Various senior members of SWERS were present including Rabbis Henry Goldstein and Rabbi Howard Cooper also David Barnett Chairman of the Congregational Development Committee of the R.S.G.B now the Movement for Reform Judaism. There were a further 21 other people present who had by attending expressed an interest in a new congregation.
On the 12th December 1980 a trial Service was held at the Bowls. This service was attended by among others Frank & Helen Godson, Sue Barnett, Shirley Dove, Ruth & Clive Bayard, Lorna & Phil Reed. These people were to become the Founders of the community. The first meeting of the Steering Committee met as planned on the 8th January 1981 in Buckhurst Hill.
The first priority was to find suitable accommodation in which to hold services also Harry Goldsmith & Frank Godson were asked to act as joint Co-Chairman of the Steering Committee. When it came to naming the community the Founders felt that to call it Buckhurst Hill Reform Synagogue would not help us to gain members in Chigwell, Loughton, Woodford etc. We therefore came up with the all embracing and what was to become the totally confusing name of "Epping Forest & District Reform Synagogue". As most people thought we were based in Epping we changed the name to "Buckhurst Hill Reform Synagogue". The synagogue remained at Bedford House for about 15 years.
During the next 2 years Rabbi Howard Cooper became part time rabbi for the community and we continued to hold regular Shabbat services at Bedford House, Buckhurst Hill Essex. The community continued to grow, and 28 years later in the year 2015 we have over 400 Full Members, 30 Associates and over 100 children as members. Most of our Founder members and those families which joined in 1981-82 are still members of the community.
On the 24th of November 1980 at The Bowls Chigwell Essex, which was the home of Harry Goldsmith a Past Chairman of South West Essex Reform Synagogue (SWERS and now called SWESRS), a meeting was held with a view to starting a branch congregation in the Woodford/Buckhurst Hill/Loughton area.
Over the years we have been lucky to have had many rabbis working with us both as students and rabbis. Rabbi Howard Cooper, Rabbi Alex Wright, Rabbi Michael Hilton, the late Rabbi Sheila Shulman, Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, Rabbi Jonathon Black and Rabbi David Hulbert. Our current rabbi is Larry Becker.
Around 1996 we purchased the old chapel building and annex at the site of the old Wanstead Hospital in Wanstead (formerly the Merchant Seaman's Orphans Asylum). This beautiful building has now been renovated and restored to a very high standard. The synagogue is housed in a Grade II* Listed building. The chapel building was built in 1861 and it was Listed on the 18/06/1968.
When we bought the building and moved to the new site in 1996 it meant that the name of the synagogue once again did not fit its location. Buckhurst Hill Reform Synagogue was no longer of any use and we did not care for "Wanstead Reform Synagogue" so we adopted our Hebrew name of "Sukkat Shalom Reform Synagogue" Its English translation is "Shelter of Peace" and is fairly indicative these days of the mood within its walls.
At this time some research was carried out into gaining a grant from the English Lottery and English Heritage. Rodney Brody, a past Chair of Council is owed a huge debt for the tireless way in which he pursued this. We eventually secured £332,000 from both organisations knowing that we would need to spend a further £100,000.
Also during this period Marion Joseph who also eventually became Chair of Council noticed an advert in the Jewish Chronicle on the 5th January 1996. An old peoples home in Tottenham was offering to anybody who could use it the entire contents of a synagogue, which was inside the home. A number of our members went to view it and we all agreed that we had to have it. During the next few years we removed all of the timber, stained glass windows and some furniture and stored the contents in a number of locations. Eventually with the help of the grants we installed it into the building.
Over the years successive Councils have steered the synagogue on a healthy path. There have been a few hiccups on the way and a few disagreements between some member, however in spite of this we are growing as a community year on year.
Over the years we have developed into a friendly, family orientated synagogue and the Founders and early members can be truly proud of what they have created
Frank Godson - Honorary Life President
This piece was written by Frank Godson the synagogue's President on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the consecration of the synagogue building.
