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

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

Kehillas Ya’akov-Congregation of Jacob, 351-353 Commercial Road, London E1, by David Russell, Vice Chairman, Kehillas Ya'akov (Congregation of Jacob)

(Rest your mouse on the photos to read captions & double click to enlarge)

Kehillas Ya'akov, 351-353 Commercial Rd, London E1 2PSKehillas Ya'akov, or The Congregation of Jacob, is no ordinary synagogue. From the outside it looks unremarkable, sandwiched as it is in the middle of a parade of shops on the Commercial Road in Stepney Green. But step inside, and you enter a fusion of two worlds: one disappeared, and the other said to be fast disappearing. It is where East European Jewry meets the Jewish East End of London. And it is where hope springs eternal. As English Heritage has reported, Kehillas Ya’akov "is a remarkable survival ... and is all the more exceptional for continuing in use as a synagogue.”

1922 Map of Whitechapel - note the number of  'syn' (synagogues) marked on itThe East End is the cradle of Britain's Jewish Community. At the turn of the century, there was said to be as many Jews living in this one square mile of London than there are in the entire country today - over 250,000 souls. Sam Melmick has recorded the existence of over 150 synagogues in the area, not beginning to count the multitude of shtiebls that will have served the Jewish community. But today, there remain only four synagogues still in use: Sandy’s Row, East London Central (also known as Nelson Street, due to its location), Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue and the Congregation of Jacob (or Kehillas Ya'akov).

Kehillas Ya’akov was founded by Morris Davis Koenigsberg and Abraham Schwalbe in 1903, probably beginning life in the front room of Mr Koenigsberg's family house on Commercial Road (Mr Schwalbe lived a few doors along). The Ashkenazi Congregation largely consisted of first generation immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, frum yidden (religious Jews) from small shtetls such as Stetziver, Kalisz and Vilkaviskis.

The shul (synagogue) originally was a constituent member of the Federation of Synagogues (though it is independent today), an organisation established by philanthropist Samuel Montague MP in 1887 to improve the conditions for worship of the numerous small and often ill-ventilated chevras (prayer groups) in the East End. It advanced loans for many synagogue conversions, but often on condition that chevras merged into larger congregations. Kehillas Ya’akov thus incorporates Chevra Yisroel (Society of Israel), Bikur Cholim (Visitors of the Sick) and the Stetziver Synagogue.

What we have also cobbled together is that our present location at 351 - 353 Commercial Road was until the War a bootmaker’s premises, being redesigned by Lewis Solomon and Son, honorary architects to the Federation of Synagogues, and reconsecrated in 1921.

Interestingly Kehillas Ya’akov was the first Mizrachi Synagogue in Britain and to this day, the Congregation remains Modern Orthodox. Most members still live locally though the character of the Congregation is more cosmopolitan than it once was. The service is still very much Ashkenazic in style, but the Sephardic influence can be felt in the soft pronunciation of the Hebrew. The synagogue is independent, owned, managed and maintained by members of the community.

Dr Sharman Kadish, Project Director of the Survey of the Jewish Built Heritage, has commented that at Kehillas Ya’akov “the congregation created for themselves an inner space strongly redolent of the world of East European Jewry which they had left behind.” Today’s Congregation amplifies this sentiment, by reminding guests also of the world of East End Jewry that the British community is leaving behind. But in this latter instance, the abandonment has been chosen not forced.

Kehillas Ya'akov interior - Dr Sharman Kadish is the lady wearing white clothing to the left of the photoOn entering the synagogue, one is immediately struck by the otherworldliness of the space. Maybe this is just the sentimentality of the author, but one senses the ghosts of members past peering over the balcony of the upstairs gallery as heads are bowed for the Amidah. The gallery that encircles three sides of the shul is accessed by a separate entrance to the main portico and was formerly used by the ladies of the Congregation, but is today out of use to the public due to the repair work that is needed to stabilise the gallery. Instead the women sit behind the men at the back of the shul, behind a Mechitzah (a curtain partition), praying and talking quietly amongst themselves when the Shammes (warden) allows.

