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Behind the Headlines Sad Fate of an Old Synagogue

Manchester Jewry, the second biggest Jewish community in the United Kingdom, is in the process of losing its most famous monument and appears helpless to prevent it. It is the Great Synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road, known to generations as “The English Shul” and often described as Manchester Jewry’s cathedral. Among famous names associated with it are the English branch of the Rothschild family which settled in this city before moving to London.

Although prayers have not been said there for some years, it is only recently that its ruinous condition became fully apparent. One of its two cupolas has been neatly sliced off–probably by metal thieves–and sections of the roof have collapsed. A basement window has been removed and tramps and vandals have easy access.

Opened in 1858, the Great Synagogue was listed by the Manchester Corporation as worthy of being preserved, but whether through ineffectiveness or through lack of resources, the management of the congregation which now worships in a newer building several miles away has been unable to save it. An estate agent has tried to sell it, but so far without success.

But Manchester Jews are far from indifferent to its plight. Individually they express grief, shame, anger and helplessness. The old building still stands proudly on Cheetham Hill Road, the historic cradle of Manchester Jewry at the turn of the century. Two lesser synagogues, on each side of it, have been sold as a warehouse and a lampshade factory, but at least they are intact. Not so the Great Synagogue, seen daily by hundreds of Manchester Jews as they drive to work through the old district into the city.

NO MONEY FOR MAINTENANCE

Rev. Leslie Brodie, the minister in the congregation’s new building, is among those who profess sorrow at the old synagogue’s state. He partly blames Manchester’s communal Jewish, leadership, who hardly ever used it for ceremonial occasions, such as Warsaw Ghetto or Israel Independence Days, when it was still available.

He admits, however, that there is no communal purse for maintenance purposes, adding that in Manchester each synagogue is an independent body instead of part of a powerful grouping, as in London. Paradoxically, one of the people most eager to do something about the building is a non-Jew. Bill Williams, author of a history of Manchester Jewry, believes the building is now almost a write-off, but wants to save some of its interior features.

They include the bima and pulpit, made of beautiful Spanish mahogany, stained glass windows and pictures. Williams, the head of the local history department at a Manchester college, has offered to remove these items and to store them. But although he wrote to the synagogue management several months ago, he is still awaiting a reply. When this was reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency to Rev. Brodie, he promised that he would deal with it quickly. Meanwhile, the building falls into further disrepair and the interior is in danger of being flooded or vandalized.

Williams, who has already saved the synagogue’s archives and deposited them in Manchester’s Central Library, hopes that if he can rescue the synagogue’s woodwork and other features, they will one day form the centerpiece of a local Jewish museum. As yet, though, no museum exists and with the final collapse of the Great Synagogue, the historic Cheetham Hill area will be left without a single monument to a once vibrant community.

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