In 2001, 114 actively practising Jews lived in Sunderland, but the number has since fallen. Sonia and Charles Slater are two of the remaining Jewish worshippers in the Sunderland area.
Charles, who was once the leader of Sunderland Council for almost two decades, talks about the congregation’s demise:
“Many of our congregation left to study in places like Manchester, London or Leeds and stayed there.
“It was probably the active all-round Jewish community that kept them there.”
In the 1960s, the Jewish community was large and thriving, but as Charles puts it: “The rest of us left here [in Sunderland] are simply dying.”
Since the Ryhope Road Synagogue closed in March 2006, there isn’t a place for the remaining Jews to worship, except in their own homes.
There are synagogues and religious colleges in Gateshead and Newcastle, but that doesn’t help.
“We can’t travel to anywhere else to worship as we’re not allowed to travel by car on the Shabbat so we pray on our own.
“We keep in regular contact with the elderly in our community to ensure no-one is left isolated,” Charles says.
The Ryhope Road Synagogue is a privately owned, listed building which was purpose-built as a synagogue.
Charles can not see what the building could be used for other than a synagogue, but as the future is looking bleak for the congregation, little use can be had with it.
Once growing, now fading
It’s now 250 years since the first Jewish person was recorded in Sunderland history. Over the years, merchants and their families moved to the area from other parts of the UK and some came from Europe, often as a side-effect of the coal industry.
Coal was exported to the Eastern Baltic and instead of the vessels returning empty, Polish Jews paid for their transport to Sunderland.
In the late 18th Century, a Rabbi was brought over from Holland and the community, mainly concentrated in the East End and later Ashbrooke, grew steadily.
Over the years, the Jewish community opened an old people’s home, a primary school and other institutions relating to the faith – these have all now closed or moved to places like Gateshead and Newcastle.
All this has contributed to the decline of the Jewish congregation in Sunderland. As Charles Slater puts it:
“The congregation has just faded away, and now it’s about to drop over the edge.”
Talking at heritage open days
As part of the Sunderland Council’s Heritage open days, Charles and Sonia Slater were invited to talk about the Jewish heritage in Sunderland.
“Previously, on Open Days, we showed people round the Synagogue, but since that is closed now we can’t do that. Instead we’re giving talks about the Jewish community and its history in Sunderland.”
Charles opens the talk with a run-through of how his great-grandfather came to Sunderland from Lithuania in 1860s. The family integrated into the Jewish community in Sunderland and learned the language and took part in Sunderland’s economic successes.
They took part in classes to learn how to speak like the people they were living with – something that Charles sees as one of the most important stepping stones in integrating.
The Sunderland Hebrew Congregation on Moor Street, founded in 1821, became a place for the immigrants and new arrivals in Sunderland to meet and pray together. This was the foundation of the purpose-built Ryhope Road Synagogue, which opened in 1928.
The social side
As the Synagogue became a centre of prayer and worship, it was also the centre of where the congregation met for the social events.
Sonia begins to talk about the 8th Sunderland Jewish Girl Guides and their part in the war-time parades. Many in the audience remember them well and murmur in unison when Sonia talks about the end of year pageant in Barnes Park.
One vivid memory Sonia recalls is of the girls who came on the Kinder transports in 1937-38. The 27 girls from Europe stayed in a hostel run by the Jewish community.
As they arrived, the rabbi said to them “One day you will be re-united with your parents – not one of them had any parents to be re-united with at the end of the war,” Sonia tells the audience.
The Synagogue also housed the Sunderland Jewish Literary Society, called “the Lit”, which didn’t have the members sitting around reading or studying all the time – it was all dances and Sunday evening meeting in the communal hall in the Synagogue.
“But you had to be 16 to join, if you tried to sneak in you were thrown out!”
Sonia goes on to talk about the various institutions that the Jewish community founded or took part in, which was part of the very strong communal feeling within the Jewish congregation.
But as people left Sunderland to study and their parents after some years joined them, the number of volunteers and participants in these institutions and club diminished.
For Sonia, it means that even though she has lost the vibrant Jewish community in Sunderland, she can still travel to places like London and Newcastle to take part, but she also feels grateful that both she and Charles have had an active non-Jewish social life in Sunderland.