Luton Synagogue

The Empire, Luton • Cinema Theatre Association

This treasure is a photo of the Empire in Luton, a cinema which became a synagogue and is now an Islamic Cultural Centre. Sid Rutstein of Luton United Synagogue reports:

The first Jewish family settled in Luton in around 1880 and by 1912 there were about five families living in the town. However, the first organised Jewish community meeting took place in Duke Street on 23 September 1923 and it was resolved to form a body called the Luton Hebrew Congregation. It is recorded that there were nine local residents present at the meeting. A General Meeting of the newly-formed Luton Hebrew Congregation was then held on 30 September when the first President was elected. The sum of £18 was donated by the twelve members present towards a Foundation Fund. It was also decided at this meeting to apply to the United Synagogue for affiliation with regard to burial. Until 1929 services and religious classes were held above a factory in John Street. In 1929 Rev. HD Ritvo was appointed as minister and a house at 5 Moor Path was purchased and this was converted into a Synagogue which could accommodate about ninety people.

At the outbreak of war in 1938 there were about twenty five families in Luton, but this swelled to over two thousand souls with the evacuees from London. Because of the increase in the size of the community, services were held in various houses and during the High Holidays at least three places were used for services. A house in Cheapside was purchased and its initial function was to provide shelter for those seeking refuge from London during the Blitz. The house was later used by the Luton Judean Youth Club. This increase in numbers represented a turning point in the history of the Luton Jewish community and it was apparent that the small Synagogue in Moor Path was inadequate to house the new members and that a new Synagogue and Communal Centre were required. A Youth Club, various Zionist Organisations and Hospitality Centres as well as additional Hebrew Classes pointed into a great need for new accommodation. So in 1949 the Empire Cinema in Bury Park Road was purchased. The Empire Cinema had opened as an independent cinema on 29 November 1921. Plans were developed for the conversion of the building and it was consecrated by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Israel Brodie on Lag B’Omer 5713/1953. At that time the congregation had about two hundred members and held regular services as well as religious classes and social functions. There was a Youth Club, Young Marrieds’ Group, Ladies Guild, Parent Teacher Association and a Friendship Club for older members.

Empire Cinema Luton interior • Cinema Theatre Association

By the late 1980’s it was apparent that new premises were required. The membership was declining and aging and few members lived near to Bury Park. So a protracted search was begun, to find new accommodation, or land upon which to build, and also to identify a purchaser for our building. After many false starts, the Synagogue in Bury Park Road was sold at the end of 2001. The purchasers were the Islamic Cultural Centre, so the building retained its religious use.

For the next eight years the Jewish community had a series of temporary homes. These ranged from Luton Town Hall, various community centres and various houses. However, in 2009 a disused doctor’s surgery was purchased and work was undertaken to convert it into a Synagogue. On 27 June 2010 the new Synagogue in Dunstable Road was consecrated by the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks.

United Synagogue Luton today • Harvey Podgorney

The membership now is one hundred and thirty and the regular services and social and cultural events continue.

It is worth noting that since the appointment of the first minister in 1929, there have been full-time ministers almost continuously up to the present day.

– Sid Rutstein


Discover more Hidden Treasures

Hidden Treasures: Celebrating the documents, photos and artefacts in British archives that tell the story of Jews in Britain