East London Central synagogue’s 90th birthday party, 29
1923 - 2013.....Many Happy
took my seat in this most beautiful and venerable of
buildings I introduced myself to my neighbour, Andy
I asked him if he had
any special memories of the Nelson Street community.
He reminisced about
Szpetman, the Nelson Street rabbi of his
youth some 60 years earlier. He remembered that when
the rabbi gave his sermon the children rushed to leave the
sanctuary as quickly as possible. The sermon was always in
Yiddish and given from the box next to the ark. On their exit from the
sanctuary the children would detour via the wardens’ box
in front of the bimah. If the children had been
good, chocolate would magically appear from the cupboard
below the wardens’ seats and be handed to them. The shul’s shamash, a
gentleman by the name of Manashah Pugachow, had a
particularly ferocious reputation. If he heard you talking
or otherwise misbehaving during the service he would give
you a horrible scowl and bang loudly with his fist on his
wooden bench, and if he really took a dislike to you, you
were better off finding another shul!
His brother was Max Dove
and he was a warden of the shul. Max was married to the
saintly Yiddie Dove, a lady who was a friend to all. Simchat Torah was an especially enjoyable time for the
children. They would gather at the
bimah and the women from the ladies guild in the upstairs
gallery would throw them sweets.
Sometimes the sweets
would hit the children but this was considered a small
price to pay for the prospect of filling your pockets with
goodies. Andy’s great Aunt,
Rachel Cohen, was an accomplished piano player who had the
job of playing the piano at community simchas. In earlier times Rachel
also played the piano at local cinemas providing
background music to silent films. She specialised in
playing along to Charlie Chaplin films. While Andy was speaking,
former Board of Deputies president and Nelson Street
member Henry Grunwald O.B.E.
Q.C. sat down next to
us. He was very particular
about where he sat and explained that he was sitting in
his father’s former seat.
celebration was introduced by Nelson Street President,
Leon Silver. Leon began by passing on the good
wishes of the two local MPs. Leon then related how his
grandfather had been one of the founder members of the
synagogue at a time when there were close to 150
synagogues in and around the East End. Leon went on to explain
the origin of the synagogue’s first name and its
evolution into the East London Central Synagogue. At its founding the shul
was called Nelson Street Sfardish synagogue, and there
were other Sfardish shuls in the area, such as Philpot
Street Sfardish synagogue. Philpot Street
eventually amalgamated with Nelson Street. The name Sfardish
refers to a style of service that differs slightly from
mainstream Ashkenazi and is similar to Hassidic usage. Sfardish is not to be
confused with Sephardic. The order of service and
certain extra words to some of the prayers are similar to
Sephardic tradition, but the Hebrew pronunciation and
tunes are Ashkenazi, as are most of the congregation. As time went by and
people moved out of the East End to the suburbs, many
synagogues closed. This resulted in over 20
synagogues uniting with what had then become the East
London Amalgamated synagogue. In 1975 the synagogue
was renamed East London Central Synagogue.
Today it is the East
End’s only surviving purpose built synagogue and one of
just three remaining in the East End.
synagogue’s rabbi, Rabbi Austin, then spoke.
He reminded the packed
building that Nelson Street was a bastion of spirituality
and had been for 90 years.
He hoped it would remain
so for another 90 years.
It was a remnant of the
glorious Jewish history of Tower Hamlets and had to be
Jan McHarry of the London Buddhist
centre was next.
She spoke of exiting events that took place in 1923, the
year of the synagogue’s founding: the first refrigerator,
the arrival on the scene of popular black musicians such
as Louis Armstrong and more.
She said that 1923 was a good and auspicious year
to have been founded.
She wished the community a very happy birthday.
Reverend Alan Green
of St. John's-on-Bethnal Green church and chair of Tower
Hamlet’s interfaith forum, then spoke.
He thanked the community for 90 years of prayer,
dedication and service to the local community.
Jeecs chairman Clive Bettington was
next on his feet.
His message was that all of us have a duty to save
buildings like Nelson Street in order to honour the Jewish
past and protect the Jewish present.
Julie Begum, co-chair of the
Swadhinata Trust spoke after Clive.
