The history of BWPJC – based on a talk by Joachim Schapiro

It all started for me when, back in 1960, I had a call, here in Bristol, by one Leonard Hart inviting me to partake in the formation of a Liberal Jewish Group, that is a Jewish religious community having a Liberal as distinct from an Orthodox orientation. I said count me in, and so did some 20 others whom he had contacted, people who felt their religious needs and their needs for Jewish community were not met in the orthodox environment. I say this with the utmost of respect for our many friends in the orthodox community.

Historic discussions

We met in Len’s house and we had many, what I call ‘historic discussions’ to see how we might turn some vague notions into constructive purposes. The focus of those discussions was the orthodox approach to the practice and to the interpretation of Torah. We felt that that approach was unduly rigid, and our purpose may be summed up in this way: it was to liberate our Jewish lives from the rigidity of the orthodox approach.

Len Hart had contacted the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues (ULPS) to see what help they could give us. Initially they did not think we would have much of a future in Bristol but, after some hesitation, they started to give us support by way of advice and visits by lay readers who themselves had experience in the formation of a new groups. Most of us had a fair Jewish background and we soon tried our hand at services, and even at sermons. However, we needed and did have the devoted help of a number of rabbis of the Union, so-called foster rabbis, who would come down say once a month, or on special occasions, to lead services and address meetings.

That was essentially our origin and this duly turned into the growth of the community when the work started in earnest. Before long we had our first baby-blessing, our first Bar Mitzvah, our first wedding, alas our first funeral, and in due course also our religion school; and time came when we had our first study group and our own library. In all this we had rabbinic guidance and support.

Recent history

More recently we had our own rabbis, at first Rabbi Francis Berry then Rabbi Hadassah Davis, and once more Rabbi Berry. But a great volume of the spiritual work was done, at first haltingly, but with the benefit of increasing experience, by the members themselves. This included, as regards the religion school, many of the parents.

But in managing the business side of the community, we relied entirely on our own resources and we had a number of chairmen and council members with organising experience to carry out and advance this work. The greater part of this work resided, I think, in the acquisition and maintenance of a synagogue building. A community without a building is like a soul without a body; not effective in the physical world. Back in 1960s, we had just met in peoples’ houses. Then, as membership grew, we hired a hall in the Friends Meeting House in Hampton Road, Redland where we did in fact have our first Communal Seder in 1963. But it was not until 1975, fifteen years after our beginnings in 1961, that we acquired the first part of this building, here in Bannerman Road. It was found by Hilary Kay.

Early days at Bannerman Road

Originally, this building had been a cafe but, when we bought it, it had functioned for some time as a potato store. It was pretty rough. But the word at the time was that the area was due to be redeveloped and there was a vision that it had potential as a synagogue. We employed a builder for some of the work but we did an enormous amount ourselves. It was work in capital letters. But it was a labour of love and we enjoyed every bit of it. At that time the main entrance was what is now the emergency exit at the back. You would come in, and going up those steps, come into a vestibule. To your right, coming in, in the corner there, was a tiny kitchen and a tinier toilet, and in front of you was a wall with the entrance to the hall itself. To pass through the entrance you had to go up a step. We had a grand opening to which we had invited many notables including th e Lord Mayor of Bristol who was ushered in by Michael Bogod the then chairman. We all stood up as they passed through the entrance.

Our Mike knew that there was a step but the Lord Mayor did not. And he tripped and fell. But helpful hands reached out, and legend has it that Archie Kay grabbed the Lord Mayor’s golden chain and steadied his fall. Someone retrieved the Lord Mayor’s top hat; the first citizen of Bristol recovered his composure and the procession continued up to the front of the hall and for the consecration service led by Rabbi David Goldstein. All was well in the end, and after the service the Lord Mayor was seen in the vestibule, by the kitchen there, happily drinking a cup of tea. The step is no longer there, nor is the kitchen and toilet. All was reorganised in 1988 when another Lord Mayor was present at the rededication of this synagogue substantially in its present form.

Time went on and all the while, we continued the work and we became good friends. The emphasis of our activities changed over the years. Sometimes social activities were more to fore. Nowadays there appears to be more emphasis on services and study. Improvements have been made to the building especially regarding the kitchen and the heating plant.

There is I think something else; that is a deepening that has gone on for a number of years, of the spirituality of our people. The Liberal Jew needs that deepening. The very critical attitude which we have to the authority of Torah, makes us search for the essential core of our religion. That search is as much as anything the work we have to do deserve the heritage. Leonard Hart, after a few years made Aliyah. I met him about 1979 in Natanya. He was chazan of a small Liberal community. I told him all that had happened back here and thanked him for what he had done to start it all. He was very much moved.

As for me, it has been a quite extraordinary privilege to be in on the start of a new community and to be part of its growth. I thank my wife for the support she has given me all these years and I thank friends for their friendship and companions for their companionship. As I mentioned at the beginning, our work has to do with the Jewish heritage. That which we have inherited from our ancestors, is a priceless possession but we do not just have it for the asking, we still have to work for it and on it before we can be worthy of it.

In the years since this article was written, we have seen the 50th Anniversary of the Synagogue, the retirement of Rabbi Ron Berry and the appointment of Rabbi Monique Mayer.