On the 24th May 1933 North Western Reform Synagogue was administratively born when a number of local families came together at 17 Templars Avenue in Temple Fortune to “formally proclaim the foundation of a congregation”.
North Western Reform Synagogue was spiritually born on 16th June 1933 when a first Shabbat service was held at 2 Meadway in Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Three years later, in 1936, the Synagogue was built in Alyth Gardens, on land that was carved out from the West London Synagogue’s then three-quarters empty cemetery in Hoop Lane.
That garden setting today!
In 2008 Jon and Gill Epstein published “75 Years of Alyth”, bringing the story of Alyth up to date from the book published to celebrate our Golden Jubilee in 1983 and we are working on plans to make our Bet Tefillah, the Synagogue which was first built in 1936, ready for its next 25 years. If you would like to pick up a copy of 75 Years of Alyth from the Synagogue please contact Lynette Sunderland or Carole Shotts.
Our then President, Jeffery Rose spoke about our Rabbinic History at Alyth at Alyth's Annual General Meeting in our 75th year.
"Probably the most influential factor in the development of a congregation is its religious leadership, so I thought that as we approach our 75th anniversary it would be interesting to have a quick look at the Rabbinical history of Alyth, with some thumbnail sketches of the personalities.
The basic religious origin of our Synagogue was a matter of chance. It was founded by a group of people who had moved into this area and had previously been members of the North London Progressive Synagogue, which was a strongly Liberal synagogue. Naturally they wanted to continue worshipping in the same way. Accordingly they applied to the Liberal Jewish Synagogue (LJS) at St. John’s Wood for support. Negotiations failed because financial assistance could not be provided, so our founders went up the road to the West London Synagogue, the first Reform Synagogue in this Country, where they were welcomed with open arms and thus we followed their religious philosophy.
It is ironical, then, that our first Rabbi, Solomon Starrels, appointed in 1933, came to us from the LJS where he was an Assistant Rabbi. He was an American who had trained at the Hebrew Union College and religiously was pretty left wing, but then, in those days, so was West London. But he was a builder. The Jewish population of this area was quite small in the 30s so Starrels, together with the founders of the Synagogue, roamed the streets of the area knocking on the door of any house that had a Mezuzah on it and asking if the householders were interested in joining a Reform Synagogue. My father joined in that way in 1934. Starrels stayed with us until 1938, having led the Synagogue from its tentative beginnings in a small bungalow in Bridge Lane to this site. He was the right character to have started us on our way and accordingly one of our most influential rabbis.
Starrels was followed by the Reverend Maurice Perlzweig, who also came from the LJS. He was born in South Africa, probably from a European background, and I am not sure where he graduated. Perlzweig stayed with us for those momentous years which included the influx into the Synagogue of refugees from the Continent, which itself altered the character of our membership. He encouraged, and set up, various groups to assist and nurture the refugees, including the Jewish Emergency Committee for Refugees in the Boroughs of Finchley and Hendon, which he chaired, and in which the six neighbouring orthodox synagogues agreed to co-operate. He developed a reputation for his fiery sermons condemning what was happening in Nazi Germany, and he also spoke on, and analysed, the Palestinian situation. In fact at Shabbat services the back row of the Shul was often occupied by newspaper reporters taking notes for articles to be filed for the evening papers. Perlzweig left in 1942 to go to the States, where he sat on the Executive of the Jewish Agency and also worked for the Zionist cause.
He was succeeded by the Rev. Vivian Simmons, the epitome of the English Minister of Religion, a serving minister of West London Synagogue, and a good friend of Alyth, who was seconded to us, in a part-time locum capacity, to hold the fort until Rabbi Dr. Werner van der Zyl was released from internment in the Isle of Man in 1943. Dr. van der Zyl received his rabbinical training at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentum in Berlin. There he had been a pupil of Leo Baeck, who after a horrendous and courageous history in Germany, came to join his daughter and son-in-law who were already members of ours, and he eventually became our first President. Dr. van der Zyl’s religious background was from the Liberale Movement, which was more traditional than we were used to. He was also a trained Chazan and introduced sing-able music of which he had considerable knowledge and so changed the character of our Services. In his time he encouraged youth activities. His influence on the teenage group was considerable and as a result, many of these youngsters became stalwarts of the Synagogue and later of RSGB. Van der Zyl also was active in promoting extensions of our building. When he left us in 1958 we had become a strong congregation with a membership of 1,000 adults.
Van der Zyl was succeeded by the Rev. Philip Cohen, our fifth rabbi and after 25 years the first one who was native born. He came from Manchester from an orthodox background and subsequently studied at Jews’ College in London, the source of Anglo-Jewry’s middle of the road orthodox ministers, and graduated in 1939. His first post was at the United Synagogue’s Central Synagogue in Great Portland Street, but soon after the war started he volunteered for the army as a chaplain. During his army service he became disillusioned with orthodoxy and after demobilisation accepted a post at LJS and later became the third of our Rabbis to join us from there. He became a popular Minister single-handedly leading a growing congregation in a quietly efficient way. Short pithy sermons were his trade mark and I do not think they were ever written down. Often they began “Reading the Times on the bus as I came here this morning I saw an article on …… whatever. Eight minutes later the sermon was completed and the Service finished on the dot of mid-day. This was particularly important in the cricket season because he had to be in his seat at Lords for the start of the afternoon’s play. Ritually he was a stickler for detail but was content to leave most of the rest of the organisation of the Synagogue to the laymen.
Cohen retired in 1972 to be succeeded by Dow Marmur, who had been appointed as an Assistant Rabbi three years earlier. He was born in Poland, spent the war years in prison camps in the Soviet Union, returned to his Polish village where he found that Jews were unacceptable and then he and his family migrated to Sweden where, at the age of eleven he had his first formal schooling. He caught up quickly to become one of the earliest students of our Leo Baeck College and on graduation served the Ilford (S.W. Essex) Reform Synagogue. He was a dynamo of energy who really took Alyth by the scruff of the neck, building it into a powerful synagogue, introducing outside speakers, including the Chief Rabbi on one occasion, always bursting with new ideas, finding members to put them into action, founding the Kindergarten, etc. He was intellectually demanding, which did not suit everybody, but his reputation spread far and wide so that in 1983 he received a call to the pulpit of the large Holy Blossom Synagogue in Toronto.
Dow was succeeded by Charles Emanuel. Born in the USA he graduated from the Hebrew Union College, their Reform Rabbinic Seminary. His style was more relaxed, as you know, and many members were relieved to find it so. He related particularly well to the younger generation and the controlled informality of the Friday Evening Services is a tribute to him. The attendance figures at these Services were, and are, the envy of visitors. Many members have cause to be grateful to him for his care at times of sadness or distress.
Now we have a new concept of rabbinic leadership since the arrival of Rabbi Mark who has created a strong rabbinic team together with Rabbi Josh. Each has the ability to work as part of a team, separately developing their individual interests but combining to work on common matters, thus making the whole greater than its component parts. And together they plan, with the approval of Council, how the religious, educational, social caring, etc, of the Synagogue should develop. "