From the synagogues inception we always had a will to try and get our own building and over the years many sites were looked at but all of them proved too expensive. For example the area now called Great Woodcote Park in Loughton is now an area of housing, the former Harts hospital site which is now a site with housing on it. The site on the Woodford Road which became a restaurant (The Colorado Exchange and the Woodford Working Man’s Club building near Woodford Green which is now a block of flats. These are all sites we looked at.
Around November 1993, 12 years after the synagogue was Founded, the Council of the synagogue once again embarked on a quest to find a permanent building which we could own. Previous to this we held services at Bedford House Buckhurst Hill, Bar Bat Mitzvahs at various public halls and the Quaker Hall in Leytonstone.
And so it was that Cecil Dalton a refugee from SWERS, who dealt with the property for his family's business, Dalton's Peanuts, started to look again. He started by talking to some Sikhs about some land in Chigwell and he also became interested in some land at Wanstead Green and in Hainault. Nothing came of these. In March 1994 the then Chair of Council Sue Jackson considered setting up a committee of professional people who would be able to handle a purchase if something came along. My first wife Helen Godson (we were estranged at the time) took on the role of forming this committee.
During April 1994 Cecil found this former Chapel at Wanstead along with the hospital mortuary next door. He found it whilst looking for a site for the proposed Clore Tikvah Jewish day school. This school was eventually founded and is now in Ilford. As the site including the Chapel proved too small for the purpose of a new school, the synagogue Council of the day decided to look into buying it as a home for SSRS. We have much to thank Cecil, for finding this building. Laurence Valins one of our members who had a shop fitting business was asked by Sue Jackson to look into the project. He presented to a meeting which was held at Loughton Methodist Church an artist's impression of what the building might look like once refurbished. He felt that for a cost of £35k - £40k the chapel could be put into reasonable
order and fit for worship. At this meeting suggestions were made regarding the mortuary and its eventual use as a religion school, Cheder, for our children. It was stated that the chapel had a high pitched roof, exposed wooden beams, that there was some water damage to the roof, it actually leaked, and that it was full of racking and other items, It was being sold as a Grade 2* listed building.
Calford Seaden Surveyors were instructed by Cecil Dalton to help with the purchase and to give us a view on its structural state. After this a verbal valuation was offered by them of around £100.000 - £115.000. In August 1994 it was suggested that negotiations to purchase should commence at £80 - £85k and a written offer was to be made to the builders
Persimmon Homes the owners of the site. Persimmon Homes would have liked to convert this building into homes. They were prevented from doing this and that is why it was up for sale. We eventually agreed to buy the building.
A firm of solicitors (Montlakes) in IIford were suggested as possible solicitors and eventually they were instructed to handle the purchase. Sometime after this we purchased the buildings for about £110,000. We purchased the Chapel, Mortuary building and the land around the buildings. We were able to purchase the building with loans from Natwest bank with the deposit coming from Fund Raising activities over the previous 14 years.
I would like to mention a few names of people some still members other who are not who helped to raise over £75k for the synagogue during the period prior to the purchase. Myself, Sue & Rob Barnett, Clive & Ruth Harris, Maureen Levene, Sidney & Barbara Schneider (Now living in Melbourne), Brian & Shirley Dove (Now living in Israel), Jaqueline & Malcom Feldman, Michael & Barbara Lester, Martin & Jan Levy, Phil Levy, Alan & Melody Fisher and Carol & Joe Williams. Then there is also Colin Burns who secured £20,000 from a legacy of a client. Others formed Fund Raising Committees after this date however the greatest effort to raise money for a building was during this period 1981 - 1995.
