March 5th, 2014

(relatively) recent

Jesmond shul

This is Jesmond Synagogue, where I was barmitzvahed (and next door to now long-closed the Jewish primary school I attended):


Wikipedia informs me it was built in 1914–15 in an Art Deco interpretation of Byzantine Revival style. Like elsewhere, the Jewish community in Newcastle started out with immigrants in a poor inner city area (in this case, the West End; the first shul was, appropriately enough, on Temple Street). As its members became more affluent and moved further out, making it difficult for observant Jews to walk to the older synagogues, they built new shuls where they now lived.*

* <rant> As the Conservative Movement in America should have done once its members moved out to the sprawling suburbias, rather than making a mockery of Jewish law by permitting driving on Shabbos, as if use of internal combustion engines did not directly violate the prohibition on making fire. </rant>

At its height, after the War, the Newcastle community numbered 4500. I think the numbers were in decline ever since then, though it took until the 1970s for any sense of decline to become apparent, and the 1980s for anyone to think of doing anything about it (by which time it was too late). By the time of my barmitzvah, the community was down to about 1300 (it's now two or three hundred), one of the three Orthodox synagogues extant when I was growing up had already closed, and the other two were about to be closed and replaced by a new one in the centre of where the community now lived.

Jesmond shul was the last to close, and did so two months after my barmitzvah (though it's not my fault!). Unlike Leazes, which was turned into a shopping arcade* (and later burned down), and Gosforth & Kenton, which was demolished and replaced by a block of flats, the synagogue building in Jesmond was taken over by the local girls' school. The interior's been divided up, I gather, but the exterior remains almost as it is, complete with the beautiful mosaic of Num. 24:5 "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel":

* The brass rail around the women's gallery visible in the abovelinked photograph of Leazes shul is actually the only feature I remember from when it was a shul: It shut when I was five, and the brass rail would have been at eye-level for me!

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In fact, the first photo is a composite: the sun was reflecting so brightly off the mosaic in the original you couldn't make the words out.

There are a few exterior changes which have been made: the foundation stones have been removed, along with a representation of the two tablets of stone at the top; here's how the building originally looked.

Here's a photo of what the shul looked like from the inside, that I don't have permission to embed directly in this post. (I used to sit just off the bottom left!) Notable features include the beautiful ornate wooden ark (which probably met a miserable end after the synagogue's closure), the stained glass window (somewhat overexposed here) showing ה׳ surrounded by rays of light (you can still see the one on the other end of the building in the exterior photograph), and the intricate brass chandeliers.

In fact, the two large chandeliers you can see (but not the third behind them, or the small ones around the edges) were preserved and installed into the new synagogue built in Gosforth—also a building I am much attached to—as was a replica of the central portion of the stained glass window:


(I found this photo here and was surprised to discover it was taken by my father! And I sit here at the front right of the leftmost block of seats, or do normally—whilst in mourning, one sits further back from the Ark.)

It was decades after the shul closed, however, in the age of Wikipedia, that I discovered the irony in the name Jesmond Synagogue: "Jesmond", it turns out, derives from "Jesus Mound".

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