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Britain’s Most Northerly Shul’s Deluge of Disasters

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Debby Taylor catalogues the problems that have befallen Britain’s most northerly congregation over recent years, and how you can help out.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the UK’s most northerly synagogue. Aberdeen Hebrew Congregation was founded in 1893 but didn’t own its own place of worship until 6th June 1945, when the current building in Dee Street was consecrated. It is the only synagogue in Scotland beyond the central belt of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The exterior of the Dee Street shul looking old and worn.

The Aberdeen Synagogue and Jewish Community Centre (ASJCC) continues to worship in the same building. Although we are a small community, currently numbering 22 individuals, we are vibrant and active.

Our problem is that the building is nearly 200 years old. It is a B listed Georgian house and has slowly fallen into a state of disrepair. I’m sure other small communities have faced similar challenges, but I wonder if they have done so in such an unremitting manner over the past six years.

Listed building regulations make tradesmen twitchy and repairs expensive. It took almost three years to find a company willing to repair the window frames.

In August 2017 the building was flooded through no fault of our own. The roof of the ladies’ gallery collapsed. There was 100% humidity in the building, so it was raining inside the building for a while. It took a year to get the building dried out and back into a usable state, restoring it to a safe condition that meets current regulations, as well as retaining the character of an 1822 build was a juggling act.

Damage to the ceiling.

With the help of the Jewish Chronicle and with the support of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC), the representative body for the Jews of Scotland, we commenced a major fundraising drive.

Reflooring after the flood

As part of the flood renovations we decided to renovate our sad looking communal kitchen. But this turned into another disaster. For our rededication (25th-27th May 2018) we had visitors coming from all over Scotland for Shabbat services, Friday night dinner, Saturday lunch and a Sunday full of events. But we had no hot water, no water pressure in the taps and what cold water we had was pouring out of a pipe in the downstairs bathroom every time someone washed their hands! Amazingly, no guest complained of wet feet.

Having lived through the experience of the flood and its aftermath, we thought that life could only get better. Not so. The attic flat, which we rent out for a small income that helps to pay for electricity and insurance (insuring four Sifrei Torah is not cheap!), became vacant in January 2019. On inspection the flat was in need of a complete makeover.

With little cash reserves it was a case of DIY. In ten weeks, with the help of volunteers and a few professionals we gutted the flat, washed, scrubbed, treated the floors for woodworm, repaired, rewired, replumbed, painted, replaced the kitchen, fitted floor coverings and re let the flat. Exhausted, both physically and mentally, we hoped that was it.

But there was the hole in the wall of the staircase. Having weathered several calamities by this point, we supposed we would get through this one as well. The builder had a look. Two hundred years of wall was worn and leaking. We had no money left to cover the bill. The chimney also needed repaired, but that could wait a few months, as the wall was a priority. The bank gave us a three-year loan to cover the costs and the wall was sorted.

The builder went on to the roof in February 2020 to start the works on the chimney and uncovered a serious structural problem. We were advised that the extent of the damage to the roof was so great that it was a danger to pedestrians and to users of the building. In addition, the back wall of the building was leaking, leading to damp on the internal walls. The work had to start immediately due to the risk it presented.

We took a deep intake of breath as the builder estimated the job would cost £40,000. During lockdown, we worked hard to raise the money required to pay for the works. One of our initiatives was three talks given by Nathan Abrams, J David Simons and Ethel Hofman and organised by SCoJeC.

Without the help of loans negotiated before lockdown commenced, we couldn’t have paid for the work. The work is nearly complete, but we have loans to pay off. The next fundraising drive is to reduce the debt pile. If we can halve the debt, we would be in a stable financial position. We are now aiming to raise £10,000 so we aren’t forced to close the building.

But without our building, it is doubtful that the community will survive.

As part of a fundraising drive to save our building, we are producing a kosher cookbook. We are collecting recipes and would be extremely grateful if you could assist us by contributing a recipe. We are asking people for a recipe with a special meaning to you, yourself or your family or a recipe with a story attached to it.

The recipe can be any form of kosher, vegetarian or vegan recipe. All contributors will be credited, and the recipe published with its associated story. We really hope that feel you can contribute to this exciting project.

If you can, please send your recipe and story to [email protected]

For any further information about this project or anything else about ASJCC, please do not hesitate to contact [email protected].

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Debby spent many years working as an award-winning clinical care specialist in the field of drugs and prostitution. Debby is now the Vice President of Aberdeen Synagogue and Jewish Community Centre. She leads the small team trying to save the synagogue in Aberdeen, fundraises, advocates on behalf of the community, visits schools and other organisations to talk about Judaism and gives synagogue tours to local groups.
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