Kehillas Ya'akov glass roof providing natural lightIn the summer, light floods the Congregation through the glass roof, a feature imported from Eastern Europe and a feature common in the shuls of the East End as one of the only means to enable natural light into the building, particularly important as the synagogue is located in the middle of a terraced row.


The Ark with Dr Philip Steinberg's painting above itAs Dr Kadish also comments, Kehillas Ya’akov is “a valuable and venerable relic of Anglo-Jewish history” and “one of England’s last intimate folk-art Eastern European synagogues.”  The folk art tradition can be evinced from the wall painting above the ark. This was crafted by former member, the late Dr Phillip Steinberg, and features traditional Jewish symbols such as the Menorah and Arba Minim (four fruits of Succot). It adds to the folk-like feel of the space, as do the blue walls (to ward off the evil eye) and simple decor.

But these descriptors do nothing to capture the atmosphere or personality of the Congregation. One may feel the cold in the winter months due to the lack of central heating, but the congregants compensate by extending a warm reception and a dram or two of whiskey at Kiddush. And it is not only for this reason that we are known as the Cheers of shuls, as it is here 'where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.'

Kehillas Ya'akov facesThe shul is run by Rev. David Brandes, who as well as serving as our minister is also the warden of the shul. David’s family has a long-standing connection with the shul. His maternal grandparents lived on Lucas (now Lukin) Street, where the Bikur Cholim was located. David today lives just around the corner from the shul, and it was whilst walking past it nearly twenty years ago that his interest was piqued, when he saw swastikas scrawled on the outside wall.

The shul then was run by two bothers – Morry and Ixxy Lixenberg – and it seems only right today, that David’s brother, Gerald, plays a significant role as Chair of the shul. Even whilst ill, the Lixenbergs did all they could to ensure that the shul remained open, a dedication and commitment that extends to all our membership today. There are still times when the minyan is schwach (weak), particularly in the winter when it is more difficult for our older congregants to attend. But always somehow, we manage to find a tenth man on a Saturday morning, vital to be able to take out the Sefer Torah (the scrolls upon which the five books of Moses are written) to layn (read from the Torah). 

We are fortunate as well to have a direct descendant of one of our founders, Dr Monty Passes, the grandson of Abraham Schwalbe, amongst our congregation. Monty, now in his 80s, still attends services as do a number of his mishpacha (family). Monty is just one of the many congregants helping Kehillas Ya’akov today, a community where everyone is valued, has a vital role to play and contribution to make.  

At the time of writing two thousand Jewish souls live on in the East End. Though the demographic is elderly that is reason enough for shuls to remain open in the area, more so now as young Jews begin returning to their roots. At last, thankfully, the community at large is recognising the importance of preserving this fast disappearing heritage – though there is a real fear this may be too little, too late.

We can only hope that with the will, will come the support, to ensure that all the remaining  East End synagogues will not only survive, but will prosper for this generation and many more to follow. And as Herzl famously once said: Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah – If you will it, it’s no dream.

I need not remind you that through no fault of our own we lost for posterity much of our East European heritage. Let us not stand idly by and allow the loss of our East End heritage too.

From  the  address  given  by  Chief  Rabbi  Sir  Jonathan  Sacks  at  the Congregation of Jacob Synagogue Centenary Service (June 2003)

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks addressing Kehillas Ya'akov  standing in front of the ark“It is an enormous delight to celebrate with you this lovely moment and I commend all of you, not for just keeping it going, but for keeping it strong and keeping the flame alight. For me coming here is like coming home because most of my early childhood was spent in Commercial Road. This is a very very proud tradition that you have sustained here. And what a mechiah (great pleasure) it is that you have kept this shul alive and more than alive, you have renewed it. I want to give my congratulations to all of you who have had a share in it. You are preserving, conserving and renewing something that is unique. May your great great spirit lift everyone who enters your door. May you continue to be as warm and welcoming as you are today and may everyone who enters here to pray feel that they are not strangers here - here where they belong. May your future be no less distinguished than your past.”

(Rest your mouse on the photos to read captions & double click to enlarge)

by David Russell, Vice Chairman, Kehillas Ya'akov (Congregation of Jacob)

website copyright of Philip Walker