Formation of the Harlow Jewish Community
By Charles Jackson Life-President
In the beginning
In 1952, Harold Titkin an architect working for the Harlow Development Corporation (HDC), an offshoot of the New Towns Commission, decided to find out if there were sufficient Jews living or working in Harlow to create a Jewish community.
The HDC had allocated just one plot of land for a potential synagogue.
Harold placed an advert in the local paper, the Harlow Citizen, and immediately received replies from Sid Pinker and Laurie Fellerman.
They set to work and were the founder members. Shortly after, Manny Clayman joined. He worked as an office manager for a cousin at Kingsgate Clothing Company, one of the first manufacturing companies in the town, which was situated at the Pinnacles and had a number of Jewish workers who had, or were locating to Harlow.
The committee had now expanded and several members of the interested Jewish residents came forward. It was decided to approach all three main branches of Judaism to seek help in getting a community going. The United Synagogue replied stating that they would lend a pound for every pound that we raised. For most of us, we were struggling to make ends meet having had to furnish etc, for most, our first home.
The Federation did not reply and the Reform immediately offered to send us a qualified layman to take all services and religious classes, all the prayer books and education material that we needed, and the loan of two Westminster scrolls – all at no charge.
It was decided to hold a referendum to decide which offer to take up, bearing in mind that no one belonged to a Reform synagogue. The result was a unanimous yes to the Reform offer.
Harold had drawn up an elaborate plan for a synagogue, and had negotiated for the plot of land, - 2/3rds of an acre-, at a cost of £500.
In the meanwhile, the Reform had sent us Eugene Heimler, a survivor of several concentration camps. John, as he was to become known, came every Friday evening and Saturday morning to take services and to take on the religion school. The first services were in our homes, followed by the use of the TOC H premises.
For the first High Holydays, the Leo Baeck college sent us their first two students - Lionel Blue and Michael Leigh - who went on to become ministers of great prominence within the movement.. When Eugene left he was replaced by Wolf Blomfield who travelled to us from Swindon.
I came to the town very shortly after the formation of the community and within 24 hours had a visit from a member of the community telling me of the facilities available and asking me to join. This I did, and was immediately taken onto the council.
In those days, all newcomers who applied to the HDC for housing were asked their religion, and this was passed on to the various religious bodies. Hence the speedy approach to my family.
The families being very young, the ladies got together to form a ladies guild. From the start, this was very successful, and helped to provide many amenities.
I suggested that we buy the plot of land as this would give us the impetus to enlarge the community and show that we meant business. By now, although only a few years since we were offered the land, the price had gone up to £750. We purchased the land
Around 1957 I suggested we should go for our own solid structure on the site, and discovered that we could get a Terrapin building, a single story prefab type of structure, that, subject to us building a wall around six bricks high for the building to rest on, and that we were prepared to have the ark at the front of the building facing west instead of east – because the cost of laying the extended services the length of the intended building would have almost doubled the cost - we could purchase the building for around £3,500.
Up and running
We managed to borrow this on a 10-year basis, but paid it back very quickly. One of my tasks was fund raising. The building went up in just two days. The Council of Churches had a reading desk hand made for us, and this we still use today, and the brother of Dr Merton Long, handmade the ark for the Scrolls and books.
Just prior to this, the Leo Baeck College offered us a student rabbi who was in his 1st year. The student would come to Harlow on a Friday evening; we would offer him, and later female students, hospitality and a bed for the night, so that they could take the Saturday service. Nearly all of our students were in their first year and stayed for one year.
In the early 60’s as a local councillor I helped with the allocation of a plot of land at Parndon Wood Cemetery for the use of the Jewish community. I also asked that a hedge be planted so that our section was private and that a water tap be installed on our section so that, as is traditional, we could wash our hands on leaving the burial ground.
I also asked that the cross in the proposed chapel was such that it could be removed when used by the Jewish community. Little did I predict that my first wife, who died in August 1965, would be the first Jewish burial.
Bricks and mortar
In 1975 I suggested again that we should now go for a simple brick structure as a permanent building, and undertook to raise the necessary funds. I insisted that not a brick was to be laid until all the funding was in place and in 1977 the first part of the present building was completed.
Unfortunately, on the day that the synagogue was consecrated on Lag B’Omer, Sunday May 17 1987, I was attending the funeral of my brother Joseph Jackson QC. The old Terrapin building was donated to The Seventh day Adventists, who, I believe are still using this today.
We continued with our students for many more years.
Prior to the first stage of the present building, our membership was around 45 families. Very soon after the use of the new synagogue it very quickly improved to around 110 families.
Around this time, workers taking down a factory in London, which had been purchased by a member of another Reform synagogue, came across two Sifrei Torah, and these he offered to any community who could make a case for buying them. We were successful, and Rose & Paul Gotley and I purchased the scroll.
I had a new stock made for it and when I went to Israel had new covers made for both of our scrolls: one on behalf of the Gotleys’ parents and the other for my parents. We then returned one of the Westminster scrolls as it needed attention before it could be used again.
A little later Sharon and Malcolm Bilmen commissioned Marc Michaels to produce a Magilla, which again is still in use.
Towards the end of 1998, I again put it to the committee that the synagogue needed extending to accommodate the many functions that we were carrying out. I again undertook to raise the money, stating that we would not leave a debt for our future generation to have to cover. The money was in place and the extension was completed in 2000. My son Ian then made a new ark, which is in place today.
Our next stage was to try and have our first part time Rabbi, and Michael Pertz was appointed around eight years ago followed by our present Rabbi, Rabbi Irit Shillor.
In 2009, under the chairmanship of Hilary Garnelas, an appeal was made to have all the windows replaced with double glazing and in addition a replacement porch. This work has been carried out.
7th July 2010/ 25th Tammuz 5770
It's Our 60th Too! 2012 will be some year. The Olympics and the Royal Jubilee will dominate the summer. However it is not just the Queen celebrating 60 years. Harlow Jewish Community will also be celebrating 60 years of Reform Jewish worship in Harlow. We are not sure of the exact date of this wonderful anniversary as the first services took place at homes of various of the founding members, so a whole year of events to mark this occasion is beinng planned. More details will be provided here as the program takes shape, but here is what is arranged so far.
Saturday 9th June 2012
Generations' Service celebrating 60 years of HJC
Sunday July 15th 2012
60th Anniversary Garden Party at the Synagogue.
Hello and welcome to the Harlow Jewish Community. My name is Irit Shillor and I have been the Rabbi here for the last nine years. I was born in Jerusalem and studied Mathematics there before coming to England in 1982. My children were at the time very young and I joined a Reform community in order to strengthen not only their Jewish background but also their involvement in the Jewish world. As a result I myself became involved and in 1998 embarked on Rabbinical studies at the Leo Baeck College in London, gaining a BA and MA in Hebrew and Jewish Studies as well as ordination in 2002. Since then I have been working in various communities in the German speaking world in addition to my current work in Harlow.