Thursday, August 19, 2010

Boundary Road Shul - A sign of things to come in Britain.

My parents have just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. For this great occasion they rented out the beautiful hall in Boundary Road shul.

We had the great pleasure of travelling to Britain and being part of my parent's simcha. We also had the honour of visiting this lovely old shul in Leyton, London which everyone calls Boundary Road shul despite its official name being the "Waltham Forest Hebrew Congregation". It actually has an older name, that being the "Walthamstow and Leyton Synagogue".

The shul was founded in 1902 by a community that moved into the area from the East End. What immediately strikes you about the outside of the building is that it looks like a church and indeed that is exactly what it was. The inside however is typical of English shuls of the early 20th century. Wood panelled walls and benches and stained glass windows. You could just imagine the Jews of the early 20th century in shul with their coattails and top hats.

The shul is looked after by a dedicated caretaker called Tom. Although not Jewish, he wears a kippa while on guard outside the shul and talks with love and pride of his 30 years plus service to the shul. He showed me the Magen-David symbols he chiselled into the walls of the building all around the outside. I asked him why he wears a kippa if he isn't Jewish? He laughed and replied that in his opinion, he's a lot more Jewish than some of the people that come here. How could I reply to such a comment?

Unfortunately the once vibrant community has long since moved away from the area. The shul has no Rabbi but the acting reverend, Rev Stewart Myers, told me that they do get a minyan for Shabbos although he says in order for this to happen he needs to act like Lord Nelson at Trafalgar. When I asked what he meant by this he embarrassingly explained that like Nelson who looked through his telescope with his blind eye, so he turns a blind eye to how the minyan gets to the shul on Shabbos morning.

We asked Tom if he could open the shul for us so that we could daven Maariv and take some photos. He was more than happy to show off "his" shul. Just outside the shul, in the corridor, was a photo on the wall of the founding Rabbi, Rev. Dr. Gollancz (seen in the top right hand corner of the following photo). The strange thing was that he had no head covering!?

When the mix dancing began I told my parents that we would go for a walk around the area and come back in an hour. They frowned and told us that the area was now predominantly Asian and they were afraid that we would be in danger looking so openly Jewish. I instead asked Tom if he could open the Beis Midrash for us. He gladly opened it and my kids and I spent a couple of hours looking though the seferim on the shelves. There were rows and rows of machzorim, gemoros and other books of halacha that were all printed in Vilna around the 1860s. They were in a terrible state of disrepair. As we turned the pages, the corners of the pages were crumbling in our hands. I was amazed to see in this massive machzor for Pesach, Vilna 1862, where I found actual matzah crumbs inside. I wonder how old those crumbs were or when the last time that machzor had been used?

There was also a row of little booklets written for soldiers of His/Her Majesty's Armed Forces during the First and Second World War. Some dated 1915, others 1941. Inside these booklets we found articles giving chizuk to the Jewish soldiers at war, as well as patriotic essays and poems written by British Jews. We left Boundary Road shul with a feeling of great sadness. Almost all the shuls that we visited in Britain had a similar story to tell; that of past grandeur and now a community in the process of collapse.

I consider Boundary Road shul a sign of things to come in most of Britain. When we spent a Shabbos in Giffnock, Glasgow, we were told that most of the shuls and cheders in Scotland had closed or are in the process of closing. Clarkston shul closes next month apparantly. Giffnock itself, once a strong community gets a Shabbos minyan of mostly elderly men despite the valient magnificent efforts of the amazing "larger than life" Rabbi Rubin. I asked where all the kids were? Maybe they were in summer camp I inquired? The answer I received was that there were hardly any children left. The families had either moved to Manchester, London and Israel or had assimilated. Giffnock had recently spent huge sums of money moving with great care, the beautiful stain glass windows of the now closed Queens Park shul to their building. I asked where they thought the glass would we moved to next? I was answered with a sad look and total silence.

Originally in Queens Park Shul. Now in Giffnock, Scotland. Where to next?

Dwindling attendance at Wanstead and Woodford Shul cheder. Redbridge.

The first tell-tail sign of a shul and its community in collapse is the closing of their shul cheder. Isn't it obvious to anyone that no children means no future even if membership figures are strong? Unfortunately, most English Jews I spoke to were in a state of denial. For example, when I commented about this to a relative of mine he indignantly insisted that when a shul ceases to be active it only means that the Jews have moved to other areas. One shul closes and another opens up he told me. I respectfully disagreed. I told him that from what I see, these communities died because the majority of the community assimilated and no longer identified themselves as Jews. The remainder moved to more vibrant communities. It was a case of constant retreat in the face of assimilation and regrouping in those communities that are still left.

