Belsize Square Synagogue Celebrates 75th Anniversary
March in the 1930s was a fateful time in Germany. On March 22, 1933, almost as soon as he came to power, Hitler opened the Dachau concentration camp.
On March 15, 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, providing proof positive of his ambitions for conquest. This was the moment when the appeasers in Britain finally realized the truth about Hitler’s empty promises and lies about not wanting Germany to expand further. It was in that same month, in March, 1939, that the foundations of the first and only British synagogue in the mold of the German Liberale tradition were laid in London.
This new congregation, consisting entirely of German-speaking refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, was assisted by the late Lily Montague, then leader of Liberal Jewry in the United Kingdom.
The German-Jewish Liberale tradition is very different from the British tradition of Liberal Judaism, however. Almost all the prayers are in Hebrew, but there is a choir, and the organ (or, in the early days, a harmonium) is played on sabbaths and festivals. The liturgy is magnificent, most of the music being by Louis Lewandowsky (not to be confused with Robert Lewandowski the footballer!) and Solomon Sulzer, both nineteenth-century Jewish composers. Additional music has been added in recent years, much of it by Sue Marriner, wife of the synagogue’s Rabbi Emeritus, Rodney Marriner.
The synagogue at first called itself the New Liberal Jewish and was located in a dingy building in Belsize Park, London, the then neighborhood at the heart of the Jewish refugee community. The congregation’s first permanent rabbi was Dr. Georg Salzberger, who had officiated at the Liberale congregation of Frankfurt. His synagogue is the only one in Frankfurt to have survived the war because the non-Jewish architect was a friend of Hitler! It is now occupied by Chabad.
Dr. Salzburger, who had officiated in Frankfurt, was himself the son of a rabbi. In November, 1938, following Kristallnacht, Dr. Salzburger was sent to Dachau concentration camp, but his daughters managed to amass enough bribes to get him released and he was allowed to leave for England. In the early years, he was offered a home 40 miles from London, in Hemel Hempstead, and he had to travel down to London for the services.
The cantor was Dr. Magnus Davidsohn of Berlin, a huge man with a deep, bass voice, who taught the Sunday School pupils the liturgy in faltering English, playing the ancient harmonium as an accompaniment. The sermons were delivered in German as were the deliberations of the synagogue Board, and the older Sunday School pupils were even at first taught in German!
Dr. Salzburger retired in 1957 and was succeeded by Rabbi Jacob Kokotek who was in turn succeeded by Dr. Rodney Marriner, an Australian-born rabbi, the first of non-German origin. The present incumbent, who arrived in 2011, is Dr. Stuart Altshuler, an American rabbi from Chicago. The nature of the congregation has also changed over the years. Many of the original members’ children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are still loyal members, but they have been joined by many families of non-German origin. The synagogue has the reputation of being a home-away-from-home for Jewish refugees. The previous chazan, who left in 2012, was Norman Cohen-Falah, from Argentina, whose family originates from Syria. The present chazan, Paul Heller, who arrived in 2013, is of German origin but has officiated in Colombia and in Sweden.
And the congregation has grown and flourished. In 1951, the members scraped together enough money to buy the former vicarage of the next-door St. Peters church, just a few yards from the synagogue’s first home. The synagogue only seated 80 people. In 1989, the synagogue decided that the name “Liberal” was confusing so it changed its name to the Belsize Square Synagogue. A much expanded synagogue hall in a new extension were added to the existing building and opened in 2010. The opening address was given by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Rabbi Dr. Salzburger’s grandson.
Today the sanctuary and synagogue hall can hold more than 1,000 people, so it is big enough to accommodate the entire congregation for the High Holidays. It also does everything it can to support its elderly members in failing health. There is wheelchair access to the bimah, and all parts of the building have been designed with the disabled in mind. There is also air-conditioning to cope with London’s increasingly warm summers and a state-of-the-art sound system. Furthermore, all of the Sabbath and holiday services can be enjoyed by the house-bound through recordings broadcast on the internet.
The history of the synagogue has been documented in a book written by a member, the author Anthony Godfrey, which is entitled “Three Rabbis in a Vicarage,” published by Larsen Grove Press in March 2005.