It was in 1955 that a group of young, keen men and women, united by their desire to find a meaningful way in which to realistically live their daily lives in a modern Jewish fashion, came together to establish a Reform community in Brighton & Hove.
The idea first emerged at the bar of the Hotel Metropole at a simcha (celebration). This group, who were at the time all members of the local Jewish tennis club, wanted to find something different. They had never felt comfortable when worshipping in the Orthodox community, and were looking for something more spiritually relevant for them.
Gradually, others joined this group until there were sufficient numbers to form a kehilla, (a community). A room was hired in Boyle House in Third Avenue, and they were able to borrow some siddurim (prayer books). However, there was no Torah scroll. Fortunately, Jack Stevens managed to arrange the loan of a scroll from one of the synagogues in Czechoslovakia that had been destroyed by the Nazis. There was great joy that this new community could bring back to life something that had been so cruelly wiped out just a fewyears earlier.
The founders decided to join the Association of Reform Synagogues (now named the Movement for Reform Judaism). They assisted in recommending the services of visiting ministers and student rabbis, and many of those who visited this fledging community went on to become illustrious names in British Reform Jewry – among them were Rabbi Lionel Blue, Rabbi Michal Leigh, Rabbi Van de Zyl and Rabbi Tony Bayfield.
At this stage there were no funds and whatever had to be paid for came out of the founder members’ pockets, but this did not deter them. What they needed to do to make this a ‘real’ shul was to find a rabbi. So in 1956, a meeting took place in the Cumberland Hotel in London with a young man who was to become the first rabbi of the new community. His name was Erwin Rosenblum; and he was to make a significant mark on the community during his tenure from 1956 to 1984, some 28 years.
It took only a few years for the membership to outgrow the little room in Boyle House. In the short time they were there, an executive, a board of management, an office secretary, the ladies’ committee and the functions committee were appointed. Then, in 1958, this group of enthusiastic members moved to the ground floor of 65, Holland Road. Membership went up to 80 families.
By 1962, history was starting to repeat itself. With over 300 members, the Holland Road premises were bursting at the seams. The board decided it was time to look for a new home, and this time they were aiming high. The need was for a new building – premises that could seat near 700 members on High Holy days. It also required classrooms, with a communal hall, kitchen, offices, and a car park.
A plot of waste ground on the corner of Eaton Road and Palmeira Avenue, known as ‘Sleepy Hollow’, was found. It was owned by the founder of the Alliance Building Society, Lewis Cohen, later Lord Cohen of Brighton. Nobody really knows how, but Rabbi Rosenblum persuaded him to sell it for £1,000. A building fund was set up, and thanks to the tireless work of many passionate people, planning permission was obtained. This was not an easy task. For example, there were local people who didn’t like the idea of having another place of worship on their doorstep – Holland Road Shul (Hove Hebrew Congregation) was round the corner, and within a few hundred yards there were two churches. So people got to work to canvass the residents in the neighbourhood, with hundreds of signatures obtained by knocking on doors, and explaining our situation. As a result, planning permission was granted by one vote, and the digging began.
As soon as the building was above ground, the foundation stone was laid on 17 July 1966. Then on 10 September 1967, a Service of Consecration took place, and the synagogue was ready for the High Holy Day Services that year. This presented an opportunity to establish a principle that encompasses the philosophy of this shul –no one was to ‘own’ their own seat, as everyone was of equal importance. This is a philosophy to this day, by which inclusivity is encouraged in prayer as well as in the running of the shul.
Without doubt, one of the treasures and glories of the synagogue is the stained glass windows and doors to the ark. These were the dream of Rabbi Rosenblum, who drew on his deep and lifelong study of the Torah for the subjects he wanted to be displayed. Thus the ‘Palmeira Windows’ came in to being, including the ram, Jacob’s ladder, and the water gushing from the rock. It also included reminders of our more recent, tragic history – a menorah and broken barbed wire, referencing the imprisonment of the Jews by the Nazis.
A generous open bimah was built, with a central staircase leading to the Ark doors of stained glass, depicting the burning bush. It was all about being open and welcoming – again, philosophies that became the foundation of the synagogue.
Since those early years, the synagogue and Reform community has grown from strength to strength. In 1984, Rabbi Rosenblum retired and was succeeded by Rabbi Jeremy Collick, who led the community for 15 years. In 2001, David Meyer became Rabbi, followed in 2008 by Charles Wallach, with the current incumbent Rabbi, Andrea Zanardo joining in 2012.
What of the future? Under the leadership of Rabbi Andrea, the Synagogue has flourished, and now boasts a membership of over 500. Family involvement starts with mothers and toddlers at our ‘Kuddle Up’ pre-Shabbat group. Our thriving cheder consists of over 40 children, led by an enthusiastic team of professional teachers and helpers, with an evolving curriculum. We have a strong B’nei Mitzvah programme, incorporating our Doroteinu (family service) and Shabbaton (service for our B’nei Mitzvah students).
Our youth movement is being re-invigorated, having appointeda new youth worker. As a result, for the first time, we hosted and won the Reform Synagogue Youth’s national Purimspiel competition.
Looking forward, we are planning an exciting redevelopment of the synagogue site to create a Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue for future generations. We think that our founders would be proud that we are continuing with the hard work and dedication they put in to get it all started.
A leading member of Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, and treasurer of the Brighton & Hove Jewish Welfare Board, of which he is now president.
A member of Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue.