Dr Helen Fry looks back at the remarkable history of Golders Green Synagogue, which is celebrating 100 years since opening its doors
This year marks the 100th anniversary since Golders Green Synagogue – affectionately known as Dunstan Road shul – was founded.
The congregation’s significance lies in the fact that not only does it represent the first purpose-built synagogue in Golders Green, but also its history is bound up with the rapid expansion of the area from open green fields to more densely-populated urban development.
The Jews who moved into Golders Green at the turn of the century were primarily from the middle classes, from around Cricklewood and Kilburn, rather than the Jewish East End.
By the 1920s, Golders Green became a very fashionable place to live and its high street was described as having “the finest shops outside the West End of London”.
The nascent Jewish community began in 1915 with only 20 members, but in its heyday rose to a membership of around 1,500.
From 1915 until 1922, the early congregation rented St Albans Hall from the local Anglican Church for Shabbat services and all the major festivals and developed a mutual rapprochement with the local vicar, Reverend Trundle.
By 1918, the congregation was able to purchase a plot of land in Dunstan Road but, interestingly, could not build the synagogue before 1922 because the government had reserved the land as allotments to feed the nation after the food shortages of the Great War.
The synagogue was finally consecrated on 10 September 1922 in a ceremony officiated by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Joseph Herman Hertz.
Its first minister was Rev Isaac Livingstone, appointed in 1916, who served the community faithfully for nearly 40 years and into his retirement years, aided by the dedicated Reader, Rev Taschlicky.
Then came Rabbi Dr Eugene Newman, a deeply committed communal rabbi, who died unexpectedly in office in 1977.
The congregation was also served by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who later went on to become Chief Rabbi.
With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, the congregation supported Zionist causes. When war broke out in September 1939, members of the congregation enlisted in the armed forces and made their contribution to the defeat of Nazism.
Those who died in action are commemorated on the synagogue’s War Memorial in the vestibule.
By the 1950s, the congregation comprised mainly businessmen in trades and a small number of professionals. They were furriers, jewellers, tailors, milliners and box manufacturers.
The synagogue enjoyed a period of growth, with more than 200 children in the Hebrew and religion classes. Services were ‘high church’ and conducted by officials in canonicals and formal top hats were worn by the wardens.
It was one of the few synagogues that still had a full time Beadle, Mendel Susser, who owned a local kosher wine shop. This period saw the familiar annual charity event, The Gold & Green Ball, held at the Savoy Hotel or Dorchester in Mayfair, which raised thousands of pounds for good causes.
Later, the community began to experience a sharp decline, especially in the religion school. Traditional and modern views within the community sought to fulfill the needs of all members, but it led to some difficult times.
For around a decade, the congregation formed into two separate minyanim for services, one with more formal rituals that met in the main synagogue, the other reflecting a modern Orthodox approach with services initially at the nearby Jewish Vegetarian Society.
Then a successful application to the English Heritage Fund led to a grant of £200,000 being awarded for repairs to the synagogue roof, and this sparked a move to look at the general future of the congregation and find ways to regenerate its membership.
With dedication, the life of the community has been turned around. Today, the synagogue has been transformed from a tired, dilapidated building to a modern, regenerated place of prayer.
This unique history is the subject of my latest book, entitled Golders Green Synagogue: The First Hundred Years, published in January by Halsgrove and containing 200 black-and-white photographs.
Writing the full history was possible only because the congregation had kept its records and papers, amounting to a significant archive.
For Anglo-Jewish congregations like this one, keeping such irreplaceable records is vital for posterity and often represents the only record of particular periods in history.