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Holocaust memorial cancelled after shock East London synagogue collapse

PUBLISHED: 10:00 14 January 2020 | UPDATED: 16:52 14 January 2020

Synagogue president Leon Silver... had to cancel Holocaust remembrance until community rallied round. Picture: Mike Brooke

Synagogue president Leon Silver... had to cancel Holocaust remembrance until community rallied round. Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

The Holocaust memorial service with the Mayor of Tower Hamlets to mark the genocide of six million Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe has had to be cancelled after the ceiling of East London Central Synagogue collapsed.

Devastation at East London Central Synagogue where ceiling collapsed. Picture: Mike BrookeDevastation at East London Central Synagogue where ceiling collapsed. Picture: Mike Brooke

The January 26 service can't go ahead in Whitechapel after plaster came crashing down inside the building in Nelson Street on Friday, leaving it potentially dangerous.

"We have had to cancel the Holocaust service," a shocked synagogue president Leon Silver told the East London Advertiser. "My first priority is the emergency we're having to cope with."

Surveyors are due this week to examine the structure with its leaking roof after property managers from the Federation of Synagogues, which owns the 97-year-old building, inspected the damage on Monday.

"I was shocked when I arrived to find the aisle strewn with broken wood and plaster where cornices came crashing down," Mr Silver added.

Plaster cornice that crashed down into the aisle. Picture: Mike BrookePlaster cornice that crashed down into the aisle. Picture: Mike Brooke

"But thank goodness no-one was inside the building when the ceiling fell down."

The synagogue was due to open on Saturday for the weekly Sabbath service. Congregation members turned up unaware of the devastation and were unable to hold their service because the building was deemed unsafe.

Tower Hamlets Interfaith Forum has rallied behind the community and is hoping to mark Holocaust Day with a makeshift gathering.

The forum's chairman, Rector Alan Green, from St John's parish church at Bethnal Green, said: "There is wide support for the Jewish community and their East End heritage.

Synagogue president Leon Silver pointing to cracks in the historic building needing restoration. Picture: Mike BrookeSynagogue president Leon Silver pointing to cracks in the historic building needing restoration. Picture: Mike Brooke

"We can't replicate the annual Holocaust memorial, but can come together to express solidarity. We won't allow the Holocaust memorial to pass without showing our solidarity."

The Rev Green has offered the use of St John's church as an alternative—but the community feels it would be more appropriate holding any service in a synagogue to remember the devastation to the six million Jews who perished in Nazi-occupied Europe.

He has contacted the town hall concerning the memorial service. The Advertiser also contacted the Mayor's Office.

Mayor John Biggs has told the paper: "I was shocked to hear of the damage to Nelson Street Synagogue which has served this community for nearly 100 years. The East End has a long history of being home to the Jewish community.

Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs lighting seven candles during Holocaust Remembrance in 2016 at Whitechapel's Nelson Street synagogue. Picture: LBTHTower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs lighting seven candles during Holocaust Remembrance in 2016 at Whitechapel's Nelson Street synagogue. Picture: LBTH

"We will be offering assistance to the Interfaith Forum to find an alternative venue for the Holocaust Memorial service which I was going to attend as I have done in previous years. It's important we come together to mark this."

Messages of support have been given to the synagogue by other faith communities including churches and the Buddhist centre in Bethnal Green.

Another has come from MP Rushanara Ali who was "disappointed that the Holocaust memorial service in the synagogue has had to be cancelled due to the damage".

The Bethnal Green & Bow MP added: "I am saddened to hear that the ceiling collapsed, but thankful that no-one was in the building at the time.

East London Central Synagogue in Nelson Street, Whitechapel. Picture: Mike BrookeEast London Central Synagogue in Nelson Street, Whitechapel. Picture: Mike Brooke

This synagogue is one of the East End's most treasured buildings, steeped in a deep history and an important part of our heritage. It represents the huge contribution the Jewish community made to the East End and to the country."

The historic synagogue opened in 1923 is just three years away from its centenary, but now desperately needs emergency repairs and restoration.

A Faith Building Fund was set up in 2012 by mayor Lutfur Rahman, who was thought to have offered £300,000 from town hall coffers towards restorations, similar to Sandys Row Synagogue in Spitalfields which underwent total renovation after its roof which had been damaged in the London Blitz was found to be precariously balanced.

But the fund was later frozen by government audit inspectors when Rahman was banned from office by the High Court in 2015—leaving all faith centres including churches and synagogues in limbo.

Devastated... Synagogue president Leon Silver amid the rubble from the collapsed ceiling. Picture: Mike BrookeDevastated... Synagogue president Leon Silver amid the rubble from the collapsed ceiling. Picture: Mike Brooke

The Jewish News reported in 2015 that a group of young Jews were fundraising to help save the Nelson Street house of worship, the East End's oldest purpose-built synagogue. Its roof was collapsing and its original features were "in need of major repair".

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