YOU go through the door between the bottled beer specialist
and the internet cafe on Commercial Road in Stepney Green,
East London, you are transported into another world. The lettering
on the building indicates the Congregation of Jacob synagogue,
and there is a Star of David on the roof of the predominantly
grey and brown terrace; but still you would not expect the
stillness in the pale blue interior only feet away from the
is traditional that a prayer is said on entering a synagogue:
How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places,
O Israel (Numbers 24:5) -and it is these words that give this
community its name.
is about the open hospitality integral to Judaism, about welcoming
strangers and embracing the community," says David Russell,
the vice-chairman of the synagogue.
community, which is not affiliated to any of the streams of
Judaism, was founded, probably in the front room of a nearby
family house, in 1903; it is one of only four synagogues that
remain of more than 150 that used to exist in the East End.
It originally consisted of first generation immigrants from
Poland and Lithuania but now has a Sephardic contingent too.
in many synagogues in the East End in the middle of terraces,
the light comes through a glass roof. This illuminates the
striking picture of Jewish objects from the middle of the
last century just above the ark. According to Sharman Kadish,
the project director of the Survey of the Jewish Built Heritage,
the Congregation of Jacob is one of England's last intimate
folk art synagogues.
tradition was continued when the contemporary artist Catherine
Yass produced an ethereal image of the pale blue interior
- the colour is meant to ward off the evil eye - for her series
of photographs of abandoned East End synagogues. The collection
was displayed in the Congregation of Jacob three years ago.
that time there were leaks being collected in buckets on a
concrete floor, but now only the rarely-used gallery needs
renovation. And since 2000 there have also been improvements
in attendances. The community no longer has to resort to schlepping,
going out on Friday nights and Saturday mornings to drum up
the ten men required for a full service to take place.
A five-star guide*
Kehillas Yaakov (Congregation of Jacob) Synagogue, Commercial
Road, Stepney E1
The Warden, the Rev David Brandes
A short speech from a regular visitor, Yaakov Potash, based
on the reading on Jacob and Esau, arguing that if we compare
ourselves to others we must look upwards spiritually but downwards
Originally the premises of a bootmaker before being redesigned
by Lewis Solomon & Son, honorary architects to the Federation
of Synagogues, and reconsecrated in 1921
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HIGH: The immediate effect of entering the synagogue from
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A fine vocal performance at the end of the service by 15-year-old
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CARE: Whisky and wine, cakes, bread and biscuits
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chairman, Gerald Brandes, says that the congregation is now
praying that London's Olympic bid might succeed and help numbers
to increase by attracting people to the east. And the synagogue
is certainly optimistic in its outlook: it has its own marriage
secretary, although there has not been a wedding for many
years and the average age is rather high.
week sees old and young, in this Jewish community and others,
united to celebrate Hanukkah. The Congregation of Jacob is
marking the festival of lights with a study session, the lighting
of the candles on the menorah, games with dreidels (four-sided
toys, marked with Hebrew letters), singing and doughnuts.