History of the Central Synagogue, London

            Talia Goldman

When the Central Synagogue was established in 1855, the reasons were twofold, both religious and socio-economic.  The social shifts are simpler to explain.  Middle class and wealthier Jews had been steadily moving out of the East End of London toward the West End since the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, and the efforts of attending synagogue daily on the other side of the city were becoming a strain.  The Great Synagogue, “the longstanding centre of Synagogue life in London,” (Shine) made a decision in 1848 that a traditional Orthodox synagogue must be set up in west London to deal with both of these issues.  So the Central was originally a daughter congregation of the Great Synagogue, “a branch Synagogue more conveniently situated which would satisfy the religious requirements of those who lived in the vicinity without modifying their relationship to the original community” (Shine).  As such, the Central “could not celebrate marriages or appoint its own officers” (Lindsay 70).  But the new synagogue became so successful in the decade that followed that by 1870 it had been established as an independent congregation.  This synagogue continues to play a vital role in the Jewish community of London, as it did from its first moments.  It is now helped by the efforts of Rabbi Barry Marcus, who continues the work of the many charismatic rabbis who devoted themselves to the Central.

To truly understand the importance of the beginnings of the Central Synagogue on Great Portland Street, the religious developments in the Jewish community during the nineteenth century must be examined.  The synagogue must be placed in the larger context of the emancipation of the Jews of Europe, but more particularly within the unique story of the Jews of England in the first half of the nineteenth century.  With the Enlightenment and the emancipation of the Jews in France and Germany, the ghettos had for the most part been broken up.  As citizens of their countries, reformers now began to defy some of the elements of traditional Judaism, and the Reform movement was born.  English Jews, however, were still in a different situation, although the Reform movement had reached England as well.  Abraham Gilam, in The Emancipation of the Jews in England,explains that “It is true that in comparison with other European states, England was more tolerant and humane.  Although not benefiting from full citizenship granted to French, Belgian, Dutch or Danish Jews, they could circumvent many of the difficulties…But after the 1830’s, the Jews remained the only unemancipated religious community in the country” (Gilam 15).  Legally, if not in practice, medieval dictates against the Jews were still in place, including restrictions against owning land, and essentially leaving the Jews to the mercy of the crown.  Although many of these laws were no longer applied, Jews still could not serve in any national office because they would not take the oath of abjuration that required the words “on the true faith of a Christian” (Gilam 14).  Gilam points out that “In London, where the majority of Anglo-Jewry resided, Jews had to face two other kinds of restrictions. First, there was the exclusion from the freedom of the city and second was the selective admission to the Stock Exchange” (Gilam 11).  These, along with limited access to the legal profession, severely handicapped the ability of Jews in London to participate in English society and economy.

It was these rights that were being fought for in the early decades of the nineteenth century.  In this fight for emancipation, the split between the traditional, orthodox Jewish community and the Reform movement became much more distinct.  The Reform leaders were not only pro-emancipation, they were pro-assimilation to a point that traditional Judaism could not tolerate.  “The majority of Anglo-Jewry followed a moderate leadership which…affiliated with orthodox congregations…wished to retain its loyalties to the Jewish heritage, but at the same time they wanted…civil rights” (Gilam 39).   The two groups differed greatly in their expectations of emancipation, and in their efforts to achieve it.  Gilam explains that “the best illustration of this aspect can be seen in their dealings with Sir Robert Peel in 1845”.  Fighting for “the removal of municipal disabilities affecting Jewish subjects”, two different deputations were sent to the Prime Minister claiming to represent the Jewish cause.  Moses Montefiore led the deputation from the traditional group, while Isaac Lyon Goldsmid led the Reform.  Montefiore, as he and his supporters had done through the entire process, wanted a gradual and reasonable emancipation without compromising Jewish identity or ritual.  The reformers advocated a swift and complete emancipation that essentially amounted to complete assimilation into English culture (Gilam 42).  By 1848, however, the struggle had escalated beyond the scope of a few key individuals, and the Jewish community at large was being encouraged to petition Parliament and become active in the fight for emancipation (Gilam 99).  The lines dividing the Reform movement from the traditional became sharply defined, and these were the conditions under which the Great Synagogue made its decision to open an extremely necessary branch synagogue in West London.

This was a response not only to the fact that there was clearly a lot of contention between these two movements of Judaism over the question of emancipation and politics, but that the liberal Reform had to be confronted by the Orthodox on the field of religious establishments as well.  In 1840, a group of Jewish reformers broke away from the main synagogues of London in order to form a separate congregation.  Paul Lindsay in The Synagogues of London skims over the doctrinal disagreements between the groups to focus on this simple ritualistic issue, saying merely “it soon became a doctrinal issue”—the only reference he makes to the seriousness of this split from the traditional community.  The initial point of contention, he says, was largely about the services, which were still chanted in Hebrew, and the fact that many Jews were moving westward and no longer wanted to attend services in the East End.  This is not untrue; however, the differences between the Reform movement and the main body of Judaism were much more complex than that.  Abraham Gilam explained it concisely.  He writes,

“The British reformers focused their attack on traditional Judaism by rejecting the divinity of the oral law, which for them, was a source of obstructionism and regression in Judaism…The point must be clearly made…that the differences between the English Reform and orthodox creeds concerned profound theological matters; they were not limited to ritual alone” (Gilam 42).

