North West Surrey Synagogue is probably the only synagogue which has its origins in a school for delinquent Jewish boys!
Surrey is not a traditional Jewish area. In the 1920s and 30s there were just a few Jewish families – others came as evacuees during World War II. In 1937 an Approved School for ‘problem’ Jewish boys moved to Finnart House in Weybridge, and a beautiful little synagogue was consecrated there. The charismatic Harry Cohen was Headmaster and his wife, Myra, was Matron.
The Cohens invited local Jewish families to share Shabbat services at Finnart. In 1968 these families decided to form a Synagogue. Living far from mainstream Jewry, people felt drawn toward the Reform Movement, even some whose tradition was Orthodox. Twenty families grew to over 100 people in five years.
A founder-member, Imre Horvath, a Hungarian refugee, made it his life’s work to find as many Jews as he could in the area, combing through all the phone books within a 25-mile radius for Cohens, Jacobs, Levys etc., phoning each family personally till he persuaded them to join. He is commemorated in our present-day address, Horvath Close.
The congregation bonded over Friday evening services at Finnart House, with coffee afterwards chez Cohens. Shabbat mornings and Festivals, were celebrated in Methodist and Quaker churches, special schools and local halls – members quickly created a synagogue atmosphere wherever they were. From the outset it was agreed that rabbinic leadership should take priority over an imposing building, and the Synagogue’s story centres on our rabbis – working in partnership with some very dedicated lay leaders.
Rabbi Tony Bayfield came to us as a student, and was inducted as our rabbi in 1972. Tony and his wife Linda set the congregation on the lines it has followed ever since – welcoming to all, informal, unpretentious and egalitarian, open-minded and willing to learn, involved with the wider community, and helping people to find unsuspected talents and use them for the common good. The reputation we now have for great catering on every occasion originated with Linda, who made delicious cakes for the after-school bar/bat-mitzvah class.
Tony introduced such Weybridge customs as Summer Week (fun and learning for children) and the Sukkah-Crawl to visit (and eat in) far-flung sukkot. Initially we celebrated bar/bat-mitzvah in the 15th year – extending our children’s Jewish education beyond the normal stopping-point.
After thirteen years Rabbi Bayfield was head-hunted to set up and direct the new HQ of the Reform movement, in Finchley. For nearly two years the congregation had no rabbi, and its strong tradition of self-leadership dates from then. Men and women alike led services and study groups and ran the educational, social and pastoral activities.
Finnart House had been sold in 1981 and the congregation of ‘wandering Jews’ moved into its first own home – a pre-fab in Princes Road, Weybridge. This site was on a short lease from the adjacent garage and was quickly outgrown.
In 1983 a final-year student rabbi from Leo Baeck College, New Yorker Fred Morgan, joined us and in September 1984 was inducted as our rabbi. Again, Fred and his wife Sue were a team, whose three small children grew up in NWSS.
The search for permanent premises continued and in 1985 we moved to our present home in Rosslyn Park, originally a school gymnasium. It is about three hundred yards from where Finnart House once stood, and our turning “Horvath Close” has been named in honour of Imre, who did so much to build up our membership
Rabbi Morgan’s rabbinate saw the inauguration of our annual Foundation Lectures and the launch of our newsletter Haderech; and in 1997 our first Festival of Judaism. The Monday Evening Institute was launched to foster adult education
After fourteen years Fred was head-hunted to become Senior Rabbi at the St. Kilda congregation in Melbourne, Australia. Once again, the community drew on its own resources, supported by visiting rabbis and Reform leaders, especially Rabbi Peter Knobel, a senior rabbi on sabbatical from Illinois.
From mid-1998 Rabbi Jackie Tabick worked with NWSS part-time during a sabbatical, and in 1999 she was inducted as our third rabbi. She brought us her tremendous knowledge, warmth and enthusiasm, and a wealth of experience gained from working closely with the much-loved Rabbi Hugo Gryn at West London Synagogue. Under her leadership, and with enormous help and support from her two sons, who grew to adulthood at NWSS, the congregation became ever-stronger, more musical and more outward-looking.
While with us Rabbi Tabick served as chairman of the World Congress of Faiths before being appointed their Joint President. Back In 1976 she was the first woman Rabbi to be ordained in the UK. In 2012, in another first, she was appointed the first woman Convenor of our Reform Beit Din, which she combined with her NWSS work until her retirement in 2013.
Rabbi David Zucker PhD joined us, with his wife Donna, in 2014 to help tide us over while we continued our search for our fourth permanent rabbi.
An American, David spent the early part of his rabbinic career in England, as Rabbi at Bradford Reform Synagogue, then at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue. His last rabbinic post took him and Donna to Denver, Colorado, where they now live. For many years he served as chaplain to the Shalom Cares not-for-profit residential healthcare community, and at NWSS he has demonstrated his compassion, sensitivity and skill in pastoral care, supporting members through illness and bereavement.
A bible scholar, he has authored or co-authored several books, providing insights in to biblical figures for Jews and Christians, as well as contributing chapters or articles to many other books and journals. In Surrey he has been active in interfaith activities and has led Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies in churches and educational institutions. He has also brought his scholarship to our adult education programmes, leading stimulating courses for our members, as well as delivering thought-provoking and illuminating sermons.
Donna also made her mark; a professional librarian, working with members she transformed our library, cataloguing and organising it properly, facilitating members’ use of this important resource.
The Zuckers returned home to Denver, Colorado in June, 2017.
Rabbi Kath Vardi joined us in July 2017, continuing our tradition of appointing Leo Baeck College graduates to their first community position. She underscores our tradition of openness and egalitarianism. Before training as a rabbi she held senior positions in mental health care, and brings with her to NWSS her Israeli husband and their family.
Over the years many of our members have served as officers and leaders of the wider Reform movement. Several of the original founder families are still active members, some of their children are now among our leadership, and their grandchildren in our cheder.