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‘A haven in a world gone mad’: Belsize Square Synagogue to mark its 80th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 12:30 14 March 2019

The children and teachers of the synagogue’s religions school, pre 1956. Picture: Belsize Square Synagogue

The children and teachers of the synagogue’s religions school, pre 1956. Picture: Belsize Square Synagogue

Archant

Eighty years ago, on March 24, 1939, Belsize Square Syngagogue conducted its first service. It was a congregation built on the collective trauma of Jewish families who had fled continental Europe as the horrors of the Nazis were laid bare.

A recent lunch celebrating the festival of Shavuot. Picture: Belsize Square SynagogueA recent lunch celebrating the festival of Shavuot. Picture: Belsize Square Synagogue

When it began, the synagogue had no home or permanent rabbi. Lily Montagu – a lay minister and one of the founders of the English Liberal tradition of Judaism – helped provide the fledgling congregation with space to hold services at Montefiore Hall in St John’s Wood.

This was a temporary arrangement – followed by the renting of rooms in Swiss Cottage for services – but it led to the formation of the New Liberal Jewish Association, which became known as the Belsize Square Synagogue in 1971.

This was two decades after the congregation had moved into a converted vicarage in Belsize – its permanent home to this day.

Rabbi Dr Stuart Altshuler spoke to this newspaper about the significance of turning 80.

Friday night Kiddush in 1961. Picture: Belsize Square SynagogueFriday night Kiddush in 1961. Picture: Belsize Square Synagogue

He said: “We are celebrating 80 years and this is a huge milestone for the congregation. It’s incredible. We feel we are still responsible for those who created this back in 1939.

“That was – of course – a particularly traumatic year in which most of the people who founded the synagogue were separated from their families. This was a place of haven and repose in a world gone mad.”

“It’s remarkable to people that we could build something in the midst of that situation.”

Over the decades, the synagogue has evolved while remaining true to the open, welcoming legacy enshrined by its founders.

The synagogue’s current ark- built in 1992 - which holds the Torah scrolls. Picture: Belsize Square SynagogueThe synagogue’s current ark- built in 1992 - which holds the Torah scrolls. Picture: Belsize Square Synagogue

The rabbi added: “The congregation has tried to do two things that make for a special community: preserve our past and adapt to the future. It’s a really tough balance, but it’s worked here.”

Rabbi Altshuler said sadly no one from the early days of the synagogue is still alive, but “we do have the third and fourth generations of families still with us”.

The Belsize Square Synagogue is neither Reform nor Orthodox – it’s a synagogue in the Liberal German tradition, which means it makes no distinction between men and women and places an importance on music and the idea that God’s will is continual.

The old vicarage also became home to the synagogue’s Cheder – its Sunday school – and Belsize Square’s educational ethos goes further, too.

The procession at the Belsize Square Synagogue's 60th anniversary in 1999. Picture; Belsize Square SynagogueThe procession at the Belsize Square Synagogue's 60th anniversary in 1999. Picture; Belsize Square Synagogue

Just this week it has concluded a Holocaust Memorial Day programme that saw 900 students from six schools visit the synagogue to learn about the dark history that led to its beginnings.

Since the synagogue’s foundation, some things have changed to reflect this, Rabbi Altshuler pointed out. The key change is that there is mixed seating.

Another change has been linguistic.

The congregation grew up in Belsize, Rabbi Altshuler explained, because the area attracted German speakers in their droves.

He said: “There were German speaking clubs, German schools, It was a magnet for German speakers. It was only in the 1970s that we stopped holding services in German!”

As a congregation founded on the kindness shown to refugees, the Rabbi said this ethos had continued to inform its values, today too.

“We recognise the sacredness of our historic roots,” he said. “Obviously there is a history we are conscious of.

“It’s a history of opening doors to the people who need a place to go. The desperate situation [of the Jews] was quite unique in 1939. There was a genocide hanging over their heads.

“My position has always been that we have to help those most at risk. I think we have muddled this issue. Refugees who really need help should be a priority for our society.”

The civic service to be held on March 24.

“It’s going to be a great celebration. We will be reading from the Torah and celebrating the talents in the community, the doctors, the lawyers, the writers.

“It’ll be excellent. We are very proud our educational programmes and there’ll be a wonderful concert, too.”

The civic service celebrating the 80th anniversary of the first service held by the Belsize Square Synagogue is set to take place at 3pm on Sunday, March 24, at the Synagogue – 51 Belsize Square, London NW3 4HX.

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