By denying the authority of the Talmud, the ancient oral law which forms a crucial part of the religion, the reformers were not changing elements on the surface, but at the core of Judaism.  When the Reform congregation settled into first a small building on Bruton Street and then a larger venue in Cavendish Square because of the influx of new members, the leaders of the traditional Jewish community realized that starting their own synagogue in that area was necessary.  If there was no orthodox synagogue there, it was distinctly possible that all the Jews who had moved westward would begin to attend the Reform Synagogue.  The new Chief Rabbi, Nathan Marcus Adler, who took over the post in 1844, was more aware of this potential problem than his predecessor, Solomon Hirschell, has been, and he urged the Great Synagogue into action (Lindsay 84).  The decision of 1848 to create the Central was not brought to fruition until 1855 due to delays in building, but finally the new synagogue was consecrated on March 29 by Chief Rabbi Adler, Reverend Simon Ascher, Chazan (reader) of the Great Synagogue, and Reverend A.L. Green, who was chosen to be the Chazan of the new branch (Shine).

            The first building to house the new Central Synagogue was a converted warehouse at 120 Great Portland Street, and the building seated 212 downstairs and 144 in the women’s gallery (Shine).  For its first years the Central acted only as a daughter Synagogue to the larger institution of the Great Synagogue, but “in view of the increasing Jewish population” (Shine) in the area, its membership grew.  Despite the fact that in 1863 a new Orthodox Synagogue was built in Bayswater, which drew many members from the Central, “the vacant seats were filled rapidly” (Renton 73) and the need for a permanent new building for the Central became apparent.  In 1866, a committee met and decided “in favour of a block of leasehold houses being taken in Great Portland Street (the site of the present building) for a period of eighty years” (Shine).  Sir Anthony de Rothschild led a meeting two years later to approve the project and form a building committee.  N.S. Joseph was appointed architect, and “the style of the building agreed upon was Moresque” (Shine).  The foundation stone was laid by Baron Lionel de Rothschild on March 18, 1869, and the building at Nos. 133-141 Great Portland Street was completed in 1870.  At the consecration of this new building on April 7, the Ark was opened by an eighty-five year old Sir Moses Montefiore, and the ceremony led by Chief Rabbi Adler.

By this time, the Central had grown so much that when the United Synagogue formed later in 1870, the Central “became the fifth of its constituents” (Shine) as an independent congregation.  “On the 14th July 1870, an Act bringing into existence that United Synagogue received the Royal Assent,” wrote Rabbi Cyril Shine in his “History of the Central Synagogue”.  This union of the five main London synagogues was meant to bring the orthodox Jewish population of London together, and had been urged into creation by Chief Rabbi Adler, who once again saw the potential devastating division of the community and acted to stop it.  The United Synagogue became and still is “the religious parent organization for the largest section of Anglo-Jewry with a dominant role in its national institutions” (Linday 31).  From 1870 onwards, the Central held a prominent place in the spectrum of London synagogues.

Many of the most prominent Jewish families in London were involved in the synagogue, particularly the Rothschilds.  Both Baron F. de Rothschild and Sir Anthony de Rothschild were wardens and board members.  That the Central’s prominence extended beyond the Jewish community of London can be shown by the visit of the Emperor of Brazil in July of 1871.  He attended Sabbath services, both Friday night and the following morning.  Rabbi Shine writes:

 The ‘Times’, which reported the event in great detail on its opening page, added, “we understand that the visit of the Emperor to the Central Synagogue is the first that has been paid in this country by a reigning Sovereign to a Synagogue during Divine Service.  We may add that his Majesty is versed in the Hebrew language, and was consequently able to read and understand the service.” (Shine) 

This was clearly a great honor and an important moment in the history of the synagogue, particularly when it had just been established as an independent congregation.  In the years that followed, other royal visitors paid attention to the Central, including H.R.H. the Prince of Wales in 1881 and again in 1898.  Other important services were held that were perhaps only important to the Jewish community of West London: in 1905, the Golden Jubilee service of the establishment of the Central, and in 1920, a service for the Golden Jubilee of the new building and the Central’s birth as an independent congregation.

            The Central, as it developed, became much more than just a place for services.  In 1880, Religious Classes for children were instituted, beginning a long standing tradition of emphasizing the importance of education.  Military services began during the festival of Chanukah in 1892, and continued to be held until the outbreak of World War I.  During the Great War, the Central played its part—first with the Reverend Adler, the Chazan, taking leave in order to go to the Front as a chaplain in 1914.  In 1917, the Synagogue basement was turned into an air-raid shelter, and the Jubilee service in 1920 included a memorial ceremony for the soldiers who had fallen during the War.  A memorial candelabrum was donated, and its eighteen candles were lit during the ceremony (Shine).  The significance of this candelabrum is immense; today it is the only surviving artifact from before the second World War.  It was found broken by Rabbi Marcus and Mr. Leonard Fertleman and was completely restored in 2004, and “now has a permanent place in the Synagogue.  The nineteen memorial candles are lit every year at the commencement of Yom Kippur and remind of the congregation of sacrifice, survival and continuity” (anniversary 7).

