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Our inspired Schools and Community Learning programme delivers a range of workshops and projects using the unique and fascinating collections found within our world-renowned Bishopsgate Library. Our workshops are suitable for learners of all ages and are used by wide variety of audiences from primary school pupils to pensioners.

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Bishopsgate Blog
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Synagogue Stories: Rachel Lichtenstein explores the history of Sandys Row Synagogue

by Events on 05 / 03 / 2014

Until recently little was known about the history of Sandys Row Synagogue and ‘the Chuts’ who founded it. Rachel Lichtenstein is currently working as Project Manager for the Heritage Lottery Funded project "Our Hidden Histories" which aims to chronicle the past 150 years of the oldest Ashkenazi community in London using archive materials and oral history interviews. Rachel explains more:

The oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in London, Sandys Row in Spitalfields, was established by Dutch Jewish immigrants in 1854, who began arriving in the city from the 1840s onwards. They came in search of a better life, rather than fleeing persecution like the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who came after them in the 1880s from the Pale of Settlements.

Sandys Row Synagogue

Image: Sandys Row Synagogue. Rachel Lichtenstein

Mostly from Amsterdam, many settled in a small quarter of narrow streets in Spitalfields known as the Tenterground. Here they continued to practise the trades they had bought with them from Holland, which were predominately cigar making, diamond cutting and polishing, and slipper and cap making. Many small workshops were established in the area and businesses were passed on within generations of families.

With their own practises and customs, many of which were different from other Ashkenazi Jewish groups, they became a distinctive, tight knit community of about a thousand people. To the frustration of the more established Anglo-Jewish population living in the area at the time, ‘the Chuts’ (as they were known locally) refused to join any of the existing synagogues, instead they met in a house on Whites Row, which served as a makeshift synagogue. For festivals and high holy days they rented Zetland Hall in Mansell Street.

In 1854 fifty families from this community formed the Society for Comfort of the Mourners, Kindness, and Truth, which originally functioned as a burial and mutual aid society. In 1867 the society purchased the lease on a former Huguenot Chapel in a small side street in Spitalfields called Sandys Row. Nathan Solomon Joseph, one of the most famous synagogue architects of the time remodelled the chapel, keeping many original features of the Georgian interior, including the roof and the balcony.

Since it opened in 1870 Sandys Row Synagogue has never closed its doors. in 2013 it was awarded a major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for an oral history and local community heritage project called “Our Hidden Histories”. The project involves collecting memories, photographs and artefacts relating to the heritage of the building as well as uncovering more about the role of the synagogue in the local community during the past one hundred and fifty years.

Artist and writer Rachel Lichtenstein, is the Project Manager and has been working closely with Bishopsgate Institute on this project. Fragile archival material based at Sandys Row Synagogue has been removed for safe keeping to Bishopsgate Institute’s Archives, where it is being conserved and preserved properly for the future. Working with a team of excellent volunteers, Rachel has been cataloguing and documenting this collection preparing it to be returned to Sandys Row Synagogue when the correct facilities are in place for exhibiting these this material

This project also entails recording oral history interviews with elderly Jewish members of the synagogue by volunteers who have received full training in oral history techniques by Rachel Lichtenstein and Sarah Lowry of the Oral History Society. These interviews, which have nearly been completed now, will be summarised, transcribed and deposited at Bishopsgate Institute Archives. Edited excerpts from these interviews will also be used on the forthcoming website and exhibition, which will be created about the project.

The project will culminate in an exhibition, which will be shown in Sandys Row Synagogue at the end of the project before touring to other local venues.

If you have any memories, stories or photographs relating to Sandys Row Synagogue please contact Rachel Lichtenstein info@rachellichtenstein.com

As part of our East End in Focus, Rachel Lichtenstein will be in conversation with Phil Maxwell and Hazuan Hashim in Synagogue Stories: An oral History Project. The evening will conclude with the premier of a short film about the project created by Phil Maxwell and Hazuan Hashim.

Exhibition at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery

Our East End in Focus series was inspired by the 1912 street photography of C. A. Mathew. You can see for yourself the wonderful images that C. A. Mathew took at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery from 7 March to 25 April 2014.

Full details of all our events are available to download.

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