St Albans Synagogue celebrates its 70th anniversary in style

The 70th anniversary of St Albans United Synagogue

Rebbetzin Alli Sturgess, Rabbi Daniel Sturgess, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Daniel Agasee and Elissa Da Costa-Waldman, co-chairs, St Albans United Synagogue, at the shul’s 70th anniversary event. - Credit: St Albans United Synagogue

Seven decades of worship, community, friendships and faith were celebrated as members of St Albans United Synagogue past and present marked a milestone anniversary.

It is 70 years since the opening of the first purpose-built synagogue in Hertfordshire, and the occasion was commemorated with a celebration tea and some memories from its rich history.

Joining in the festivities as guests of honour were the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, and St Albans Mayor Cllr Edgar Hill. The event was particularly significant as it was the first in-person social event organised by the community since the beginning of the pandemic.

Other guests included a number of children and grandchildren of the founder members, many of who had contributed to a video review of the shul’s history.

Their reminiscences of the early days of the St Albans community, from wardens in top hats to makeshift minyanim - the quorum of ten men over the age of 13 required for traditional Jewish public worship -  and community excursions to Jaywick Sands, near Clacton, were a highlight of the presentation.

St Albans United Synagogue 70th anniversary

The ‘top table’ at the anniversary tea. (left to right): Dr Steven Wilson, Chief Executive, United Synagogue; Daniel Agasee, co-chair, St Albans United Synagogue; Mrs Claire Agasee; Rebbetzin Alli Sturgess; Rabbi Daniel Sturgess, St Albans United Synagogue rabbinic couple; the Chief Rabbi; Cllr Edgar Hill, Mayor of St Albans & District, Elissa Da Costa-Waldman, co-chair, St Albans Synagogue; and Prof Andrew Eder, United Synagogue Trustee. - Credit: St Albans United Synagogue

Among those who spoke affectionately of those pioneering times were 91-year-old Victor Harris, son of Jack Harris, the synagogue’s warden who performed the 1951 opening ceremony with a golden key; Anthony and James Larholt, now both in their 70s and sons of Louis Larholt, who had laid the foundation stone in 1950; and 85-year-old Hazel Kyte, who recalled her participation in the children’s choir which sang at the synagogue’s consecration.

Also contributing their memories were three friends, Howard Joseph, Sheila Abrahams and Ray Claret, who attended religion classes together at the St Albans synagogue in its first decade, and amazingly are still among its current members.

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Tributes were also paid to three men, Henry Grabiner, Derek Wenzerul and Laurence Bamberg, who had, in their turn, held the community together during some of its tougher times.

St Albans United Synagogue 70th anniversary

Hazel Kyte (85) recalls her participation in the opening ceremonies of St Albans United Synagogue in 1951 in a video shown at the anniversary tea. - Credit: St Albans United Synagogue

The Mayor expressed his admiration for the role the local Jewish community played in the city’s life.

“You participate in many important ways,” he said. “You are always present at important events such as the annual Remembrance Day parades and Holocaust Memorial Day; you have engaged with local St Albans life in helping to clear the River Ver on Mitzvah Day, you engage in interfaith activities, and you undertake many other charitable works for both the local and wider community, all with the aim of promoting religious tolerance.”

His words were echoed by synagogue co-chair, Elissa Da Costa-Waldman, who observed: “Though we are small in number, what we provide by way of learning, services and charitable efforts in the wider community might be described as punching above our weight.

 St Albans MP Daisy Cooper was unable to be present, but sent a video message wishing mazeltov to all St Albans Synagogue members, and emphasising her determination to stand with them to combat anti-Semitism in all its forms.

Acknowledging the warm welcome he had received, and remarking on the evident closeness synagogue members shared with each other and with their rabbinic couple, Rabbi Daniel and Rebbetzin Alli Sturgess, Chief Rabbi Mirvis told his audience: “You are not just a community, you are a mishpocha – a family.

"There’s a very special warmth here. It’s palpable, I can feel it. it’s a marvellous thing - that sense of camaraderie, and I envy you for that. I don’t know if you appreciate how lucky you are to be part of this community – it is something really, really special.”

Congratulating St Albans on achieving its 70th anniversary, he remarked that in terms of his own experience in attending numerous centenaries, bicentenaries and similar milestone celebrations around the world, 70 years was actually very young.

He added: “By the sound of it, you are growing and developing, and when this happens in an out-of-London community, that is exceptional – but it does not happen just because of good luck; it happens because of good leadership, good partnership and a wonderful community spirit.”

Other speakers at the event included co-chair Daniel Agasee as well as his namesake, Rabbi Daniel Sturgess, who, after enumerating the many instances where the number 70 occurs in Jewish sources, paid tribute to all who established the synagogue 70 years ago, and to all those who had nurtured the community in the 70 years since.

Standing in for United Synagogue President Michael Goldstein was US Trustee Professor Andrew Eder, who offered greetings from the US, remarking that while the synagogue had been founded by people who were forced out of London by the war, it was gratifying to see that today record numbers were joining it voluntarily. “We at the US can’t wait to see what you will achieve in the next 70 years,” he added.