Synagogues are central to Jewish life and serve not only as a place of worship, but also as a space for study and assembly. To celebrate the beginning of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, the Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF) is highlighting five projects where communities are working to protect and preserve these incredibly important historic buildings, while also promoting Jewish history, heritage and culture. You can learn more about these projects below.
Image: The exterior of Margate Synagogue in Margate, England. Photo courtesy of Cliftonville Cultural Space.
Margate Synagogue, Margate, England – Cliftonville Cultural Space CIC
Margate Synagogue was built in 1929 to serve a thriving Jewish community. The solid red brick building, which retains many original features, is comprised of a large main hall with stained-glass windows, an upper-floor gallery, a kitchen, toilets, office space and a basement. The synagogue closed as a religious building in 2017 and was later put up for sale.
Cliftonville Cultural Space was set up by local residents to protect the community asset and prevent it from being demolished or developed commercially. As a result of its high-profile campaign, the building was bought by a private benefactor for the group to convert into an arts and cultural centre. Cliftonville Cultural Space is now working to transform the former synagogue into an inclusive, cross-cultural, multi-arts space that brings together the diverse communities of Cliftonville; enhances and preserves the Jewish heritage of the building; and contributes to the transformation of the local area. The building will host a programme of local, national and international music, theatre, dance, comedy, film, exhibitions, talks and workshops. The space will also be available for hire for rehearsals, craft markets, photo and film shoots, plus private functions. Additionally, an affordable, sustainable vegetarian café will be central to the space.
The AHF has supported this project with a Project Viability Grant and a Project Development Grant, both awarded in 2021. Further, Cliftonville Cultural Space has also now been awarded a grant from the Community Ownership Fund.
Image: The exterior of Garnethill Synagogue in Glasgow, Scotland.
Garnethill Synagogue, Glasgow, Scotland – Scottish Jewish Archives Centre
As the oldest purpose-built synagogue in Scotland, Garnethill Synagogue dates to 1879. The Category A-listed building, with its richly detailed interior containing a mix of Moorish, Classical and Romanesque styles, is particularly significant because it is the only surviving synagogue within the city of Glasgow. Today, the synagogue not only remains the place of worship of the Garnethill Hebrew Congregation, but its basement also houses the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre (SJAC).
To offer wider public access to unused spaces in the lower floor of the historic building, SJAC decided to create a Study Centre focusing on the story of Scotland’s Jewish community during the period of the Holocaust. Completed in July 2021, the extended Archives Centre now includes a new public display on the Scottish response to the rise of Nazism and the plight of refugees, a specialist library for researchers, and a function room for events and school groups. In addition, new offices and kitchen facilities have enabled the coordination of volunteer services to staff the Centre’s new programme of activities and outreach, including the development of hands-on learning packs for visiting schoolchildren.
The AHF supported this project with a Project Development Grant, awarded in 2019.
Image: The exterior of Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. Photo courtesy of Foundation for Jewish Heritage.
Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales – Foundation for Jewish Heritage
The former Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue was built between 1872 and 1875 in heavy Northern Gothic style. It is the oldest surviving synagogue in Wales and is considered architecturally one of the most important in the UK. There was a Jewish presence in Merthyr Tydfil from at least the 1830s and the construction of the synagogue reflected a community that was growing and prospering. However, the 20th century saw Merthyr’s active Jewish community shrink in numbers – in 1983, the synagogue was closed.
The Foundation for Jewish Heritage was established in 2016 and works internationally to ensure that important Jewish architectural sites, monuments, and places of cultural significance in danger are preserved and re-imagined for a sustainable future. The Foundation purchased the synagogue in 2019, with an aim to restore the building as a Welsh Jewish Heritage Centre to present the 250+ year history of the Jewish community in Wales.
The AHF has supported this project with a Project Development Grant, awarded in 2020.
Image: The exterior of The Synagogue in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The Synagogue, Belfast, Northern Ireland – Development Trusts Northern Ireland
The Synagogue in Belfast dates back to 1904 and, as the oldest surviving synagogue in Northern Ireland, is of substantial cultural importance. The B1-listed building has some interesting features, including a small single-storey projection which was used as a ceremonial bath, or Mikvah. However, having been empty for some years following its use as a physiotherapy gym and storage facility, the synagogue has fallen into disrepair.
Development Trusts Northern Ireland promotes community management, ownership, and the enterprising use of public assets to support sustainable community development and to deliver social and economic wellbeing priorities. It plans to acquire and redevelop The Synagogue as offices, from which it can deliver services for the local community and advance community development in Northern Ireland. Further plans include creating an exhibition on the Jewish community in Belfast.
The AHF has supported this project with a Project Viability Grant, awarded in 2020.
The interior of Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, England. Photo courtesy of Bevis Marks Synagogue Heritage Foundation.
Bevis Marks Synagogue, London, England – Bevis Marks Synagogue Heritage Foundation
Built in 1701, Grade I-listed Bevis Marks Synagogue is affiliated with London’s historic Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community and is the only synagogue in Europe which has held regular services continuously for more than 300 years. There have been some changes to the synagogue over the years, due to the Great War, the Blitz and an IRA bomb, however, the essential original structure of the building remains today.
The Bevis Marks Synagogue Heritage Foundation (BMSHF) is an independent charity, created in 2019 by the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community, to preserve and manage the buildings, archives and collections of the Bevis Marks Synagogue.
While the synagogue is still in use as a regular place of worship, this year, BMSHF was awarded an AHF Cultural Recovery Fund Grant towards business planning to create a cultural, learning and visitor centre in the building’s annexe, with displays and spaces for celebrations, meetings, lectures, workshops, and musical and artistic activities. Additionally, there will also be a café and shop, exhibitions about Judaism and the history of Bevis Marks, a new kitchen, visitor toilets and a refurbished courtyard for outdoor events.