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A short history of the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue St James’s Gardens

Based on a talk given by Mrs Suzanne Saragoussi in March 2005 The story behind the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue is that of Sephardim (from the Hebrew word Sepharad for Spain) who were expelled in 1492 after the Inquisition, and subsequently settled in North Africa and in the Ottoman Empire, especially Turkey and Greece, (then part of the Turkish empire). When the latter started to crumble at the end of the nineteenth century, they headed west again towards Europe, and finally Britain. Cut off from the language of their Spanish provinces they evolved their own language, Ladino, an older form of Spanish with borrowed words from Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Greek and even French. Many forms of Sephardi prayers and orders of service are a combination of Hebrew and Ladino and are presently still in use. Mrs Saragoussi related that her own father, who was born in England, did not speak English until he went to school. Jews started resettling in Britain after Oliver Cromwell agreed their readmission in 1655 and the first Synagogue in the country, Bevis Marks (a Sephardi Synagogue) was consecrated in 1701. It was at the end of the 19th century that many Jews began to arrive from Turkey and Greece. They settled in the East End of London close to the docks where they had landed. These new immigrants educated themselves, and assimilated very well in their new homeland. They were imbued with gratitude and loyalty to their sovereigns, their leaders and to the people who showed them kindness and understanding. To this day the regular order of service on the Sabbath includes a special prayer for the Queen and Royal Family. In 1908, a number of new immigrants, who were involved in the carpet trade throughout their long sojourn in Turkey, attended the Anglo-French Trade Exhibition at White City and eventually began to settle in the Shepherd's Bush area. By the beginning of the First World War, a community of some seven hundred families, who had carried on the same religious beliefs and traditions throughout two millenia, felt the urge to hold their religious services in


their own Synagogue. Despite their poverty, but fired by this vision, they started collecting money to build their Synagogue. One or two members even cycled round, regularly collecting sixpences from other members for the building fund. Allying themselves to the Bevis Marks Synagogue, and thanks to a generous bequest from Sir David Sassoon in 1924, they were able to buy a piece of land next to 8 St James's Gardens. Building works began in 1924 and the Synagogue was consecrated in 1928. The main building was built in the style of Bevis Marks, albeit on a smaller scale. However, Moorish influence can be seen in the dome, and the overall effect is less West European than Bevis Marks. It is a building of simplicity and beauty which fits in admirably with the architecture of St James’s Gardens. Following a further bequest in 1928, another small piece of land was purchased and the Synagogue Hall was built in 1930. The complex of buildings was completed by the addition of the Upper Hall in 1952, when the Congregation celebrated its Silver Jubilee. Mrs Saragoussi concluded her talk by saying that such a Congregation is constantly evolving, attracting new membership including families fleeing more recent persecution, for instance from Egypt, Iran and Iraq. More importantly, a common thread is perpetuated down the centuries: that of a shared form of worship, beliefs and traditions and prevailing respect with our neighbours.

Profile for Norland Conservation

History of the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue  

History of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Norland, Kensington.

History of the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue  

History of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Norland, Kensington.

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