A Sad Farewell to Dollis Hill United Synagogue- A Short History and Profile

Dollis Hill Synagogue closed on 12th July 2011, bringing to an end a proud history spanning eighty years. After initial meetings in 1929, services began in the Dollis Hill area in 1930 and Hebrew classes started at a local primary school in 1932. Dollis Hill affiliated to the United Synagogue in 1933 and the inaugural service was conducted by Chief Rabbi Hertz in the original synagogue, built on land leased from the London, Midland & Scottish Railway Company in Parkside, NW2.

In 1937 the freehold of the land was bought and building commenced on the new synagogue, which was to serve the community for the next seventy three years. Chief Rabbi Hertz consecrated the building in 1938, which is now a Grade 2 listed building, and was described as a masterpiece of modern design. The synagogue building still features in all international books on synagogue architecture, it was designed by the well known engineering architect Sir Owen Williams, and was the first public building in the UK to be built entirely from pre-stressed concrete. It was the first synagogue in the UK to be built without internal pillars to support the ladies gallery, and had striking zigzag walls to take the weight of the balcony. It was a large building with seating for 524 men and 392 women.

With the influx of Jewish people from East London, the membership grew rapidly in the immediate post war era and peaked with 640 male members in 1960. From the early 1960s, the Jewish population of Dollis Hill and the surrounding areas of Willesden, Cricklewood and Brondesbury, began to decline as members moved to outer London boroughs and Hertfordshire. The membership of Dollis Hill had declined to 492 by 1970, the decline gathered pace and by the year 2000 there were just 85 male members. In 1995 the spacious synagogue building was too large for the community, and the building was sold to the Torah Temimah Primary School, but with a provision to allow the community to continue to use the school hall for Shabbat services, which continued until the recent closure.

In its golden era of the 1950s and 1960s, Dollis Hill was a vibrant and active community, the synagogue services were full and there was the complete range of community activities, including a successful youth service and children services, and a large cheder. Other ancillary bodies included the long serving Ladies Guild, JIA, WIZO, a Combined Aid Committee and the 40th Willesden Scout Group.

Dollis Hill was served by a number of well known and illustrious ministers. Rabbi Issac Swift was appointed in 1938 and served the community until 1951, when he moved for a few years to Australia, before moving on to be the Rabbi of the prestigious ‘Ahavas Torah’ community of Englewood, New Jersey and became one of the leading rabbis of North America. He was followed by Rabbi Dr Harry Rabinowicz, a member of the dynasty of renowned ‘Biala’ rebbes and an authority and author on Chassidism, as well as the author of the standard work on the Jewish laws of mourning. From 1977 to 1987 the pulpit at Dollis Hill was filled in a part time capacity by the charismatic Rabbi Maurice Landy, who moved from the neighbouring Cricklewood Synagogue on his retirement.

Dollis Hill’s longest serving minister was the much loved and admired chazan, Rev Harold Taylor, he served the community for forty-four years from 1951 until he died in 1995. Rev Taylor was known as a fine chazan with a lyric tenor voice, he was an authority on ‘Minhag Anglia’ and the melodies of the United Synagogue. Outside of the synagogue services he was a dedicated pastoral minister and hospital chaplain, including being the minister to Great Ormond Street Hospital for many years. It was at Great Ormond Street that Rev Taylor famously caught Princess Diana and prevented her from falling over, after she tripped on a highly polished floor, when they both attended the opening ceremony of a new wing of the hospital.

A central feature of Dollis Hill was the partnership of the chazan and choir, which took pride in perpetuating the melodies and nusach of the United Synagogue, adhering closely to the United Synagogue ‘Blue Book’ and the melodies of its founding congregation, The Great Synagogue Dukes Place. Choirmasters at Dollis Hill included Manny Fisher, Alf Bramson, Aumie Shapiro and Aubrey Jacobs, in recent years the choir was lead by Hillier Wise.

Dollis Hill has always been a warm, spirited and friendly community, as well as a proud constituent of the United Synagogue. Even though the synagogue has now closed, it has had a considerable influence within the United Synagogue and beyond. Its former senior warden, Victor Lucas, became President of the United Synagogue from 1984 to 1987. Another long standing warden, Harry Bibring, is well known for his work for the Holocaust Education Trust and was a founder of the Rishon Multiple Sclerosis Society. The current Chief Executive of the United Synagogue, Jeremy Jacobs, is a son of the former choirmaster, Aubrey Jacobs, and his predecessor and former Vice President of the United Synagogue, Stuart Taylor, is a son of Rev Harold Taylor. Following in the footsteps of Dollis Hill’s very first minister, Rabbi Issac Swift, Rev Taylor’s grandson, Sam Taylor, has recently been appointed the assistant Rabbi at Englewood New Jersey.

