HOW THE HOLY LAW WAS BORN . . . 150 YEARS AGO
TRY to imagine the scene. Penniless and with little more than the clothes they stood up in, bedraggled Jewish immigrants from “Der Heim” stepped off a train at Manchester’s Victoria station in the 1860s.
Fleeing penury and persecution – the dreadful twins that haunted our Jewish forebears in Central Europe and Russia – they settled in the nearby Cheetham Hill area.
They were not, however, the first Jews in the city. Records show that in 1788, jeweller Simon Solomon and flower dealer Hamilton Levi took shops in Long Millgate and Shudehill.
In 1794, a group of Jews leased a burial ground in 1794 and by 1796 had begun worshipping in an upper chamber room on Garden Street, Withy Grove.
But back to those who arrived in the 1860s. Many of those poverty-stricken newcomers found work in Red Bank and Strangeways in cramped little workshops manufacturing cheap clothing, cloth caps and waterproof garments.
Isolated in their self-imposed ghetto, they worked horrendously long hours which would be unthinkable today.
But a love of Yiddishkeit and Jewish orthodoxy with which they were imbued kept them going.
And so it was that a handful of those Eastern European Ashkenazi immigrants, most of them living in the slums of Red Bank, banded together to found a shul in 1865 in Park Place.
They called it Chevra Torah, which subsequently became Kehillat Torah – Holy Law Congregation.
It is believed to have taken shape by putting corrugated iron over two backyards. The Chevra was at first probably no more than a shteibel.
And it is said that anyone who didn’t attend at least three shiurim a week would be asked to leave the kehilla.
Its location was not far from the railway station, from which more new immigrants disgorged and joined the earlier settlers.
In primitive surroundings, daily services were held and a bond established between the few families determined to provide a Jewish basis for themselves and their children.
Sadly, there are no records now available that would shed light on the Chevra’s growth and activity.
But an old Pinkus – a constitution and ledger – recorded in a beautiful Hebrew script by a certain Meir ben Perez from Vilna gives us a few clues.
Interestingly, it relates that in 1865 the Chevra had a salaried Rov. In 1883, the Chevra Torah applied to the Chief Rabbi for permission to employ its own shochet. However, for whatever reason, this permission was not granted.
Soon the Park Place meeting place had to be abandoned and the congregation moved to premises in Fernie Street at the back of Lord Street in the same area. It remained there from 1875-1878.
Next came a move to a loft above the “Hay Shop” in Cheetham Hill Road from 1878 to 1901. Not surprisingly, at that time it became known as the “Hay Shop Shul”.
Then, in 1901, came a momentous amalgamation with the Beth Aaron Shul, which had been founded in 1898 in Red Bank. And the Holy Law and Beth Aaron Synagogue and Beth Hamedrash was born.
The congregation met in a converted church in Bank View, Red Bank.
The Beth Aaron had been led by wealthy businessman and moneylender Samuel Aaron Claff, who until 1904 owned the building and after whom the name Beth Aaron originated.
Such was Claff’s dynamic personality that the newly-amalgamated synagogue became universally known as the “Claff Shul”.
The kehilla spent the years 1901-1933 in Bank View until the current grand building in Bury Old Road was opened following a merger with the Sedgley Park Synagogue in 1933.
Built on the site of a mansion called Howcaster, it was the first purpose-built (and certainly the largest) synagogue in Prestwich.
Another merger was to come years later – in 1978 – when the old South Broughton Synagogue, of Sabrina Street, was to come under our umbrella, creating the grand title Holy Law South Broughton Congregation.