The Chapel building in Hermon Hill Wanstead thus became the home of SSRS some 13 years after its founding in 1981. The Chapel was on a site originally built as the Merchant Seaman's Orphans Asylum. The Asylum survived for many years until it was sold due to the cost of repairing the brickwork. It was sold in 1919 for £23,000 to the nuns of the Convent of the Good Shepherd. After this the orphans were moved to a new site in Berksire. After the nuns eventually moved out, the buildings on the site including the chapel were taken over by Essex County Council and the buildings were all to become part of Wanstead Hospital. It was proposed at that time to build a huge new hospital on the site but this never happened. The Wanstead Hospital which had 188 beds functioned for over 35 years on the site and finally had its maternity beds withdrawn in 1975 due to poor cleanliness and high mortality rates of babies. This was only 1 year after my daughter was born there and 3 years after my son. In 1986 the entire hospital was closed and the site laid empty. When it was a hospital the frontage was used in the opening shots of Doctor in the House a TV programme. In the programme the hospital was called St Swithins
After the purchase Laurence Vallins (Elanay) was given some of the money to carry out some partitioning work in the chapel as a temporary measure. This was in April 1995. The idea was to use the Chapel for services as soon as possible and to open up the Religion School in the old mortuary by September of that year. In June 1995 building work was under way in the Chapel and the old mortuary simultaneously. There was a bit of aggravation over the type of work being undertaken in both buildings and the fact that a number of prominent members in the synagogue were being excluded from the process. There was a lot of adversarial politics in the community at this time. Nothing changes. Elanay Laurence's firm started work in June 1995. Both properties were rewired. The heating was overhauled; some new glazing was fitted in the chapel building, Christian artifacts were covered up in the chapel and the kitchen and lobby were partitioned off. The mortuary building was sub divided into rooms and became the cheder.Once the building work was finished in August 1995 the buildings were able to be used for teaching in the old Mortuary Block and services in the chapel. Since we bought the buildings we have continued to repair and maintain where we can and of course there was the granting of Lottery money later on which enabled us to completely refurbish this building and install all of the timer work from the Tottenham Home synagogue When we move in the roof still leaked and the grounds were like a bomb site but we managed with help and donations over the years from many wonderful people.
There is a lot more that I can say about these buildings and the interior but that is for another day. We are here to celebrate our tenure of this building for the last 20 years and that is where the story end. The original loans that we took out to buy the buildings and help with the refurbishments over the years are neatly paid off. When they are finally cleared in 3-4 years’ time we will have the resources to spend a little more making it more comfortable for our members. The synagogue itself is now 34 years old and our membership grows year on year. I am truly glad that I was part of the Founding of this synagogue. I have made lifetime friends and I love seeing it grow.
Finally let us once again remember Cecil Dalton for without his foresight of seeing the potential of this sight in Wanstead for a synagogue ……we may still be looking.
Tree of Life
Cedric Christie is the artist who sculpted the tree of life which was donated by Ros Ellis in memory of her brother Leon Paul Mendel. Leon Paul Mendel was born in 1954. Leon trained as a nurse at Whipps Cross hospital and being dyslexic, when little was known about it, he had to work very hard to pass the written exams. However he was brilliant at "hands on" nursing and worked a great deal with geriatric patients. He married his wife Madeline, who was a midwife at Whipps Cross, just 8 months before he was killed in a car accident in 1982 aged 28.
Cedric Christie was a young artist at the start of his career, he is now an established one. His web site is as follows
The Tree of Life was commissioned by Ros with the assistance of Sylvie Curtis. What was produced was the “twisted” steel structure that you see today but unpainted. When it was produced no consideration was given to the design of the leaves or how they were to be fitted. The tree was fitted to the back of the plasterboard lobby which used to go around the front doors of the synagogue. When this plasterboard lobby was removed the Tree of Life was put around the rear of the Ark.
After its manufacture it was left to Ros and myself to come up with a leaf design and a method of fixing the leaves. Ros used to collect the donations and after we came up with the oval leaf design in brass she used to purchase them. The only method I could find of fixing them to the Tree was using Terry Clips and wire. To this day that is the way they are fixed and I keep all of the bits for doing this in my shed at home.
In time the Tree of Life became rusty and when the synagogue was refurbished we had it painted to its present colour. As the leaves started to discolour and rust I decided to change the material we use to a plastic form with black letters. We very rarely get donations for the Tree as nobody promotes it. So this why I am writing this article.
There are leaflets in the shul foyer if you know of anybody who is interested in purchasing a leaf.