From left to right: David Kaplan, Daniel Mendelson, Max Rubinsohn, Benno Gocman, Reverend Moshe Fine and Jeremy Jacobs

The happiest years of the 61 year long marriage that I shared with my late wife Muriel were those we spent in Dollis Hill from 1960 until 1989. The community was the warmest one could wish for and the most active for it's size, that I know. For example the Ladies Guild continued it's magnificent work long after the the building was sold as described above. The Board of Management was the first in the US community to invite Ladies to its meetings, initially as observers and later as members. Right up to his death, Rev. M. Taylor, mentioned above ensured the the Services were accompanied by the choir also refered to above. His devotion to the community was total. The Parents Association of the large Cheder mentioned above (185 pupils at it's height) was the first to build a Succah specifically for the use of the children. When I retired as presiding Warden in 1988 and handed this honour on to Mr. Benno Gocman, my last major contribution to the community was to negotiate with the Governors of the Torah Temimah school that the community could use the premises for services and social functions for ten years. Nobody thought that the life of the community would go beyond that period. It is a magnificant achievement and tribute to the Hon. Officers who followed me but in particular Mr. Benno Gocman and his wife Helen who's outstanding efforts on a daily basis resulted in the ten years becoming twenty-three years.
What a shame. As a child I attended Dollis Hill Chadah. I rememember having to trudge through Gladstone Park on a cold misty evening & seeing the white mass of the shul looming up over the other side of the railway line.
When we'd arrived the lovely old Irish caretaker had always prepared a large steaming pot of tea & a pile of jam sandwiches.
I rememember marching around the shul on Simchat Torah in the 60s & us kids singing 'We All Live In A Yellow Submarine'. Then getting a huck on the head from the shamas as I was throwing sweets across the shul. Happy memories.
London, 1954

On Fridays just before sunset,
mother lit candles for the Sabbath.
We thanked the King of the Universe
for the fruit of the vine, the gift
of bread from the earth, the beauty
of the day coming in like a bride.
At sunrise we woke to a stillness,
washed and reminded ourselves
there was only one God –
begged that our lips be opened,
our mouths declare His praise.
Clad in our best for synagogue
we walked the three-quarter mile,
my father’s trilby, my school-cap
raised in unison to ladies passing by.
A silk tallith draped over his shoulders
like the stole on a ball-gown,
Rabbi Rabinovitz unfurled the scrolls,
a silver finger pointing the way –
parchment teeming with tiny black fauna,
each one with a pop-star’s quiff:
After the service I ran home through
the playing fields of Gladstone Park,
passing ruffians calling – Jew, Jew-boy.

From the collection of poems, Fluttering Hands by Stephen Wilson (Greenwich Exchange, London, 2008).
My father, Lewis Wilson, whose life's work was in the secretariat of the United Synagogue is also remembered as a pillar of the Dollis Hill Jewish community.
I well remember my days at Dollis Hill cheder back in the 1950s. The headteacher was Mr Wald. The parents association used to hold its annual summer event in Gladstone Park, immediately opposite the shul. I also attended the 40th Willesden cubs under the leadership of Doreen Miller, who was assisted by her husband Henry. I recall that the caretaker was Mr Tuck.
It's an end of a happy era. Many fond memories and more recently of Dad's ( Benno Gocman) second Barmitzvah wth all the family back in Dollis Hill shul.
I have 2 small points having just read the article on the history of Dollis Hill Shul .
1. So far as I was aware I.L swift was Reverend not Rabbi. I have his signature as Minister in my Hertz Chumash. The community gave every boy one on their Barmitzvah
2. I was barmitzvah there in January 1942, having attended classes (never called it Cheder, in those days - not in Dollis Hill) probably from 1934ish till 3 September 1939 when war broke and I remember that the Chazzan was Rev Cooper. As a kid I well remember his beautiful voice and remember him as a very gentle man. He had a lovely soft manner and demeanour. I imagine he held the post for many years yet his name was not mentioned in your article.
Incidentally, my Father bought a house in Dollis Hill in 1929 and served on the board of management. I well remember the concrete new building going up. I always thought it was quite ugly.
Thought you might like to know,
Aubrey Kutner
My father, Charles Sydney Mitchell was leader of the choir until his death in April of this year (2011). I mourn him, and the loss of Dollis Hill Shul.
Sad- I have fond memories of a warm shul that I often attended as a child.
Like Simon Rhodes (whose mother was the leader of the 40th cubs that met at the shul) I have very fond memories of the shul. Sitting next to my dad and grandfather. Despite attending a full time Jewish day school (NWLJDS and then JFS) I still had to attend Cheder at Dollis hill and then Willesden. These memories and values I have passed on to my children here in the USA.
Post a comment