Middlesbrough Hebrew Congregation 1862-1998 by Bernard Bookey
The closure of a shul and the virtual disappearance of a community which has lasted for 136 years is always a sad event. For someone who has been a member of Middlesbrough for 38 years, and in office for many of them, it was doubly so. Beryl and I brought up our family there, and the continuing commitment of our children, and hence our grandchildren, is in no small part due to the Middlesbrough Congregation and to its Minister during our time, the late Reverend Bernard Kersh.
Middlesbrough services were first organised in 1862, and the first purpose-built shul, costing £2,500, was opened in 1874. The local paper’s editorial has a nice touch, saying that "the Jew could lay the foundation stone of his Synagogue today in Middlesbrough with as great a sense of freedom as Solomon when he laid the foundation stone of his glorious temple in Jerusalem well nigh 3000 years ago and without even that sense of exile which possessed his ancestors when they sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept".
The early minutes of the affairs of the Congregation would not be out of pIace in shuls today, except that there was some power to levy fines on delinquents. In 1878 two members were fined 7/6d. each for creating a disturbance, another one shilling for non-attendance and yet another 5/- for refusing a Mitzvah on Yom Kippur. A proposal that a person "should not be allowed to officiate at the coming holidays (sic !) as he is not religious enough" could find no seconder !
In the early years of the century Middlesbrough was a boom town and this doubtless attracted many Jewish traders. In the thirties there was an influx of refugees; at this period the Congregation funded a hostel for 25 young refugee girls, and looked after them until the end of the war.
To accommodate the larger community a delightful modern shul was opened in 1938, complete with Mikveh, classrooms and a caretaker's flat. A communal hall was added after the war. Unlike most shuls, Middlesbrough was never full, even on Yom Kippur.
Then after the war numbers began to decline, as children went to universities outside Middlesbrough and then settled down in London, Manchester etc. In later years the small congregations in adjacent Stockton and Hartlepool were combined with Middlesbrough, but this only slowed the process.
The last Shabbos was a sad occasion, with ten Middlesbrough congregants, all older than myself, and led by Rev Topp who had been coming from Manchester for nine years to take services. There were ten visitors, who, like us, wanted to be there for this last service - but whose were these dimly recognised faces? After the service they came up and introduced themselves. "I am young David, the son of Rose and Maurice Saville, with the grocers shop. We went on Aliyah in 1967 when I was ten". Then we recognised in these faces the faces of their parents, some deceased, and some happily still alive in Israel, America, Australia and, of course, in the south.
The closing service was truly bittersweet. Over 200 people filled the ground floor, including 12 Bookeys. Old friends were there by the dozen, and we realised that Middlesbrough Congregation does live on, but no longer in our lovely shul. It was suddenly no longer bitter, but a very sweet occasion.
People keep asking me what has happened to the Shul. The building has been sold to a youth group. Where possible, gifts have been returned to donors, and the last two Sifrei Torah and their silver were carried back to the Wiseman family in lsrael, for gifting there. Much has gone to the Gateshead Community, to meet their expanding needs and in appreciation of their help to Middlesbrough. The Chuppa and the Ner Tomid were offered to Radlett, and we may accept the set of leining brochas for our overflow services.
I had two personal satisfactions on the visit. Firstly the Ner Tomid; I had installed a set of small neons about 25 years ago, with the expectation that at least one, would continue for a long time. At first sight I thought that it had totally failed, but looking closely I saw that it had managed a faint glimmer right to the end. Secondly, my three year old grandson, Sruli, looked around and decided that the best spot to sit was in the warden's box, the very place where I had sat for so many years. Very nice!