Supporters of the Grade II-listed Middle Street shul are concerned for its future
BY By Yael Breuer
Middle Street Synagogue
Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation has extended its emergency appeal to raise £250,000 to restore the historic Middle Street Synagogue in the city centre, which it administers.
Like many online appeals run by communal organisations since the pandemic, the funding drive began on Sunday and was set to last two days. But the total contributed currently stands at only around £74,000.
Key supporters of Middle Street remain concerned for its future, suggesting that even if the money is raised, the plans do not go far enough.
And speaking anonymously, one told the JC: “Until it’s an independent trust with its own separate board of trustees and financial transparency, I’m not giving a penny.”
The appeal was fronted by BHHC’s Rabbi Hershel Rader, who encouraged donations to “ensure the future of this magnificent community resource, a jewel in the crown of local architecture”.
A Grade II-listed building — recognised for its beauty and described as second only to the Royal Pavilion for historical and architectural importance in Brighton — Middle Street has not held services for 17 years.
Although it has been open to visitors during the annual Brighton Festival and on special occasions, it has been largely unused and its condition has deteriorated. It has not opened since a leak from a radiator caused additional damage last year. Rabbi Rader explained that the building’s insurer had agreed to cover repairs, presenting a “golden opportunity to restore the entire synagogue while our contractors are on site. This appeal is endorsed by the Mayor of Brighton and Hove as well as local MPs.”
After its restoration, the community’s intention was to use the building as a centre for Jewish education and Holocaust studies, religious and cultural events. It could also provide soup kitchen facilities for the many homeless and financially struggling people in the area.
BHHC chair David Seidel added that the repairs covered by the insurance claim would start at the end of October.
“We view Middle Street as a centre for prayer, education and social action and are open to ideas,” he said.
On Wednesday he added that he remained hopeful that the appeal target would be reached.
Former Hove MP Ivor Caplin is among those sceptical of the plans, commenting: “The future of this great and important building is clearly at risk and there needs to be a radical way forward.
“My suggestion is that the trust which has taken over the important buildings in the city [including the Royal Pavilion] should without any further delay take over the running of the synagogue. This is the time for decisions not discussion by all who care about the synagogue and its long-term future.”
Middle Street’s former voluntary events co-ordinator, Vicky Bhogal, credited Rabbi Rader as “a pillar of the community” who had enthusiastically spearheaded the fundraising effort.
But she claimed the BHHC plan “lacks the vision and ambition to ensure the long-term survival of an important historic building. Providing a sustainable future requires BHHC to revisit their inspiring 2015 vision of creating a landmark Jewish Heritage Centre for Brighton. A place to celebrate our culture and religion, educate, inspire and be a shining jewel of the city.” But such a project would cost millions.
Ms Bhopal added that “experts in fundraising for similar projects have advised that the shul needs to be placed into a separate charitable trust, run by a board of specialists in historic buildings and Jewish heritage, alongside members of the existing shul board”.
Brighton and Hove’s heritage commissioner, Roger Amerena, pointed out that before the pandemic, the Heritage Commission had convened a meeting with the BHHC and national conservation groups to explore ways of setting up a charitable trust to secure Middle Street’s long-term future.
“The Heritage Commission still believes this is the only way forward and would urge those that are promoting the present small-scale fundraising to expand the idea further to include the setting up of a separate charitable trust.
“There are many benefits that will be attained — a board of trustees, the trust being a CIO [Charitable Incorporated Organisation], which in itself will attract valuable Gift Aid, and the trust would be able to accept funds from other donating organisations, national and international, which hitherto would only gift to a charity.”
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