Leicester’s 120-year-old synagogue opened its doors to a new Jewish Heritage Centre in July, following a £1.1m revamp.
Now, the Leicester Hebrew Congregation is welcoming people of all faiths and none, to learn about the Jewish way of life, as well as their history and festivals.
Sitting proudly in the city’s Highfield Street, Leicester Hebrew Congregation synagogue is an impressive and imposing historical landmark.
Built in 1898, the Grade II listed monument’s original architect was Arthur Wakerly, who also notably designed the Turkey Cafe on Granby Street.
The congregation was established in 1874, largely through the efforts of Sir Israel Hart – a four-time Mayor of Leicester, and generous benefactor of the city.
Today, Leicester Hebrew Congregation stands at around 200 members and is led by Rabbi Shmuli Pink.
Samuel Bodily is the manager of the new Jewish Heritage Centre, which has been built as a result of a £1.1 million grant from the National Lottery.
The synagogue’s historic school rooms have been transformed into a Heritage and Educational Centre, ready to welcome the public, schools and other groups who are interested to know more about the Jewish faith.
“There’s a big demand to visit places of worship, from primary school children in particular, and because synagogues tend to be relatively closed, this is basically the only synagogue in the East Midlands you can actively visit,” Mr Bodily told Pukaar, during a tour of the facility.
“The community has been been doing school visits here for about 25 years or so, but the facilities were pretty poor, hence why we applied for funding.
“The school house was literally a store room – quite leaky and damp, so we could no longer use it for education purposes,” he went on to reveal.
As well as new building work, the original synagogue itself has also had a makeover thanks to funding, with woodwork and carpets refurbished throughout.
All religious ceremonies and twice weekly services are held in this lavish room, which points eastward, towards Jerusalem.
At the far end, sits ‘the ark’ of the synagogue, which houses five Torah scrolls – two of which are over 100 years old. These are religious texts, which are hand written to perfection and so important that they’re even buried at the end of their usable lives, over at Gilroes Cemetery.
The funding has also allowed an expansion, and general overhaul of the synagogue’s Mikvah – a ritual bath, which is used for the “restoration of ritual purity” amongst the Jewish congregation.
Leicester’s synagogue has become an important part of British history, owing to the fact that it was one of the only places in the UK with a functioning Mikvah during the Second World War.
“At the time, many Jewish people fled London because it was getting bombed.
“Largely, their plan was to get to Manchester, which is the other big Jewish community. However, as people were plotting out their routes, they realised that the only Mikvah between the two cities, is here in Leicester,” explained Mr Bodily.
“So they came here and realised that Leicester is actually a pretty safe place to stay. That’s why the Jewish community grew so much in the city throughout the Second World War.”
Currently, 4,000 schoolchildren pass through the doors of Leicester Hebrew Congregation every year, in order to learn more about the Jewish faith.
However, Mr Bodily is keen to encourage more adults to visit the centre, on one of the free tours which are currently being offered.
“We’re trying to share as much as we can about Jewish religious practices in order to create more understanding and counter a lack of ignorance,” he told Pukaar.
“Most anti-semitism is rooted in ignorance and a lack of knowledge about what a Jewish person is, what a Jewish person looks like and how a Jewish person acts,” he explained.
“If we can provide people with access into what it’s like to live a Jewish life, in a place where they can meet Jewish people and discuss religious Jewish practice, then when someone says something to them that is ignorant, hopefully they can challenge it.”
To find out more, or to book a visit to Leicester Hebrew Congregation, visit: www.jewish-leicester.co.uk
By Louise Steel