BHHC: A Brief History
by Godfrey R Gould
Although the first record of a Jewish presence in Brighton was in 1766/7 the first synagogue was not opened until about 1792. This was in a room or rooms in Jew Street, the exact location being a matter of some conjecture. The current Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation is, however, the direct successor of this original Synagogue.
In about 1800 a new Synagogue was opened in Poune's Court, off West Street. This was also in rooms but in a close which were common in West Street at that time. We do have a written record of a visit here on Yom Kippur 1817 by a non-Jew. In 1825 they moved again, this time to Devonshire Place. In 1838 the site was redeveloped and Brighton's first purpose-built Synagogue opened. This was to the design of David Mocatta, to become architect of the new London & Brighton Railway. An outstanding pupil of Sir John Soane, few of his buildings remain intact. However there are some locally, notably the listed Brighton Station of 1841, not the great iron and glass train shed of 50 years later, and the pavilions and balustrades on the Ouse Viaduct. To see the Station in its classical magnificence you must examine the contemporaneous drawings, many of which are in Brighton Museum. At about the same time in 1826 Thomas Read Kemp gave the Congregation its first cemetery in Florence Place. The original ohel (prayer house) was also designed by David Mocatta, but this was subsequently demolished and the present listed hexagonal building erected to the design of Thomas Lainson. In 1846 was established the Brighton Hebrew Philanthropic Society the direct predecessor of the Brighton & Hove Welfare Board. This, by far the oldest local Jewish charity, is still going very strong and has directly given rise to the Jewish Housing Association, the Old Age Home (now Hyman Fyne House) and financially supported, in addition to other initiatives, the establishment of Ralli Hall, Tikvah and the Community Mini-bus.
In 1853 water colours of the exterior and interior of Devonshire Place were painted by W. A. Delamotte, the originals in Brighton Museum, but there are less intense copies at Middle Street Synagogue. After Devonshire Place Synagogue was closed in 1875 the buildings went through sundry owners, but the exterior remains significantly unaltered and the lantern roof is still in situ in the modern flats into which the building has been transformed. In 2007 Brighton & Hove City Council placed a blue plaque on the building recording its origins.
For some years the Congregation debated another move until in 1875 the iconic Middle Street Synagogue designed by Thomas Lainson was opened. Initially fairly plain the gifts of many benefactors notably from the Sassoon and Rothschild families created the spectacular interior we know today. This grade II* listed edifice is one of the treasures of Anglo-Jewry and of Brighton itself. It remained the only local place of Jewish worship for many decades. In 1927 a group of members broke away and for a few years used the Brighton Little Theatre. In 1930 they moved to a converted gymnasium in Holland Road to form the Hove Hebrew Congregation. In 1935 the Progressive Congregation was formed and in the late 1950s the Reform.
Florence Place becoming increasingly full a new Cemetery was acquired on the Downs near Bear Road by the Brighton & Hove Congregation for the use of the orthodox community, whilst part of the Municipal Old Shoreham Road Cemetery was allocated for use by the non-orthodox Congregations.
By this time Middle Street was not so convenient for many worshippers and also there was an increasing membership in Hove. So after using sundry temporary premises especially the YMCA Hall in Marmion Road, a new Synagogue was opened in New Church Road in 1958. With a declining local community in Brighton it became necessary to discontinue services at Middle Street in 2005, but the recent sale of the buildings behind to Hillel should give an impetus for some services to be held there again. In any case, the terms of the large grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for essential repairs require a certain number of services to be held there every year.
Today the Brighton & Hove Hebrew Congregation is still going very strong with regular services on at least five days each week, four shiurim, an active cheder and many other social, religious and educational activities.