Gants Hill, Redbridge, once the largest Jewish community in Europe and the place where I grew up has seen its Jewish facilities almost completely disappear as Jewish families have moved out to North London. When I was growing up there were kosher restaurants and many delis, butchers and bakers. Today in Gants Hill, all that remains is a single kosher bakeries run by non-Jewish Indians. The last deli in Gants Hill, "Brownstein's" closed two years ago. The kosher butcher, Norman Goldberg, on Claybury Broadway, Clayhall, some 3 miles from Gants Hill, is still open. It tries to sell other kosher items as well such as cakes and bread. On Sunday it sells fresh hot salt beef sandwiches up to 8:00pm. Another kosher butchers, "La Boucherie" in Barkingside, also acts as a small mekolet selling what kosher items are available, mainly imported from Israel to the dwindling Jewish community.

The last Gants Hill Kosher butcher closed in April 2008

Norman Goldberg kosher butcher, Clayhall

The only Kosher shop in Barkingside.
(The kosher Bakers in the same high street closed last year)

Where as 20 years ago it was not uncommon to see women wearing sheitles in the streets of Gants Hill, today you see a good percentage of women in the streets wearing burkas and even a few completely masked with only their eyes peeking through the black material. Doesn't anyone else find it comically tragic to see some of these women wearing their glasses over their masks?

I grabbed this photo (taken in Florida) off of Google Images but it’s the same image all over London.

Lest you think that moving to North London is the answer I'd like to suggest otherwise. I was talking to a lovely frum young guy in Chigwell and Hainault shul last Shabbos (the only shul in the area as far as I am aware that seems to have a healthy vibrant community with Bar/Bat Mitzvas almost every Shabbos! thanks in large part to the incredible Rabbi there, Rabbi Davis). Both he and his wife are Ba'alei Teshuva. He told me that they would love to move to North London but they simply cannot afford the house prices, some four times what they are in the Ilford area. He told me that he'll have to hire someone to take his children to and from school in Stamford Hill when they get older. When visiting North London, it is true that you can find many kosher places there but even in Golders Green there are signs of decay. It's true that if you walk down many streets in Golders Green/Edgware/Hendon, most of the homes have mezuzos. However, many kosher restaurants have closed in the last few years including what was the world famous "Bloom's" which served salt beef and latkas to its last customer in June of this year. I walked past the restaurant, the menu still sitting in the window, now covered in dust.

I used to go for lunch every week in their original Whitechapel branch back in the 1980s

The other thing of course is the huge invasion of Muslims into the area as there is in all of London. Golders Green/Hendon/Edgware will be Anglo Jewry's last stand, at least in the South. Manchester may last slightly longer? The shear numbers of Muslims coming into Britain, bringing their unique brand of blatant anti-Semitism with them, are making Jews feel more and more uncomfortable and fearful in their own homes. I could be wrong but I see the demise of Anglo Jewry as inevitable and unavoidable. Anglo Jewry doesn't stand a chance.

If I had the money and resources I'd move these old beautiful shul buildings and their contents to Eretz Yisrael where they can be admired and would be used in the service of Hashem once again.

As for Anglo Jewry. yes, there are some who are emigrating to Australia and the USA but I do hope, be'ezras Hashem that most will realise that their future is of course in Eretz Yisrael.

Shana Haba beYerushalayim

Anglo Jewry, please come home..


robert said...

Sheitels in Gants Hill?

Which Gants Hill are we talking about?

In the last 45 years there has never been more than 15 Women in the whole of Redbridge who wore Shaitelach....

I grew up there, the largest concentration of Jews in Western Europe with the smallest number of Frum Yidden.

If it were not for Chabad, Redbridge would have died the death many tears ago

Reb Mordechai said...

16 women? I can count off the top of my head (excuse the pun) at least 20 women in the area who I would see walking in and out of Mazal and Bracha and Brownsteins who used to wear kisui rosh if not sheitals including the owners of the stores.

I'll admit it was never a large crowd but you did see.

Regarding yoru Chabad comment.

'many "tears" ago'?

I know that "y" and "t" are next to each other on the keybard but maybe its not such a mistake.

Thanks for your comment Robert.
Tu BeShvat Samayach where ever you are.

Anonymous said...

Another area losing its Judaism to the insidious muslim plot to take over the world by immigration

Anonymous said...

