Kehillas Ya’akov, or The Congregation of Jacob, is no ordinary synagogue. From the outside it looks unremarkable, sandwiched as it is in the middle of a parade of shops on the Commercial Road in Stepney Green. But step inside, and you enter a fusion of two worlds: one disappeared, and the other said to be fast disappearing. It is where East European Jewry meets the Jewish East End of London. And it is where hope springs eternal.
The East End is the cradle of Britain’s Jewish Community. At the turn of the century, there was said to be as many Jews living in this one square mile of London than there are in the entire country today – over 250,000 souls. Sam Melmick has recorded the existence of over 150 synagogues in the area, not beginning to count the multitude of shtiebls that will have served the Jewish community. But today, there remain only four synagogues still in use. Kehillas Ya’akov is one, with a regular minyan meeting each Shabbos eve and morn for over one hundred years.
Kehillas Ya’akov was founded by Morris Davis Koenigsberg and Abraham Schwalbe in 1903, probably beginning life in the front room of Mr Koenigsberg’s family house on Commercial Road (Mr Schwalbe lived a few doors along). The Ashkenazi Congregation largely consisted of first generation immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, orthodox Jews from small shtetls such as Stetziver, Kalisz and Vilkaviskis.
The shul originally was a constituent member of the Federation of Synagogues (though it is independent today), an organisation established by philanthropist Samuel Montague MP in 1887 to improve the conditions for worship of the numerous small and often ill-ventilated chevras (prayer groups) in the East End. It advanced loans for many synagogue conversions, but often on condition that chevras merged into larger congregations. Kehillas Ya’akov thus incorporates Chevra Yisroel (Society of Israel) and Bikur Cholim (Visitors of the Sick). What we have also cobbled together is that our present location at 351 – 353 Commercial Road was until the War a bootmaker’s premises, being redesigned by Lewis Solomon and Son, honorary architects to the Federation of Synagogues, and reconsecrated in 1921.
Interestingly Kehillas Ya’akov was the first Mizrachi Synagogue in Britain and to this day remains Modern Orthodox. Most members still live locally though the character of the Congregation is more cosmopolitan than it once was. The service is still very much Ashkenazic in style, but the Sephardic influence can be felt in the soft pronunciation of the Hebrew. The synagogue is independent, owned, managed and maintained by members of the community.
Dr Sharman Kadish, Project Director of the Survey of the Jewish Built Heritage, has commented that at Kehillas Ya’akov “the congregation created for themselves an inner space strongly redolent of the world of East European Jewry which they had left behind.” Today’s Congregation amplifies this sentiment, by reminding guests also of the world of East End Jewry that the British community is leaving behind. But in this latter instance, the abandonment has been chosen not forced.
On entering the synagogue, one is immediately struck by the otherworldliness of the space. Maybe this is just the sentimentality of the author, but one senses the ghosts of members past peering over the balcony of the upstairs gallery as heads are bowed for the Amidah. The gallery that encircles three sides of the shul is accessed by a separate entrance to the main portico and is rarely used now by the ladies of the Congregation, except occasionally on the major Chagim (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Instead they sit behind the men at the back of the shul, behind a Mechitzah (a curtain partition), praying and talking quietly amongst themselves when the Shammes (warden) allows.
In the summer, light floods the Congregation through the glass roof, a feature imported from Eastern Europe along with the wall painting above the ark. This was crafted by former member, the late Dr Phillip Steinberg, and features traditional Jewish symbols such as the Menorah and Arba Minim (four fruits of Succot). It adds to the folk-like feel of the space, as do the blue walls (to ward off the evil eye) and simple decor.
But these descriptors do nothing to capture the atmosphere or personality of the Congregation. One may feel the cold in the winter months due to the energy efficiency, but the congregants compensate by extending a warm reception and a dram or two of whiskey at Kiddush. And it is not only for this reason that we are known as the Cheers of shuls, as it is here ‘where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.’
At the time of writing two thousand Jewish souls live on in the East End. Though the demographic is elderly that is reason enough for shuls to remain open in the area, more so now as young Jews begin returning to their roots. At last, thankfully, the community at large is recognising the importance of preserving this fast disappearing heritage. With the will, will come the support, to ensure that the remaining East End synagogues – Fieldgate Street, Nelson Street, Sandy’s Row and Kehillas Ya’akov – will not only survive, but will prosper for this generation and many more to follow. And as Herzl famously once said: Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah – If you will it, it’s no dream. I need not remind you that through no fault of our own we lost for posterity much of our East European heritage. Let us not stand idly by and allow the loss of our East End heritage too.
From an article originally published in Jewish Renaissance, Winter 2003 Edition. For more information, please see www.jewishrenaissance.org.uk
Services are held every Friday night (5 minutes before sundown), and Saturday morning (at 910am). For more information, then click here.