David Newman
Views on the Borderline

Synagogue vandalism in London

The Sinai Synagogue in North West London and its stained glass windows

Private photo
The Sinai Synagogue and its stained glass windows. (Courtesy of author)

Readers of this column will no doubt think that the title of this article relates to an act of antisemitism taking place in London, where anti-Jewish activity is on the rise in recent months.

But they would be wrong. It relates to an act of self-imposed vandalism by an Orthodox London synagogue, the Sinai community in the Golders Green neighborhood, who have decided that they no longer want their beautiful set of stained glass windows and have decided to dispose of them, on the quiet.

These windows were donated to the synagogue some 60 (or more years) ago by community members in memory of departed family members, but they only found out by chance that the present community leaders have decided to destroy this important cultural and religious heritage, without being given any advance notification.

The reason, excuse, used by the community leaders is that the windows are large and draughty and that it is too expensive to find ways of preserving these windows which, as the reader will see from the pictures, are in fairly good condition.

The synagogue management say that many of the windows are interconnected and to remove them without damaging them cannot be done without engaging a specialist firm. They claim that this process would come at significant cost, so they have engaged a company that deals in antique windows and has experience in removing stained-glass windows such as those in Sinai, on the basis that the company will be able to sell them or give them away as they see fit.

Historic England has produced excellent guidelines about conserving stained glass windows and, if they truly wanted to preserve this important piece of community and religious heritage, could apply for a grant to fund this work. But the community leaders are clearly not interested.

If indeed the problem was one of heating and upkeep, it is not too difficult to double/triple glaze them. But there is clearly no willingness to do it.

Private photo collection

Whatever “reasons” the shul gives, the real reason is that they want the shul to be more of a Bet Midrash – Yeshiva where, in addition to daily prayers, people sit and learn during the day. These windows would appear to be out of character with such a designation. The community has undergone a major demographic and social change during the past three decades. What was once an orthodox mainstream community, which declined as people moved on, was gradually taken over by the rapidly growing ultra Orthodox yeshiva community of the area, the vast majority having studied in Gateshead, Mir and the Ponevezh, who do not wish to have beautiful stained glass windows as part of their, it must be said vibrant, community. It is not the done thing in ultra orthodox communities – aesthetics is not their strong point. Nor, it should be said, is any feeling for past communities – Orthodox communities – who founded and prayed at this synagogue for many decades.

Two of the families who donated the windows in memory of their deceased family members.  Private photo collection

There is another old synagogue in the Stamford Hill area of London, one of the great old “cathedral” synagogues, known as Egerton Road, which, some thirty years ago was purchased by the Bobov Hasidim and which also contains a beautiful set of stained glass windows – windows by the prominent Orthodox stained glass window designer, David Hillman (a brother in law of Israel’s first Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog – grandfather of the current President of Israel, who is named after him). The Bobov were not that keen on maintaining the windows, but since the synagogue had acquired listed status from English heritage, they were (and remain) legally forbidden from changing or damaging the physical structure of what is now the largest (and beautifully renovated) Bet Medrash in the UK – perhaps Europe.

But, unlike the Sinai synagogue, it is the entire majestic building which was granted listed status, whereas the Sinai synagogue is no more than a simple building, originally a prefab, the only saving grace of which are the windows. When approached, the heritage authorities, made it clear that as sympathetic they are to the request, the windows alone were not sufficient reason to grant the building the requested status – which would then make it illegal to remove or destroy the windows.

The Sinai Synagogue – the beautiful windows enhance what is otherwise a nondescript building.
Private photo collection

The Federation of Synagogues, one of the four Orthodox synagogue bodies in the Greater London area, has always been a junior partner to the much larger and more established United Synagogue. Caught between the ultra Orthodoxy of the Agudat Yisrael, and the modern mainstream Orthodoxy of the United Synagogue (headed by the office of the Chief Rabbi), it has always sought to seek out its own identity. It was originally founded in the late nineteenth century to cater for the many poor, Orthodox, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who did not find a home in, what was then, a very formal and Anglicised United Synagogue (Agudat Yisrael was only founded in the UK in the 1920s). Over time it too became more Anglicised, but in recent years many of its communities, especially in the North West London area (Golders Green, Hendon, Edgware), have undergone a more Orthodox, yeshiva based, transformation.

Its crowning achievement was its success at bringing the well liked and erudite rabbi of the ultra Orthodox Gateshead community, Rabbi Shraga Faivel Zimmerman, to be the head of its Beth Din (in effect the Chief Rabbi of the Federation), which has considerably upped its status as a competitor with the Aguda within the world of UK Orthodoxy, rather than with the United Synagogue. It is unknown what Rabbi Zimmerman’s position on the act of self vandalism in the Sinai community is, but given his real world realism and understanding from growing up and being a community rabbi in New York before coming to the UK, one would have hoped it would be sympathetic to the protests against the removal and destruction of the windows – assuming that he was unaware until now concerning these events.

Private photo collection

It is also worth noting that in recent years, the sale of much of its land, originally purchased for burial purposes, in the Rainham area of East London, has transformed the Federation into a wealthy organization which, if it really wanted, would not have a problem of adding double glazing and doing whatever work would be required for retaining the windows in their current location. The central organization has a moral responsibility to preserve the windows as part of the Federation’s heritage and should intervene to ensure the building remains financially viable for the community to retain the windows.

Synagogues often close down as populations migrate from old to new areas. In such cases, a great deal of attention is paid to the proper and responsible transfer of the synagogue artefacts to other communities. As someone who researches this phenomenon, I have never come across a case where an existing, and very vibrant, community has decided simply to dispose of its assets simply because it no longer deems them suitable. And even those communities which close down take great care and effort to ensure that a new and appropriate home is found rather than simply dispose of them with scant regard to their fate.

The windows were donated by the original members in perpetuity. The Sinai synagogue is committing an act of cultural barbarism, to destroy beautifully crafted windows which are a part of our rich Jewish cultural heritage and which tell important stories about the Jewish people, our history, and our culture.

About the Author
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Originally from the UK, he was awarded the OBE in 2013 for promoting scientific links between the UK and Israel. From 2010-2016, Newman was Dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at BGU. His three distinct, and vastly different, areas of expertise cover Border Studies, Israeli Politics and Society, and Anglo Jewish history of the 19th and 20th centuries.