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Portsmouth Jewry - 1730's to 1980's
Synagogue Reconstruction
Dr Aubrey Weinberg (1985)

 

An expanding congregation, together with building dilapidation, led to a number of major and minor reconstructions to White’s Row synagogue.in 1850, large scale redecorations paid for by Emanuel Emanuel, and the installation of' a new chandelier by Ezekiel Emanuel, were marked by a reconsecration service. By that time the area in which the synagogue was situated had declined from its earlier central place in the commercial life of Portsmouth to a condition, described in one historical account, as 'the scene of abominations which neither the mind can conceive nor the pen describe'.[44] A coroner's jury was petitioned by the magistrates to do something about the 'dens of infamy' abounding there. Concerned over the eruption of numerous beer shops and 'places of immoral character' that seemed to hem in the synagogue entrance, the management committee undertook the major purchase of an adjacent ironmonger's shop which had stood between the synagogue and Queen Street. The shop was demolished and replaced by a pair of gates, surmounted by lamps, which gave direct entry to the synagogue From Queen Street.

A grand opening ceremony took place in 1852. the entrance from White's Row was closed up and the workshops adjoining the ironmonger's shop were replaced by a minister's house and four almshouses for aged couples. A public appeal was launched to cover the 1,200 construction cost, over half the amount being eventually borrowed from Portsmouth's Hebrew Benevolent Institution. Ihe final payment of that loan, with its interest, was not made until 1900. An impressive photograph of the new synagogue entrance, taken on the occasion of Queen Victoria's golden jubilee, shows two policemen standing sentinel before Grecian style statues, on pedestals, lining the passageway leading to the synagogue. A newspaper report of 1878 referred to it as the handsomest entrance to any synagogue in England.k45]

In 1876, the synagogue was again refurbished by Alderman Emanuel Emanuel in celebration of his 70th birthday. The principal transformation prior to the reopening was the installation of two new East windows on which were inscribed the ten commandments in both English and Hebrew. By that time concern was known as the Queen Street synagogue. The synagogue was resplendent with a new reading desk, and a special presentation was made by the congregation to A.L. Emanuel who had been responsible for collecting over 1,000 to cover the cost of renovation. However, by 1899, more monies had to be found for further improvements, principally the installation of electric lighting and the redecoration of the alms houses, minister’s house and schoolroom.

The Queen’s Street synagogue was to make a further drain on the congregation’s finances. Only ten years after its previous reconsecration the synagogue underwent a substantial extension in 1909, and it was during disturbance to the original foundations that the original memorial stones, set in 1780, sere uncovered. The Chief Rabbi again was in Portsmouth for the reconsecration but further extensive renovation again became necessary in 19130. Attempts over seventy years to accommodate the old synagogue and its environs to the changing requirements of the congregation finally ended through the endeavours of a building committee originally established to consider the building of a new communal hall. Six years of deliberation elapsed before their revolutionary recommendation to build a new synagogue at ‘Chilcote’, in The Thicket, Southsea. When approval was won, the synagogue which emerged in the residential area of Southsea became the home of Portsmouth and Southsea Hebrew Congregation. The old Queen Street premises, in Portsmouth, remained the property of the congregation but lived on as a furniture depository until its destruction in a wartime air raid. The congregation eventually received war damage compensation of 2,175, in 1952.

The foundation stone of the new synagogue was laid on Sunday 21st June 1936, at an impressive ceremony at which the Chief Rabbi Or. J.H. Hertz delivered an address. Building was completed in amazingly rapid time to allow a grand opening in September of the same year when Osyan Feldman, in the absence of the Chief Rabbi, consecrated the synagogue. The efforts of the enterprising and forward looking building sub-committee of fourteen members, purposefully led by Naphtali Phillips and Hyman Filer, had eventually been able to detach Portsmouth’s Jewish congregation from its ancestral site. They had worked hard to dissipate a considerable amount of opposition to the move which had been framed around sentiment, doubts about the adequacy of the new synagogue’s size, and its financing. ‘Chilcote’ offered space for the provision of accommodation for a minister and a caretaker as well as providing Vestry rooms for Hebrew classes. The basement billiards room was converted into a communal hall. Two prominent features of the new synagogue were the sliding roof in the entrance hall which provided the Succah, and the glass dome above the Bimmah which, together with the windows brought from Queen Street, provided a bright focal point for synagogue services. Other vestiges of the old synagogue's furnishings and appurtenances brought a Phoenix like quality to the new structure in the Thicket. The original ark, described as of’ richly carved mahogany’, as was the reader’s desk and elders’ seats, the symbolic scroll above the ark carrying the ten commandments, the Bimmah rails, lamp standards, wooden pew seats in pitch pine, the royal coat of arms and the chandelier, all brought a warmth of familiarity and continuity for the relocated congregation. The original foundation stone of the White’s Row synagogue was reset into the wall of the new synagogue a vestibule.

Wartime damage to the new synagogue resulted in one minor change to its appearance. However fine had been the glass dome, it had admitted a mixed blessing of light and cold. It was decided to take advantage of the war damage compensation scheme and substitute a plaster dome for the broken glass dome. With bomb damage repairs completed, the Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie officiated at the reconstruction service in April 1951. Thirty-two new windows had been presented by the parents of Geoffrey David Berney R.N.V.R., killed in wartime action, and eighteen Portsmouth ex-servicemen's associations attended the synagogue to salute the new standard of the Portsmouth Branch of the Jewish Ex-servicemen & Women, presented on the occasion. A reception for 600 guests was later held in the Savoy Cafe.

Thirty years on, the synagogue site appears very much as it was earlier. A young and bouyant post-war congregation, interested in developing social and recreational activities, recognised the inadequacies of the basement communal hall. In 1960 the synagogue board of management voted in support of a new communal hall to be constructed at the rear of the synagogue. Alderman J. Davidson proposed a scheme whereby monies from a trust fund, established by him, would cover the building costs, and in recognition of his endeavours it was decided to name the intended building the Alderman Davidson Foundation Hall. The prematureness of that decision was recognised when, to the dismay of the congregation, a legal disqualification was found which denied such an application of the trusts funds. The hall was never built, notwithstanding a declaration by the then warden, A.R. Wollrauch, that ‘it was our moral duty to Alderman Davidson that we build a communal hall in his lifetime’. In 1961 the property adjacent to the synagogue, South Lodge, was purchased for the congregation and subsequently became used as a house for Rabbi Lincoln. With Rabbi Lincoln’s departure from

Portsmouth which ended an era during which the congregation had enjoyed the services of two members of the clergy, the house was converted for use as a Jewish Community Centre, with provision for Hebrew classes. A Community Centre committee was established to maintain South Lodge but its state of disrepair required funds beyond the means of the committee. When the Community Centre withdrew into the main synagogue building, South Lodge was sold off to a private purchaser.