed to erect a hall at Norrice Lea to accommodate 150 people. Even then it was envisaged that something larger would soon be required. Accordingly, three months later, before any action had been taken met Sir Isidore Salmon, MP, Vice President of the United Synagogue to discuss a larger building and a larger loan. Dr Blackman stated that at the time HGS had 33 male members and 25 children who regularly attended classes. Sir Isidore wanted HGS to persuade more people to commit themselves to joining the Synagogue immediately. Dr Blackman explained that he could double the membership within six weeks, but only when the building was already up. The U.S. agreed to consider the matter further.
The HGS community was determined to have its own Synagogue and was busy raising funds for this purpose. On 22nd February 1935 the Jewish Chronicle reported that a successful dance was held at the Westminster Palace Rooms in aid of the Synagogue Building Fund. The function had been organised by the Ladies Guild and nearly £400 was collected.
On 4th March 1935 Dr Blackman informed the United Synagogue.,who had not yet arrived at any decision, that it was essential for the building to be ready in time for the High Holydays, and blamed the US. for the long delays which were causing his congregation to disintegrate. He added that suggestions had been made to the effect that HGS should dis-affiliate from the U.S., put up a building themselves and then consider whether to join the U.S. or any other synagogual organisation. U.S. records indicate that in April and May Dr Blackman was in contact with the U.S. nearly every day complaining of the delay and a U.S. memo stated that 'it was found necessary to be exceedingly careful with the correspondence of HGS and to keep a sharp eye open for "tactical" moves of Dr Blackman'.
On 22nd June 1935 the U.S. Honorary Officers, although concerned that HGS had only 33 members, finally agreed to lend £1,800 towards the £2,700 now required for the building on the local community under- taking to achieve a male membership of at least 82 by the time the Synagogue would be opened. The US, in agreeing, were strongly influenced by the fact that HGS, by already raising £900 had showed that they were in earnest.
In the event, the Synagogue, a small one-room structure, was completed in time for Rosh Hashana (The Jewish New Year) 1935. The foundation stone was formally laid by Sir Robert Waley-Cohen on 23rd June 1935 when Dayan Lazarus delivered an Address.. Mr John Segal, a founder member, recalls that Sir Robert, in his speech that day, stated that the impressive silver trowel given him for the ceremony was,as always on such occasions, in inverse proportion to the size of the proposed building! At that time the congregation adopted the name 'Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue'.
For the Services men sat at the front and the women at the back, and for the purpose of Hebrew Classes a folding door could divide the room into two units. The building resembled a hall rather than a Synagogue and it was already envisaged that when the congregation grew larger the building would eventually be used solely as the hall and classrooms, and that a more substantial Synagogue would be built alongside. None the-less, this first Synagogue was a great achievement for the small community. It was officially opened on 22nd September 1935. In recognition of his continuous support, Mr Morris Cohen was presented witha solid gold key and given the honour of opening the building.
The site at Norrice Lea had originally been offered to the community by Mr Meckhonik, a founder member, who as a builder had obtained options to purchase many sites in the area. He allowed the congregation to take up his option on one condition - that his own Architect, Maurice DeMetz should design the Synagogue. From the start it was realised that he position of the Ark would be a problem. The site at Norrice Lea faced East and therefore if the Ark was placed in the East ( facing Jerusalem as is the custom) it would occupy the front position of the site. It was not, however, practicable to have the entrance of the Synagogue at the rear of this site, and accordingly the Ark faced West, as indeed it still does in the Synagogue today.
Early Years of the Synagogue
Professor Cohen (Isaac Cohen) has good reason to remember the first services held in the new Synagogue. He had gone there the day before Rosh Hashana to practice his Shofar blowing. It sounded fine, but on the following morning, first day Yom Tov, when he raised the Shofar to his lips, no matter how hard he tried, he could not produce a single sound. All would-be blowers came up in turn to try but no one succeeded. One member, with perhaps more experience in these matters than the rest,
said that the Shofar had probably become affected by the damp atmosphere during the night in the new building. Accordingly he took it home where it dried out over night. The young Isaac Cohen blew it perfectly on the second day.
