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Cancelled Holocaust remembrance is rescued after Whitechapel synagogue ceiling collapse

PUBLISHED: 17:28 16 January 2020 | UPDATED: 07:30 17 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 community of London’s East End has rallied round to save this year’s Holocaust Memorial service which the Mayor of Tower Hamlets is due to attend following the ceiling collapse at the East London Central Synagogue.

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

The Sunday service on January 26 has been switched to Sandys Row Synagogue in Spitalfields for this year's remembrance, following the damage at Nelson Street in Whitechapel.

Two synagogues and even a church rushed to offer help to save the annual remembrance after the news was broken by the East London Advertiser on January 13.

The other synagogue offer came from Bevis Marks in Aldgate, just inside the City boundary.

"I am deeply moved by the offers to help," the Central Synagogue's president Leon Silver said.

"It would have been disastrous if the East End's Holocaust Remembrance had to be cancelled, but thanks to Sandys Row it has been saved."

Inside the damaged East London Central synagogue in Nelson Street opened in 1923. Picture: Mike BrookeInside the damaged East London Central synagogue in Nelson Street opened in 1923. Picture: Mike Brooke

Surveyors are due to examine the damage to see what caused the ceiling collapse. The building has had a leaking roof for several years. Rainwater is thought to have caused the cornice plasterwork to weaken, which crashed down onto the whole length of the aisle—but no worshippers were in the building at the time.

Restoration work is now urgently needed to save the historic building that was opened in 1923, now just three years away from its centenary.

The more immediate emergency was transferring next week's Holocaust Remembrance service in time.

Sandys Row congregation's president Harvey Rifkin told the Advertiser: "One of our members sent me a link to the online story about the collapse, otherwise we would never have known. We immediately offered to help and told Leon Silver he could use our building. We have also invited the Nelson Street congregation to come to Sandys Row for their weekly Sabbath service as well."

Messages of support came from Tower Hamlets Interfaith Forum with its chairman, Rector Alan Green, even offering his parish church, St John on Bethnal Green, for the remembrance.

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

Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs and Bethnal Green & Bow MP Rushanara Ali made public statements of support.

The Spitalfields Trust, which has been involved in restorations of historic Huguenot buildings, suggested the synagogue be listed and preserved after the Advertiser story broke.

Sandys Row where the 2020 Remembrance is now being staged, ironically, faced the same crisis 10 years ago when the ceiling crashed down.

That was "good fortune" as it exposed the roof balancing precariously out of alignment on the support walls. The 200-year-old place of worship was partly damaged when a German land-mine exploded close by during an air raid in the London Blitz, causing the roof to shift. The gap was hidden for 70 years until the plasterwork fell away.

Restoration was carried out with a £250,000 Heritage Lottery grant—but a similar solution for Nelson Street would be more costly as it is a larger building.


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