Looking back to the future

Interview with Gabriel Herman

How did you become involved with the archive?

I have always been interested in the history of the Hampstead Synagogue. When the synagogue was being refurbished a few years ago thousands of items were deposited on the top floor of the community centre.

One day I was working in the office in the community centre and saw through the door hundreds of cardboard boxes and was intrigued. I then became concerned because I felt it was not the appropriate place for the archive to be stored.

What did you do about it?

About four years ago a number of volunteers sifted through the cardboard boxes trying to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’.

I contacted the British Library and they suggested ultimately depositing the items with a professional archive.

Before that possibility we had to reduce our holding particularly thousands of machzorim which were beyond use and would have to be buried.  Anything of no value was destroyed and the rest which had an importance to Hampstead Synagogue was classified.

Where is it now?

Everything was sorted and catalogued.  Then representatives of the community signed a contract with the London Metropolitan Archive (LMA) giving the archive on long term loan to the LMA.

What type of material has been stored?

Luckily we have a lot of material which predates the foundation of the synagogue in 1892.  We have founder members discussing theological matters – the idea of a mixed choir, use of an organ, omitting repetition of prayers, whether or not to duchen and so on.

There is a bound set of minute books dating from 1892 which are invaluable to historians.  We also have all the original marriage registers from 1892 which will be wonderful for research.

Are there some areas where the information is sparse?

Unfortunately there are large gaps.  We have no information about communal life during the First World War and very little about WW2.It is also frustrating that there are missing volumes of the Synagogue magazine.  However, the ones we have are codified and are being held by the LMA including two or three from the Second World War.

I know that before being founded in 1892 there was a fair to raise money for the new synagogue.  The book of the fair featuring an article by Israel Zangwill is currently missing and I would very much like to locate it.

Will the community have access to the archive?

Yes, the public will be able to see the Hampstead Synagogue archive, although prior notice will be essential as the general public do not have access via the LMA. Please contact Gabriel for authorisation to see our collection.

In the future I hope to organise a visit to the archive for members of Hampstead.

What does our archive teach us about our future?

It dawned on me that in our earliest days, our founders would visit prospective members in their own homes to seek support for the new Hampstead Synagogue.   I believe that we should do this again with our existing members and ask them how they would help to build our new congregation today.

I think that together we could create a family oriented community that lives its Judaism through acts of chesed (kindness to others) and places social action at the core of what it does.  We have the ideal opportunity to build a new Community Centre as a ‘home from home’; a place where we could relax together over the entire Shabbat.

During the week it would be known in the Jewish world as a leading centre of Modern Orthodoxy; the location where we would hear leading rabbis and educators discuss the pressing issues of our time.  How’s that for a radical vision of the future?

How can members help?

If any member of the community has any information or items of interest relating to Hampstead Synagogue I can be contacted by via email: