Thursday, October 26, 2006

A visit to Belfast Synagogue

On Sunday afternoon we paid a visit to the Belfast Synagogue on the Somerton Road. The lovely Mr Rosenberg showed us round, introducing us to the history of the building, the Jewish community in Northern Ireland, and the rituals and patterns of his faith.

The Somerton Road orthodox synagogue is an architectural vision. Unusually it is circular, not rectangular. Unusually there isn’t a balcony for women, but a raised platform on either side, only three steps up. The roof is held up by concrete-covered beams, apparently coincidentally in the shape of the Star of David. The shape is visible from above (thanks to Google Maps).

The focus of Sabbath (Saturday) services faces the Eastern Wall in the Synagogue, built of Portland stone.

  • The inscriptions to the left says “Know before whom you stand” in Hebrew.
  • The middle inscription points to the 10 Commandments (given to Moses on two tablets).
  • The blue lamp reminds the congregation of the eternity of God (until they have to replace the bulb).
  • The gates slide back to reveal the Holy Arc, holding the Torah scrolls.
I’ll tell you the story about the candles another time! The synagogue's folly!

As well as being the oldest minority faith in NI, Judaism is now probably the smallest minority faith too. Having peaked at around 1600, numbers have now fallen to around 150, mainly due to the brain drain as young people go to university in England and don’t return.

The original Jewish community was involved in local business. A number of Belfast Lord Mayors worshipped at the Belfast synagogue. And Chaim Hertzog, son of a former Belfast Rabbi, became President of Israel. Not bad for a Belfast boy! (His father had moved from NI to become the Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel.)

Over the years, Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and Russia arrived in Northern Ireland. During the Second World War, Jewish families in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia sent their children abroad. Some ended up in Northern Ireland, where they many came to be housed on the the Millisle Farm bought and run by the local Jewish community. They are still (rightly) proud of their hospitality and foresight to host the children (who became orphaned) and provide them with skills that would help them as they grew older.

Somerton Road isn’t the original Belfast synagogue site. 1870 saw the first NI synagogue on Great Victoria Street. As the incoming refugee population settled around Carlisle Circus and New Lodge. The next synagogue was based nearby in Annesley Street and opened in 1904. This building was taken over by the Mater Hospital who only recently moved out.

A big thank you to Mr Rosenberg for hosting our group ... and for his insight into his faith's heritage and workings.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Your blog was very interesting, but may I correct you on one point.
Chaim Herzog was indeed born in Belfast but moved to Dublin as a young boy when his father became the first chief rabbi of what was then the Irish Free State many years before he held the post as Chief Rabbi of Palestine. The Chief Rabbi was a close friend of Eamon Devalera (Irish Taoiseach-Premier) and was highly respected by all citizens of Ireland. His son, Chaim Herzog returned to Ireland on a state visit a number of years ago to a rapturous welcome from the Irish Jewish Community as well as many other Irish people and it was noted that he still retained a noticeable Dublin accent. Chief Rabbi Herzog was loved and respected as a communal rabbi in Belfast, but even today, older community members in Dublin speak of his wonderful knowledge of Torah, his mulit-lingualism and his gentleness of character. All Irish people should be very proud of him and his son's achievements.
David Peter Fine, Dublin Tel. 87 748 9209.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

David - thanks for the update.

Martin from Belfast said...

Hi, I was wondering if you just contacted the Synagogue directly to arrange a visit? I am a primary school teacher in Belfast and would be very keen to take my class around a Synagogue as we are studying Hannukah as part of our Festivals and Celebrations topic? Thanks for your help!

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

I think that's how it worked. they're very open and receptive. If you can't find a number, try contacting NI Friends of Israel via nifriendsofisrael AT ymail DOT com who should be able to put you in touch directly.

Anonymous said...

Wow what a bautiful Synagogue.

I can't wait to visit the temple, when I come for holiday.