London Jewish News
24 October 2003
Passing the buck won't save our beautiful Victorian shul
Susie Symes. Chairman of the trustees, museum of immigration and diversity
It was, began CNN's world news item abut 19 Princelet Street, "an unusual day for Europe's only museum of immigration and diversity . . . it's actually open". Like many American visitors, the CNN correspondent went on to wonder at our capital's failure to support this beacon project, which has no corporate and no government support.
London should surely be the first European city to acknowledge the contribution many peoples have made to our society over the centuries, and British Jews should be in the forefront.
CNN was just the latest commentator to wonder why Britain is not proudly supporting 19 Princelet Street, in Spitalfields, as a permanent celebration of our diverse society. This special place houses a small and beautiful synagogue, tucked behind a Huguenot refugee merchant's home of 1719, in an area that has always been a place of safety for newcomers: immigrants seeking work, seeking a better life for their families, and people fleeing persecution or famine, people seeking refuge from war or ethnic cleansing.
Those immigrants confronted issues that have not gone away- exclusion, discrimination, racism and genocide.
Princelet Street is the only museum of conscience in Europe dedicated to issues of immigration and diversity. So why is it struggling for survival?
Not for lack of public demand. On its rare openings, people will queue for two hours - city workers waiting alongside a visiting ambassador, local Bengali-British children bringing their mothers, cool youngsters going to the new wave bars of Brick lane listening avidly to Jewish elders gossiping. Ninety-year old Meyer, still Yiddish speaking, still playing his treasured violin, meets our youngest volunteer, Punjabi-speaking Nikki aged seven.
With minimal funds, and no staff we arrange group visits and talks for thousands . . . a Tibetan-Jewish youth exchange, architects Am the technical university of Berlin, an interfaith group, young offenders, trainee teachers, London volunteers going overseas, the university of the third age.
Sir Bernard Crick, architect of the government's citizenship curriculum, wished that "every schoolchild in England should see this".
For many Jewish visitors from all over the world, this place. has special resonance. Our faded Torah mantles, our rusty collecting boxes are rare flotsam from a European history of which tragically little survives. Our tiny synagogue, the faded names in gold on dusty donor boards, the mythologised clutter of the Rodinsky room, are testimonies to lives not lived, to what might have been but never became of most European Jewry.
Despite fantastic help from Evelyn Friedlander and her hidden legacy foundation, we need funds to conserve out treasured fragments. We desperately need £3m to save the historic fabric of the synagogue, grade II* listed, the last of its kind. Just £3m will save the building for future generations, so it can open permanently as a unique educational place and a symbol of multicultural Britain.
For Jewish communities it has special poignancy. It shows how we can treasure our own history and also build bridges to other communities.
Jews know what it means to succeed in the face of adversity. Jews know what it means to be forced to sever links with a land and a heritage. Jews know what it means to suffer discrimination, to try to play a full part in a multicultural society. So, not surprisingly, many non-Jewish visitors to our museum assume that the Jewish community will proudly take a lead in supporting us.
So do many Jewish visitors. "The Board of Deputies will help you," they announce in ringing tones. "Lord so-and-so will fund this," claims another, confidently. Or Dame so-and-so. And so on. Some kind people do give themselves - however modestly - boosting our case for matching heritage lottery funds.
Another favourite diversion is to say that the big companies and banks founded by immigrant families (we all know the great names) ought to help. Of course, high earners do visit from the City, high-up executives from one of London's newest, shiniest international banks. Emotionally, tearfully, one whose grandparents married in our synagogue promises her help to the volunteers who gave up their own time to open up. So do her colleagues. "We won't give ourselves" they chorus. "This is so important, the bank should support you on a really big scale." We're still waiting.
A senior banker asks his charity department to support us; sweetly it says no, with the maddening suggestion that we ask individuals instead.
We need more special individuals, people who know it takes more than fine words to combat prejudice and racism, that it takes money, not fine words to mend the roof and open the doors.
People like our founders, men who in their own lives had the courage not stay silent. Jews, Moslem and Christian. Hugo Gryn, Tassaduq Ahmed and Randolph Vigne. Of Czech, Bengali and South African origin, all first generation arrivals in Britain, they became friends through their passionate commitment to making a truly tolerant and fair society. They believed that an understanding of history, of Britain's complex process of immigration-to-integration, of immigration-to-influence, was essential to building a safe and equal future for all.
Whether or not our own families ever passed through the east end, there is something symbolic here that touches us profoundly. Princelet Street is about how we find a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, and about how we act in our lives to influence the society in which we live. That is why it deserves your help.