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Jewish Museum celebrates 150th anniversary of Manchester’s oldest synagogue

The Spanish and Portuguese synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road opened on May 6 1874
Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue Jewish Museum Joel Chester Fildes

The area north of Manchester city centre between Cheetham Hill Road and Strangeways to the west was once the heart of the local Jewish community.

Many of the people who lived there were the counterparts of today’s refugees, having migrated from eastern Europe to escape poverty, persecution and pogroms, especially the wave of pogroms which followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and those of 1903-6.

They arrived by boat in Hull where they boarded trains to take them to Liverpool and on to America.

Some decided to stay in this country. Life here wasn’t as bad as it was in Russia, where Jewish boys were conscripted into the Tsar’s army at the age of 12 and were required to serve for 25 years.

And although many were poverty-stricken and anti-semitism could be a problem here, at least Jewish schools and places of workshop didn’t need security guards, unlike today, and it wasn’t yet an offence to look ‘visibly Jewish’.

Those who stayed in Manchester settled a short distance from where they had arrived – Victoria Station – and opened their own institutions including schools, synagogues and welfare bodies such as the Board of Guardians for the Relief of the Jewish Poor of Manchester (founded 1867), the Manchester Jewish Working Men’s Club (1887) and Manchester Jewish Ladies’ Visiting Committee (1884) for ‘visiting the poor and attending to their sanitary condition’.

MCR Jewish Museum and Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue credit PhilipVile

Many worked in the textile industry or were self-employed or started their own businesses. Most had ordinary lives. A few had extraordinary lives.

Sam Rabin was born Samuel Rabinovitch on 20 June 1903 at Dewhurst Street, Cheetham, the son of Jacob, a cap cutter and milliner, and Sarah Rabinovitch, a jewellery assembler.

In 1914, at the age of 11, he won a scholarship to the Manchester Municipal School of Art, making him the youngest pupil ever to attend the college, where he was taught drawing by French artist Adolphe Valette.

He went on to become a sculptor, artist, film actor, art teacher, singer, boxer, wrestler and a 1928 Olympic bronze medalist in wrestling.

Manchester Jewish Museum Spanish and Portuguese synagogue Chris Payne

Growth and migration

The community grew from 2,000 in 1851 to a peak of 33,000 in 1934, with nine synagogues on Cheetham Hill Road alone.

There was even a Jewish hospital on Elizabeth Street on the site of where St David’s Court apartments are today.

As they prospered and started moving north to suburbs like Prestwich and Whitefield, many of the buildings on Cheetham Hill Road no longer served their original purpose and were converted into warehouses or other commercial premises.

The Manchester New Synagogue at 122 Cheetham Hill Road which opened in 1889 is now home to the Jordash clothing company but you can still see the large Star of David emblem on the front of the building.

Oldest synagogue in Manchester

The only synagogue remaining on Cheetham Hill Road which hasn’t been converted into commercial premises is the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue next to Elliott’s car hire, close to Manchester Fort.

Designed by Jewish architect Edward Salomons and inspired by the Spanish and Portuguese (Sephardi) origins of its members, it opened on 6 May, 1874 and is the oldest surviving synagogue building in Manchester.

It closed as a place of worship in 1982 and reopened two years later as the home of Manchester Jewish Museum. Following a £6 million redevelopment part-funded by a £3m grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the museum now features a new gallery, café, shop and learning studio and kitchen.

Manchester Jewish Museums Spanish and Portuguese synagogue Pic Joel Chester Fildes

The Spanish and Portuguese synagogue is now Grade II listed, having been returned to its former glory and completely restored as part of the redevelopment.

It is a beautiful example of Victorian architecture executed in Moorish style and has been described by English Heritage as ‘one of the highlights of Victorian Gothic architecture’ in the UK.

Architecture historian Nikolaus Pevsner described it as ‘distinctive, quite different in style from either a church or a classical temple, and appropriate for its congregation of Sephardic Jews – descendants of those who were driven out of Spain and Portugal in the late fifteenth century, many of them then settling in the Middle East’.

Particularly noteworthy are the splendid stained glass windows and the distinctive cast-iron fitments.

150th anniversary celebrations

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, a programme of events and activities has been organised by Manchester Jewish Museum to take place on Bank Holiday Monday, 6th May from 12pm to 4pm.

This special day will see the opening of a new exhibition, which shares the building’s journey, from being a place of worship to becoming part of the modern museum. With new exhibits brought to Manchester by the Jewish Museum London and beautiful items loaned from Moor Lane synagogue returned to the building after 40 years absence, the exhibition offers visitors a chance to learn more about the fascinating, yet lesser heard side of Manchester’s history.

Stained glass window Manchester Jewish Museums Spanish & Portuguese synagogue Joel Chester Filde

At 2.30pm, visitors will be invited to the synagogue for a celebratory ceremony with talks from the museum’s team and guest speakers. The museum’s songwriting group will perform a new song written together with Cheetham Brownies. There will also be musical and cantorial performances by guest artists.

The museum has also planned creative activities for all ages to enjoy. Children, adults, families and friends are invited to make their own tote bags and beaded key rings to take home.

They will also get a glimpse of time capsule which the museum have been making over the past few months.

There’s still time to make your mark on the capsule and become part of history, as the museum invites visitors to add their names to a decorative scroll which will be placed inside the capsule before it’s buried in the synagogue’s grounds.

As food holds great significance in Jewish culture, the event will also be a chance to try new Sephardi-inspired dishes in the museum’s vegetarian café.

For information on the museum’s anniversary programme please click here. The organisers are expecting it to be a very busy day and only have a limited number of tickets available so early bookings are strongly encouraged.

If you can’t attend this special event or tickets have sold out, the museum is open seven days a week. Tickets for general admission are on sale for timed entries and can be booked up to four weeks in advance. It can be busy on weekdays when there are often school groups visiting. For a more peaceful visit you are advised to visit at weekends or after 2.30pm

Manchester Jewish Museum, 190 Cheetham Hill Road Manchester M8 8LW 
Manchester Jewish Museum is a registered charity (Registered Charity No. 508278).

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