London synagogue gets same status as Stonehenge
Britain declared the New West End Synagogue in London a national monument on Tuesday, putting it in the same category as Buckingham Palace and Stonehenge.
The decision means the British government will henceforth be responsible for the synagogue's upkeep, and the Jewish community can request state funding for any necessary renovations.
Only one other synagogue has been declared a British national monument - Bevis Marks in East London, the country's first synagogue, which was built in 1701. New West End was built in 1879.
"We're happy and excited," said the synagogue's rabbi, Geoffrey Shisler. "Above all, the decision proves that the British government recognizes the Jewish contribution to the kingdom's history."
Shisler noted that both Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president, and Herbert Samuel, who was the first British high commissioner for Palestine, were members of New West End, and plaques mark both of their former seats. The synagogue's first rabbi, Simeon Singer, translated and edited the Authorized Daily Prayer Book, an edition of the siddur (Jewish prayer book) that is still commonly used in Orthodox synagogues throughout the British Commonwealth.
Today, the congregation numbers some 400 families, and "because of the synagogue's beauty, we are also the most popular place in Britain for [Jewish] weddings," Shisler said.
Altogether, Britain has some 15,000 national monuments and about half a million lower-level historic preservation sites. New West End had previously been a historic site, but the Jewish community had asked the relevant government agency, English Heritage, to upgrade its status, and after inspecting the building three months ago, the agency approved the request this week.
In its decision, English Heritage wrote that the upgrade was justified by both the synagogue's exceptional architecture and its historic importance.
"The New West End Synagogue is the architectural high-water mark of Anglo-Jewish architecture," said Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage.
Hannah Parham, the agency's protection adviser, added that "a lot of early 19th-century synagogues tried to follow the styles of their Christian counterparts, but the New West End synagogue celebrated the cultural heritage of the people it served."
The synagogue was designed by George Audsley of Scotland.