On 14th February 1936, in the calmer atmosphere now prevailing, HGS met the U.S. to discuss the possibility of a Minister for the community. HGS informed the U.S. that they now had 81 members and only one official Mr Isaac Cohen (whose salary had by that time increased to £3 a week). HGS stated that they wanted as Minister Rev. Isaac Levy, then a student Minister at Hampstead. By May 1936 Rev.Levy had become the first Minister at Norrice Lea. He was also the official Secretary as well as being Chazan and Headmaster of the Hebrew Classes. His duties did not end there; he was expected to devote much of his time to recruiting new members. To this end he was in close touch with the local builders and estate agents who would inform him of any possible Iewish newcomers to the area. As Rev. Levy puts it he 'moved in with the furniture’, immediately calling on the new Jewish residents, and where possible, enrolling them as members.
At that time the vast majority of members were young married couples. Rev. Levy himself joined their ranks when, in 1937, he was married in the Synagogue (after first putting up his own Chupah and arranging the chairs!).
There were geographical limits to the congregation - much narrower than today. Although a few members did live in the older part, near the Institute, most lived in the new sections of the Suburb. Many roads, including Norrice Lea, were not yet made up. Conductors on buses stopping on Lyttelton Road at the junction with Norrice Lea would call out ‘anyone for the Lake District' - so well known were the potholes in Norrice Lea, especially when filled with rainwater.
Early in March 1937, Dr Blackman bowed out of office.In May 1937 the U.S. Council approved a scheme for enlarging the HGS Synagogue, the extension to take the form of four classrooms which, by removal of folding partitions, would serve also for communal gatherings and form part of the main building on special occasions, such as the High Holydays. Of the £2,000 required the community would raise £750, the balance being loaned by the U.S. The extension was necessitated by the steady influx of Jewish residents to the area. At the time the male membership was 140, but it was anticipated that by the Autumn of 1937 it would be about 200. The community worked hard to raise the necessary monies, for example, a successful Ball was held on 31st October 1937 at the Cafe Royal in aid of the Building Fund.
The Re-consecration service of the Synagogue took place on 1st September 1937. The ceremony was performed by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Hertz, assisted by Rev. 1. Levy. The enlarged building was formally opened by Mr Oscar Deutsch (Chairman of Odeon Theatres) a financial benefactor of the Synagogue.
Three days after they had been sent an invitation to attend the Reconsecration Service the Synagogue’s landlords, Co-Partnership Tenants Limited wrote to Rev. Levy complaining about the state of the Synagogue grounds: 'At the present time it is very untidy and the neighbours complain that it harbours rats which come up out of the brook'. Despite minor problems of this nature, Rev. Levy's ministry was relatively untroubled.
Rev. Levy had very warm memories of his ministry at HGS. It was an exciting period in which he actively participated in the growth of the congregation. It was a very friendly community with that wonderful sense of intimacy that perhaps can. exist only in a small close-knit community. Most of the members, Rev. Levy recalls, were ‘Shul-goers’ and when services finished at about 11.30 on Shabbat mornings, visiting numerous kiddushim was the order of the day. Rev. Levy's Ministry atHGS came to "an end in 1939 when he received a call to the Bayswater Synagogue.
The Second Synagogue .
Rev. Harry Bornstein was appointed Minister early in 1938. A graduate of Cambridge, Etz Chaim Yeshiva and Jews College, he was currently Minister of the South-East London Synagogue, New Cross. He was inducted into office at Norrice Lea by Chief Rabbi Hertz on 3rd April 1938. Rev. Bornstein was a spiritual leader possessed of great zeal and enthusiasm, and in a short time became much loved and admired by the community. The Synagogue also acquired its first official, albeit temporary, Chazan in that year when Rev. Emil Nemeth was engaged as Temporary Assistant Minister (Reader) and Teacher' at a salary of £182 per year.
By February 1939 the influx of Jewish residents had resulted in an increase in the male members to 255. The Board decided that the time had arrived to build on the vacant land adjoining the existing premises. The proposed building would be used as a Synagogue leaving the existing building free for use as classrooms, communal hall and for overflow services. The single storey Synagogue would have accommodation for over 500 people and be constructed so as to allow of the addition of a gallery at a later date. Of the estimated cost of £6,300 HGS would provide £1,440 and the balance would be borrowed from the U.S.
The new building was completed by November 1939 at which time permission was granted by the U.S. Honorary Officers to consecrate and bring it into use.