It's been a wee while since I last created a page for our urbex website, mainly due to the fact that we have not been enjoying exploring overly much for a while for a variety of different reasons. This new site, which has only recently popped up on the urbex radar, was therefore a welcome return to urban exploration, in cracking company, on a leisurely Saturday morning in late February this year (2014)...
Now before we go any further I would just like to point out that I know very little about any religion, even the one I was baptised into, so there's about as much chance of me talking informatively and accurately about a Hebrew place of worship as there is of me properly describing the mating rituals of a rare Tibetan Yak. Please therefore forgive me if I have made any wonderous bloopers and I welcome criticism just so long as it is constructive! But after all is said and done, I do know a cracking photo opportunity when I see one, and this recently abandoned synagogue presents plenty.
As best I can tell this synagogue was built in 1936 and it incorporated the Hope Place congregation (established in 1838) and the Sefton Park congregation (established in 1935). The congregation were all Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews - in Hebrew: אַשְׁכְּנַזִּים .
"Ashkenazi" is a term used for the descendants of the Jews who emerged from the Holy Roman Empire around the turn of the first millennium. They established communities in Central and Eastern Europe. The traditional language of Ashkenazi Jews is Yiddish. In the 11th. century the Ashkenazi Jews represented only three percent in total of the world's Jewish population but by 1931 their numbers had grown to the point where they accounted for 92 percent. There were a total of 16.7 million Ashkenazi Jews prior to World War II but that number was dramatically reduced when approximately 6 million were killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
The centre of Judaism today is of course Israel but there are many large Jewish communities all over the world, particularly in the United States of America, where Ashkenazi Jews live alongside other Jewish groups. Representing as it does such a large proportion of the Jewish population there have naturally been many famous Ashkenazi Jews including Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychiatry, Albert Einstein, the great thinker who presented us with many of the fundamental tenets of nuclear physics, the Czechoslovakian writer Franz Kafka, the German composer Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein - the composer of the music for West Side Story, and of course the Dutch teenager Anne Frank who wrote but never finished her immensely moving diary during the Nazi occupation of Holland.
The synagogue was designed by architect Alfred Ernest Shennan and consecrated on August the 15th. 1937. If it has a bit of a look of a cinema about it, as I immediately thought when I first saw the entrance, then that is perhaps no coincidence given that this particular architect was also famous for designing many of the cinemas in and around Liverpool, including the Abbey in Wavertree - BELOW LEFT - which was converted into a supermarket some years ago.
During the Second World War the synagogue became a refuge for families who had been rendered homeless by the heavy bombing of Liverpool during the Blitz. Eventually the congregation dwindled in size until there were less than 40 regular worshippers and only one service per week. Time had clearly run out for the synagogue so on January the 8th. 2007, the doors closed for the final time after almost 70 years.
The building was already listed but in 2008 the status was upgraded to Grade II*. English Heritage agreed the change after plans were filed which proposed to convert the concrete, steel and brick building into apartments. The listing report describes the synagogue as “one of the finest art deco synagogues in the country”, and the upgrading puts the synagogue in the top 5% of all listed buildings in the UK at this time.
There is a 5 minute film available on You Tube which shows a brief history of the synagogue throughout the years - if you wish to view it then please click the link - ABOVE RIGHT . Possibly the best known of the synagogue's former congregation was the late Brian Epstein - RIGHT , the manager of The Beatles. An Arena documentary about his life has a great scene shot inside the synagogue during a service, probably in the late 1980s - well worth searching out if you can find it.
So... a synagogue is a Jewish place of worship. Whilst it is obviously the direct equivalent of a church for Christians, or a mosque for Muslims, a synagogue is also used as a place for study, and often as a community centre as well. As such then it has much more in common with a mosque than most, but not all, churches. Orthodox Jews often use the Yiddish word shul (pronounced 'shool' from the German for school) to refer to their synagogue. In Orthodox synagogues men and women sit separately, and everyone except young girls has to have their head covered, but in a Reform synagogue men and women are allowed to sit together. Apparently it is normal in an Orthodox synagogue for all of the congregation seating to face the Ark but that is not a 100% constant - in some Orthodox synagogues the congregation rise and turn to face the Ark instead and it would appear that this must have been the case here. Services are usually led by a rabbi or a cantor but they are sometimes led by a member of the congregation. Traditional Jewish worship requires a minyan (a quorum of ten adult males) to be present before it can take place. In an Orthodox synagogue the service will be conducted in ancient Hebrew.
Part of the ritual within a synagogue is the reading of the Torah (or Torat Moshe - The Law of Moses) the most important document in Judaism. It is written in Hebrew, the oldest of the Jewish languages, and comprises the first five books of the Jewish bible. These books have their direct counterpart in the Old Testament - we know them as The Books of Genesis (Bresheit), Exodus (Shemot), Leviticus (Vayicra), Numbers (Bamidbar), and Deuteronomy (Devarim). The Jews believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai fifty days after the exodus when the Jews had just escaped from slavery in Egypt. The Torah contains 613 commandments and shows how God wants the Jews to live. The ten best known of these commandments are known as the "Ten Statements". The word Torah has various meanings in English, these include: teaching, instruction and law, and for Jews the Torah means all of these. In every synagogue the Torah scrolls are kept in an Ark (the Aron ha kodesh) and portions are read three times each week with the main reading on the morning of the Sabbath (or Shabatt - שַׁבָּת ). Shabbat is observed from a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. Over the course of the year the whole scroll is read in sequence. This begins from the end of Sukkot which is a festival during the autumn. The sections of the Torah which are used for the shorter weekday readings are known as Parshioth and are three to five chapters in length. The reader has to learn the language of the Torah and he must also be able to mentally insert vowels within the text as he reads, the written language having no vowel symbols. In this sense Hebrew is similar to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics which are also written without vowels. Obviously it is very difficult to make this adjustment 'on the fly' so to speak so most readers will know the common sections of the Torah off by heart and use the actual Torah scroll more as an aide-memoire. The readings are performed as a chant sung to ancient tunes rather than simply spoken. It may be a member of the congregation who performs the reading but it is also common for the synagogue's resident rabbi to do it when no suitable member of the congregation is present. It is a great honour for a congregant to be asked to read during a service and it is referred to as having an "Aliyah", which is Hebrew for "going up". The actual material of the scroll is never touched when it is unrolled on the Bimah - a raised platform in the middle of the synagogue - and a pointer known as a Yad, which is in the shape of a hand with a pointing finger, is used to keep track of the text. Torah scrolls are entirely handwritten in Hebrew by a Sofer, or scribe, on parchment from a kosher animal, usually a cow, and it can take as long as 18 months to complete each scroll from commencement of the complex preparation of the animal skin to the completion of the text - even one small mistake whilst writing out the text renders the scroll "pasul" (unfit) and it must be started again from scratch! A Torah scroll is so sacred to Jews that if one is accidentally dropped in the synagogue the whole congregation must fast for 40 days, and when Jewish communities have suffered persecution in the past great efforts would be made to protect the scrolls.
Given the great symbolic and physical importance of the Torah to the Jews it is absolutely staggering that at least one scroll appears to have been abandoned in this particular synagogue and I just hope it is retrieved before some sad scally decides to desecrate it...