Many happy memories.We were members of Boundary road from 1968 to 1984 when we made aliyah.We have never,nor do I think we will ever find a kehillah like Boundary road here in Israel.After 26 years we still miss it.

Reb Mordechai said...

DDear Anon,

Moadim LeSimcha,

First of all, thank you so much for commenting.

Perhaps you could answer a question. Do you know why the founding Rabbi in the photo by the door is not wearing any kippa?

Reb Mordechai

Anonymous said...

Shalom Aliechem.I'm Gedalia and I grew up in Chigwell but I now live in South Africa. I remember the last kosher restauant that was in in gants Hill. It was called The Sharon. It's been closed since the middle 70's if I'm correct. It's a very sorry state of affairs with the jewish community in Redbridge/ Ilford. The muslims are taking over everywhere these days. Here in SA kosher food is readily available but having said that 90% of everything is also "Hallal" (Lehavdil)

Reb Mordechai said...

Thank you Anon for you comment.

Yes I remember The Sharon very well. I remember my parents used to take me there to buy Sunday evening dinner. I will always remember the slightly off putting photo of the chubby boy biting into a massive burger hanging up above the counter.

Aside from the delicious latkos, I loved their UFO shaped beef burgers and of course the salt beef on rye bread! Uuuummmm.

When it closed, it was replaced by a "Jewish" style place called FAT SAM if I am not mistaken. No hechshir. Soon closed.

We may very well have been standing in the queue together Gadalia.

Glad to hear that Yiddishkite is alive and well in SA.

Reb Mordechai

Anonymous said...


My grandfather was one of the founding members of Boundary road synagogue. I am sure the English residents felt exactly the same of the arrival of us Jews in London as some of the comments here do in a negative way to muslims. I have several muslim friends. The people who have made these anti Muslim comments should be ashamed of themselves.

Graham Southgate Northe London

Reb Mordechai said...

Dear Graham,

When I was growing up in England I also had a few Pakistani friends. They were predominantly secular and were not practicing Muslims however. I always believed as you do now that as long as there is mutual tolerance and respect for other’s cultures and belief systems then everyone will get on just fine and those who are opposed to a certain religion must be racist!

However the fundamental mistake in this logic is that not all religions and culture are based on common and good moral principles. There are some religions, cults and belief systems which do not deserve our respect and should be opposed.

To take an extreme example, would you respect and tolerate a belief system which practiced human sacrifices? Hopefully not! Would you respect and accept a belief system which believed that all other religions were blasphemy before their god or gods and must be destroyed and its followers either killed or forcefully converted? What about a religion that reduced women to mere slaves of men? What about a religion that does not recognise the Nation’s criminal Legal system and believe that they are morally justified living outside the law?

You see what I mean now? So I hope you see now that there are some belief systems which we cannot respect and should not tolerate within a civilised society.

So now you should go and study what you own religion has to say about life and how to live it. I suggest you (and your wife) enrol in some Orthodox adult Jewish Outreach programme run by Aish or Ohr Samayach for instance to learn what Judaism says. Don’t judge Judaism and Torah living on the things you were taught as a kid in Hebrew classes.

Once you have a basic knowledge of your Torah and Judaism, go take a peek at what Islam believes then you can get back to me.

Anonymous said...


Great reply!! Studious and in depth. The problem is extremism per se. This is not exclusive to Islam. I can think of numerous examples of Christian extremism, from the Spanish inquisition through to the modern nutters in the religious right wing American churches. We should collectively oppose extremism across all religions including some aspects of Judaism. Great Debate. I await your reply with baited breath!!

PS Never have liked Ilford. It's too Essex.

Best Wishes Graham

Anonymous said...

Boundary Road will sadly be closing it's doors at the end of this month. We joined 16 years ago when we got married here and have always felt part of a very welcoming community. We will be sad to leave this wonderful building but are pleased that we were recently able to celebrate our son's bar mitzvah before it closed

Anonymous said...

שלום מירושלים
פוירם שמח
It brings back memories of a past era.

Boundary Road Shul was an institution in its own right. Amongst the rabbomim who served the community were Sidney Leprer and Cyril Shine. Giants in their generation

The stained glass windows above the Aron Kodesh were designed and painted by by my uncle, I J Miller who was also a warden at one time. I can clearly remember his living room table with the glass on it to be made into the window.

You are a 100% correct about the decline in Anglo Jewry and the future outlook for them. Community after community are declining but the leaders turn bling eyes and bury their heads in the sand.
One wonders why?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your photos and experiences. I just found out about a family connection to the shul, and was quiet sad to realize I cannot go visit it and look around. I really enjoyed reading this