            This one item holds so much value for the community at the Central because the Synagogue was bombed and destroyed by the Germans in 1941.  Even with their building destroyed, the community was not; services continued at Adolph Tuck Hall, Woburn House.  Beginning in 1948 the congregation was using a temporary synagogue in the basement of the Great Portland Street site, as building licenses were difficult to obtain in the aftermath of the War.  Rabbi Shine explains that

“during the two years that elapsed before the completion of the new Synagogue, the Sabbath and Festival services were once again held at the Adolph Tuck Hall, Woburn House.  The High Festival services were held at the Dukes Hall, of the Royal College of Music.  Daily services were maintained at Hallam Street in the remaining part of the old building, as was the office administration and the Hebrew Classes” (Shine). 

When the Central’s permanent building was finally completed and consecrated in March of 1958, having been licensed in 1955, there was to be a school included as part of the building; this continued in the tradition of education as an element of the Synagogue.  The new building kept the same basic style as the original, with a women’s gallery, and beautiful stained glass windows created by David Hillman were installed in 1962.

Despite the consequences of two World Wars, the Central continued in all of its work, and developed even more after its reconstruction.  Youth groups were organized, Adult Education Classes were instituted, and many new members joined.  For the first time in its history, in 1963 the Central held a midnight Selichot service (a special service in the days before the High Festivals) which became a regular practice.  The Synagogue celebrated its centenary in 1970.  Significant as well is that suddenly the Central, as it had been after its consecration in 1870, after its consecration became a focus of non-Jewish attention in addition to Jewish.  “A feature of the new Synagogue was the attendance of large groups of non-Jews, from 20 to 200 in number who came to the services or visited the Synagogue,” writes Rabbi Shine.  The connection to the secular world continued into the decades that followed.  In 1960, when Sir Bernard Waley-Cohen, a member of a family that had been involved with the Central for three generations, was elected Lord Mayor of London, Reverend Cyril Shine was appointed his Domestic Chaplain—Rabbi Shine added, in his “History”, that “This was the first occasion that a Jewish Chaplain had been appointed to the Lord Mayor of London since the inception of the Lord Mayoralty nearly 800 years ago.”  One of the Wardens, Mr. Isaac Wolfson, was honoured with a Baronetcy in 1962; his family was another that had been active for generations and continued to be afterwards.  After World War II, there was another development that affected the Central and the Jewish community worldwide—the formation of the State of Israel.  During both the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, all the members of the Central showed their solidarity and support for Israel with days of prayer.

Since his appointment in 1995, Rabbi Barry Marcus has continued to keep the Central active in both the Jewish community and the rest of the world.  He “pioneered the concept of a one day educational visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau” in 1998; these visits “have educated a wide range of people from all denominations in Great Britain” (anniversary 6).  In 2005, the German Ambassador visited the Central for a Sabbath service at the invitation of Rabbi Marcus.  The Ambassador “addressed the community…and spoke of the dignity of the Synagogue service and his commitment to better understanding” (anniversary 7).  Developing the international role of the Central, Rabbi Marcus spoke at the Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide at City Hall and was “thereafter invited by the Survivors Organization to visit Rwanda in October 2007 to offer support and guidance” (anniversary 7). 

In 2008, the Golden Jubilee of the consecration of the post World War II building, I had the honor and pleasure of becoming a part of this historical and still thriving community during my studies in London.  Rabbi Marcus told me that although “one of the downsides to an inner city synagogue is that access to families is limited by virtue of property prices and location, there is an annual regeneration of students”, like myself, because of all the universities in the area.  There is another, “sadder source of people,” Rabbi Marcus said, “that the Synagogue is surrounded by hospitals.  Almost every week,” there are people who come to services at the Central because a family member is in the hospital.  But the Central’s location in town also means that visitors to London turn up there, looking for a synagogue, and often this creates a very international environment and, as Rabbi Marcus says, provides “a taste of what’s going on in the Jewish world”.  And the Londoners whose families have been involved for generations are still immensely proud of the Central—“people are quite passionate about maintaining a tangible connection” even though they no longer live in the center of the city.  Rabbi Marcus stated firmly that the international and social elements of his work at the Central are important, but that he believed it was incredibly crucial to “keep an ongoing and continuous Orthodox presence in the center of the city”.  This has been the role of the Central Synagogue since its beginnings, and still is today.





Works Cited

Gilam, Abraham, The Emancipation of the Jews in England 1830-1860. London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1982.


Lindsay, Paul, The Synagogues of London. London: Vallentine Mitchell & Co Ltd, 1993.


Renton, Peter, The Lost Synagogues of London. London: Tymsder Publishing, 2000.


Shine, Rabbi Cyril I., “A History of the Central Synagogue”, 1970.


“The 50th Anniversary of the Reconsecration of the Central Synagogue”