This Day in Jewish History

2007: New West End Synagogue Listed as U.K. National Landmark

Founded in 1877, the synagogue is widely held to be the most beautiful in England, even if to this day British Jewry remains divided over its leadership squabble 50 years ago.

Eli Ballon

On August 7, 2007, Londons New West End Synagogue became the second Jewish house of worship in the United Kingdom to be listed as a Grade I national landmark. (The first was Bevis Marks Synagogue, in Londons East End.) Grade I is reserved for those structures determined to be of the greatest historical and architectural heritage. The listing put New West End in the same class as Buckingham Palace and Oxfords Bodleian Library, offering them legal protection from demolition and alterations.

The red-brick structure of New West End is situated on St. Petersburgh Place, in Londons Bayswater district, near Kensington Gardens. When the synagogue was dedicated, on March 30, 1879, it was intended to provide the growing population of prosperous Jews in Londons West Side with a house of worship fitting for their improving status in society.

As Elkan Levy, a lifelong member of the synagogue whose father, Raphael Levy, served as its longtime cantor, described in a 2004 lecture, New West End came into existence about the same time as the United Synagogue, the countrys federation of Orthodox congregations. It was a dynamic period when the countrys Jews, in general, were coming into their own, seeing the various boundaries to participation in civic life falling around them. Benjamin Disraeli, born Jewish though a practicing Anglican, was prime minister.

Rothschild lays cornerstone

The cornerstone of the building was laid on June 7, 1877, by Leopold de Rothschild, the first Jewish member of the House of Lords (his father, Lionel, was the first Jew to take a seat in the House of Commons, and in the presence of the United Synagogues founder and chief rabbi, Nathan Marcus Adler.

Eli Ballon

The New West End was built at a cost of 24,980 for both the land and construction. Its designer was the Scottish architect George Audsley, who, together with his brother William Audsley, had already created the similar Princes Road Synagogue in Liverpool.

Audsleys design wasnt limited to the synagogues imposing exterior, which features both Moorish and Gothic elements: He also designed the bimah and the ark, one of the synagogues rose windows, and all of the light fixtures adorning the opulent interior, whose main sanctuary holds 800 people. Marble and wood were imported, and two inspiring rose windows are joined by a set of 40 stained-glass windows (created by Nathaniel Westlake, and added in the 20th century), and many other features that make it arguably the countrys most beautiful synagogue.

The expulsion of Rabbi Jacobs

The congregational history, too, is fairly glorious (Elkans lecture provides a close-up look at some of the men, some of them wonderfully eccentric, who led it during its first century), and visitors today can still see the plaques marking the pews where members Chaim Weizmann, Israels first president, and Herbert Samuel, Britains first high commissioner in Mandatory Palestine, sat.

That history, however, also includes the role that New West End was forced to play in the expulsion of Rabbi Louis Jacobs from the United Synagogue in 1963.

Eli Ballon

Jacobs had been the synagogues rabbi from 1954 to 1960, before he went off to teach at Jews College, the rabbinical seminary. Although he had been promised the leadership of the college -- which in turn was understood to be a springboard to the position of chief rabbi -- upon the retirement of the incumbent, Rabbi Israel Epstein, Jacobs found his way blocked by the chief rabbi of the United Synagogue, Israel Brodie. Rabbi Brodie was among those who believed that Jacobs attempt, in his book, We Have Reason to Believe, to incorporate critical textual analysis of the Bible into the Orthodox worldview disqualified him from serving as a rabbi in the movement.

New West End offered to rehire Rabbi Jacobs, but this too was blocked by Rabbi Brodie.Instead, Jacobs moved to what became the New London synagogue, which became the first member of the UKs small Masorti (Conservative) movement. Fifty years later, and nearly a decade after the death of Louis Jacobs, British Jewry remains divided over the Jacobs Affair and its lessons.