London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

Memories of the Belzer synagogue, from Leon Silver, senior warden of Nelson Street synagogue

Dear Phil,

Site of the Belz synagogue, 90 Commercial RoadI read with interest your letter from Harold Fenton asking for information about the Beltz synagogue in Commercial Road.  Below are my memories of the Belz synagogue: 

left,site of the Belz synagogue, 90 Commercial Road, London E1 - double click to enlarge

My late maternal grandfather, Laybish (Louis) Wolf, a tailor, was joint vice-president of the Belzershil, as it was known (note the Galitzian pronunciation of shul), along with Mr Lewis Coleman, proprietor of the Adonion Press in Jubilee Street.

The Belzershil was situated in a skylight lit converted workshop at the back of 90 Commercial Road.  Founded by landsleit (compatriots) from Eastern Galitzia, which included the shtetl (Yiddish diminutive of Shtiedt: city, Shtetl generally means the market towns and villages of the Yiddish speaking communities of central and eastern Europe) of Belz, the synagogue followed the form of worship familiar and comforting to those who had immigrated from the area.  Influenced by Chasidism, Belz being, after all, the then seat of the Belzer dynasty of Chassidic rebbes, the shul was not itself Chassidic but followed the same style of worship known as Nusach Sphard (influenced by, but not the same as, Sephardic).

The centre of social as well as religious life for many of its poor but enthusiastic congregants, Simchas Torah (the rejoicing of the law) for example, was celebrated each year with an entire barrel of beer along with the indispensible schmaltz herrings and eier kichalach (savoury egg biscuits).

I do not know when the shul first opened, but it closed sometime in the mid 1930s when it amalgamated with Nelson Street Sphardish Synagogue, now called the East London Central, which still follows the Nusach Sphard service. The Belzer synagogue is commemorated on a plaque in the shul lobby.

Both Mr Coleman and my grandfather subsequently became vice-presidents of Nelson Street.

The last president of the shul, Hymie Singer, was married to my mother’s sister.  Sadly none are alive for me to question further.  I am therefore the third generation of my family to have the honour of being involved in the management of this most beautiful of surviving Eat End synagogues.  Visitors are always welcome by appointment, and most especially worshipers to enhance our Sabbath morning minyan.

Yours sincerely,
Leon Silver
Senior warden and honorary financial representative
East London Central Synagogue, 30-40 Nelson Street, London E1 2DE

 (I forwarded Leon's letter to Harold Fenton, who replied)

I am so grateful to Mr Silver and you for remembering! What interesting facts Mr Silver adds to this shtieble's history. I wish there was some way I could know more of my grandfather who was – as my mother, zl, told me – a founder member of the Belze Community in Commercial Road. Her fondest memories were on Sukkot when the whole kehila [community] used to eat in my grandfather's succah in Cable Street, for kiddush after mussaf [additional offering].

Please thank him for me or let me have his e-mail

Best wishes
Harold Fenton
Additional Note:
The Former Conservative leader Michael Howard also has a link with the Belz synagogue in Commercial Road.  His father, Bernat Hecht, an immigrant from Romania, was invited to apply for the job of cantor there.  The community raised the money to pay for his 1,500 mile journey by boat and train to the UK and he arrived at Dover in 1937 but without the required work permit and was sent back to Ostend.  The Belz community contacted their local MP, James Hall, for help, and he wrote the following letter to the Home Secretary, Sir John Simon:

"There is a dearth of cantors during the Passover period. I am informed that the services of Mr Hecht would be required for only a month. I beg to submit the application (for a work permit) for your favourable consideration and would regard it as a personal favour if an early reply could be given me because of the urgent character of the situation.”

Sir John consequently granted Michael Howard’s father a work permit and he was still in the UK after war was declared in 1939.  In 1940 he was granted indefinite leave to remain and in 1946 was given British citizenship. The rest is history.

By 1952 the Belz synagogue had amalgamated with Nelson Street synagogue. The event is recorded on the amalgamation plaque still on display in the entrance to Nelson Street synagogue. 

The amalgamation plaque in the lobby of Nelson Street synagogue, commemorating the Belzer synagogue among others

 The amalgamation plaque in the lobby of Nelson Street synagogue, commemorating the Belzer synagogue among others

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