She praised the Nelson Street community for playing
a pivotal role in enhancing relationships between
different faith groups and for helping to facilitate the
ability of all faiths in the area to celebrate life
affirming events together.
Father Tom O’Brien of Our Lady of
the Assumption Roman Catholic church, reminded the
audience of Nelson Street’s historic assistance to local
poor with the setting up of soup kitchens and other
charities. It had also provided a welcoming haven for
refugees fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.
He described Nelson Street as a jewel in London’s
Ram Chandra Saha of the Hindu
Vivekananda Human centre said he was proud to be amongst a
community that promoted respect for all.
The Reverend Sigrid Werner of the
United Reformed Church spoke of the need to preserve Nelson
Street shul as one of the few remaining bastions of
Judaism in the East End, and along with the other
speakers, wished Nelson Street a very happy birthday.
Dilowar Khan, executive director of
the East London Mosque/London Muslim Centre, spoke of how
much Jews and Muslims have in common, and how happy he was
to have Jewish neighbours.
He was especially grateful to Nelson Street for its
assistance in combating local racism, a threat against
which all decent people must remain vigilant.
Jeecs member and chairman of the
charity Firemen Remembered, Stephanie Maltman was next.
She explained that her charity was dedicated to
preserving the memory of the brave firefighters who gave
their lives protecting London’s East End during the War.
She reminded us that at that time some 90 per cent
of local fire fighters were Jewish and many of them would
have been members of Nelson Street shul.
Former president of the Royal
Institute of British Architects, Professor Maxwell
Hutchinson, followed Stephanie.
Professor Hutchinson is Nelson Street’s project
manager for interaction with Tower Hamlet’s recently
introduced Mayor’s Faith Buildings Fund.
The Fund has granted Nelson Street £10,000 to
commission a structural survey of the building.
When completed, Professor Hutchinson anticipates
applying to the Fund for a further grant to renovate the
building. He spoke
with great passion as he explained that Nelson Street’s
building was more than just a shell: it was a place of
joy, celebration, simchas and so much more and that it was
his mission to preserve and protect all that it represents
for the benefit of future generations.
Grunwald O.B.E. Q.C. spoke of the proud Jewish history of
When he was a boy his
family belonged to Dunk Street synagogue.
When that closed they
joined Grove Street synagogue, and when that closed, New
When New Road closed in 1974 the family moved to Nelson Street synagogue where he
has been a member ever since.
For him Nelson Street
was full of precious memories.
He recalled on Simchat
Torah how he and his friends would tour the 15 or so
adjacent synagogues and come away with a bag of sweets
from each one.
He spoke of Jewish
aspiration and how this resulted in so many of the tiny
East End synagogues prefixing their names with the title
as in Great Alie Street
synagogue, Great Garden Street synagogue - hope for the
future and pride in the present.
Henry joked about a
Yiddish translation of the complete works of Shakespeare
that had appeared in his youth and was subtitled in
Yiddish with a phrase which translates to: ‘translated and
This was not meant as a
Henry finished with the
thought that though so much has gone, Nelson Street
remains, and please God it will remain here for many more
The Bishop of Stepney, the Right
Reverend Adrian Newman, spoke next saying how glad he was
to be here on such a happy day.
The community was a witness to the value of Judaism
in London’s East End.
Its presence had eased the way for later immigrants
and was a living part of the history and culture of the
East End. He
described Leon Silver as a wonderful ambassador for his
faith, an asset to Tower Hamlets and an absolute star.
The final speaker was Lutfur Rahman,
Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets.
He wished everyone Salaam/shalom and said how glad
he was to be able to play a role helping to protect Tower
Hamlet’s faith buildings.
The continuance of all faith communities in Tower
Hamlets was precious to him, with none more so than the
community at Nelson Street.
He wished all present ‘Happy Birthday’ and was
With the speakers finished, the
eating and drinking began as we enjoyed the magnificent
spread Leon Silver had arranged for this joyful occasion.
Here’s to the next 90 years!
The left hand photo is
of three friends of Nelson Street, and the right hand
photo is of shul President Leon Silver with Lutfer Rahman,
the Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets.