London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London


Wonderful Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, Fieldgate Street, London E1

Last Fieldgate Street Shabbat 15.9.07.


Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue closed temporarily at Yom Kippur 23rd October 2007.  A scene from Fieldgate Street's Shabbat on 15th September 2007 is on the right.  The scrolls are dressed in white for the High Holydays. I am delighted to tell you that Fieldgate Street has reopened for once a month Shabbat morning services and is also holding High Holyday services.



"HOW LOVELY ARE YOUR TENTS O JACOB, YOUR DWELLING PLACES O ISRAEL" - Inscribed above the entrance to Fieldgate Street SanctuaryTo the left is the inscription over the entrance to the sanctuary at Fieldgate Street Synagogue.  The Hebrew translates to: 'How lovely are your tents oh Jacob, your dwelling places oh Israel'

The article below was written in 2007.  Subsequently Fieldgate Street has reopened for once a month Shabbat morning services and is also holding High Holyday services.

Affectionate memories of Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, Fieldgate Street, London E1

A small significant part of the Jewish East End of London may have to open its doors on Shabbat for the last time, and Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue as an active synagogue may be no more.  This small synagogue has always been located between two Worlds.  In days gone by it was next to St Mary’s church, while today the huge East London Mosque occupies that same space.  A photo taken a couple of years ago shows it to be the only synagogue with its own minaret!  Declining attendance in recent years has led to increasing difficulty in maintaining a minyan (the 10 men required to be in attendance for an Orthodox service to take place) and if this continues the synagogue’s closure will be the inevitable result.

Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue foundation plaque 1899The word ‘Great’ in the title of such a small synagogue always confused me until I checked into the history of the Federation of synagogues – the organisation to which Fieldgate Street has always been affiliated.  In the late C19th many small synagogues were opened in back rooms, attics and even gardens of properties in the East London Ghetto by the flood of Jewish refugees fleeing Eastern Europe.  In 1887 local MP, Samuel Montagu, fearing for the safety of the users of these cramped spaces, founded the Federation of Synagogues to amalgamate them into larger, safer premises - hence the term ‘Great’ in the title of many of the Federation’s synagogues, and hence the foundation of Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue in 1899.  A plaque on the wall as you enter Fieldgate Street commemorates this momentous event.

Purim at Fieldgate Street 14 March 2006 - Ark is open for singing of The Hymn of GloryThe interior of Fieldgate Street presents a visual summary of the history of Jewish settlement in the East End.  For example, along the wooden panelling edging the upstairs ladies gallery are the names of humble tailors and carpenters who gave donations from their meagre earnings to fund the synagogue, while under many of the wooden pews in the sanctuary can still be found siddurim & machzorim (prayer books) dating from the late C19th which feature inscriptions written in Hebrew & Cyrillic script.  These books were the personal property of the immigrants who founded the synagogue, and were one of the few possessions brought with them to the East End on their fraught journeys from the persecution of Czarist Russia.

As time has gone by more and more of the children of our immigrant ancestors have moved to leafier suburbs.  This has had an inevitable toll on the viability of the remaining East End synagogues, and as they closed so they amalgamated with those that remained.  Hence nearby synagogues such as Vine Court, Alie Street, Ezras Chaim & Stepney Orthodox amalgamated with Fieldgate Street.  Sadly it may now be Fieldgate Street’s turn to close.

Fieldgate Street has had its legendary figures, pre-eminent amongst whom was the late Reverend Leibish Gayer.  Rev Gayer was born in Poland in 1913, came to London in 1934 and joined Fieldgate Street in1935.  He became in turn its chazzan, torah reader, minister and president, and remained so until his death in 1992.  He was known for his compassion and kindness. A story is told of his early life in Poland when he went to his local burial society to arrange the funeral of his late mother and was asked how much he could afford to pay.  His financial means were insufficient so the chairman of the burial society threw a shovel at him and told him to go and bury her himself.  This scarring experience defined how he would treat his own congregants, and he is mourned to this day by those who knew and loved him.

Reverend David Silverstein, Fieldgate Street Synagogue, Purim 14th March 2006My own acquaintance with Fieldgate Street began in 2000 following the death of my mother.  I wanted to understand more about her background and it seemed natural to begin my exploration by visiting one of the remaining East End Synagogues.  Fieldgate Street was where my journey began.  It was here that I met a wonderful cast of characters, all of whom were refreshingly different from the stereotype of the modern, affluent suburban Jew.  It is with great affection I recall service leader Reverend David Silverstein who made this nervous outsider so welcome.  I also fondly remember many others - some of whom are no longer with us:  Dovid was born in India and was fond of telling me that I looked like his brother.  He would come round at the beginning of the Shabbat morning service to offer the congregants sweets and I jokingly referred to him as ‘the sweet man’. He always led part of the service and had a voice like an angel. One day he failed to come to the Shabbat morning service, and that was the day he had died.  And then there was Sam, a reformed gambler and lovely man who would always great you with a great big smile. My Fieldgate Street friend Jack passed away earlier this year.  Jack was a veteran of Dunkirk and the Normandy landings, and had witnessed the Jewish East End decline from a vibrant centre of Jewish life to the remnant it is today.  His catch phrase was ‘Get on with it!’, and he would utter this loudly whenever he felt the service was dragging on too long.  Sometimes it had an effect and sometimes it didn’t! 

Without synagogues like Fieldgate Street there would not have been a Jewish East End of London.  Synagogues like these provided sustaining comfort and support to our immigrant ancestors, and our debt to them is huge.  Fieldgate Street if the worst should happen I will miss you.

Philip Walker

website copyright of Philip Walker