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Belsize Square Synagogue was founded in 1939 by a group of refugees from Central Europe. Originally affiliated to the Jewish Religious Union (now Liberal Judaism), it became independent in 1989.
Belsize Square Synagogue celebrated 70 years with a concerto in March 2009.
In the beginning
Coming from the Continental Liberal (or Liberale) movement, the founders of Belsize Square Synagogue could not simply integrate into an existing synagogue like their Orthodox and Reform counterparts; English Liberalism was too radical for them.
And so, a few months before the outbreak of war in 1939, a group of refugees, mainly from Berlin and Frankfurt-on-Main, secured the use of the Montefiore Hall for their own Friday Evening Services. They were helped by Lily Montagu, one of the founders of the English Liberal Movement and a lay Minister in the Liberal Jewish Synagogue.
The first of these Services took place on 24 March 1939 and was held in the continental Liberale manner. There was no formal congregational organisation. Each Service was conducted by a different Rabbi and Cantor recently arrived in the UK.
It was in June 1939 that this ad hoc state of affairs became organised by the formation of the New Liberal Jewish Association (it became known as Belsize Square Synagogue in 1971). Lily Montagu was its first Chairman and Rabbi Dr Georg Salzberger (formerly Frankfurt-on-Main) and Cantor Magnus Davidsohn (formerly Berlin) its first permanent Ministers. Rented rooms in Swiss Cottage provided a home.
In 1951 the Synagogue acquired its own home, a former vicarage in Belsize Square which was converted to accommodate a modest synagogue seating 80 and communal offices, as well as a religion school.
In 1958 we were able to consecrate our current synagogue (seating 350) and in 1973 added the communal hall. All this was achieved without borrowing, thanks to 20 substantial anonymous donations, as well as considerable grants from German restitution funds. The main Synagogue was refurbished and extended in 2010 and the communal hall updated in 2011, allowing for more than a thousand people to attend services to unite the community under one roof.
In 1957, a Holocaust Memorial was consecrated in the Willesden Liberal Jewish Cemetery where annually a Tisha b'Av Commemoration is held.
Continuity and change
There have been comparatively few changes in the ministry of Belsize Square Syngagogue. Rabbi Salzberger was succeeded by Rabbi Jakob Kokotek, and by Rabbi Rodney Mariner before Rabbi Dr. Stuart Altshuler was inducted in 2011. Cantor Davidsohn was followed by Cantor Joseph Dollinger, Cantor Louis Berkman, Cantor Larry Fine and Cantor Norman Cohen Falah. In 2013 we delighted to announce that Cantor Heller would be joining the community
The community, however, has been gradually transformed from an exclusively refugee community to a much more indigenous one (one that nonetheless attracts recent immigrants from as far afield as South Africa and even Iraq). Sermons – originally given in German – have long since changed to English, and instead of the erstwhile Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew, services are now conducted in Sephardi.
The community today
Of course, activities are not confined to the holding of services. The Synagogue employs a professional Community Care Co-ordinator. There is a flourishing cheder (founded in 1942). There are youth clubs, a professional choir, an excellent youth choir, as well as a community choir consisting of adult volunteers. The congregation has issued a monthly magazine since 1947, and has numerous committees and a chevra kadisha, founded in 1953.
Synagogue membership peaked in the mid-1960s with 1,800 members. During the following decade there was a decline, there has been an upswing in recent years and membership is once more on the increase.