Synagogue Code of Practice

How to Manage the Closure of a Synagogue Building

Measured survey at Plymouth Synagogue (Copyright: SJBH  Photo: Andrew Petersen)

Measured survey at Plymouth Synagogue (Copyright: SJBH  Photo: Andrew Petersen)

Our synagogue buildings are physical witness to the Jewish presence in Britain. Sadly, population shifts, urban renewal programmes and economic realities sometimes mean that the future of synagogues, particularly in inner city areas and small provincial communities, is increasingly in doubt. When a synagogue is about to close, it is important, both out of respect for its history and for the sake of future generations, whose heritage it will be, to make a record of its existence. Jewish Heritage seeks the co-operation of synagogue bodies, boards of management and individual congregants in carrying out this task. We are pleased to publish this Code of Practice for the benefit of us all.








Listed Synagogues

Non-Listed Synagogues

Recording Checklist

Contents, Fixtures and Fittings

Recommended Repositories

Cataloguing, Provenance and Recycling

Site Security

Heritage Plaques


Some 40 synagogues nationwide are designated as Listed Buildings on the Statutory Lists. (To check if yours is one of them please refer to the Listings pages of this website). Listing indicates that these synagogues are regarded by the Department of Culture as being of architectural or historical importance. Others are situated in neighbourhoods declared Conservation Areas. Some other Jewish building types including, for example, soup kitchens and schools and cemetery memorials, are also Listed or, in the case of some Jewish plots in public cemeteries, are Registered Historic Parks & Gardens. In such cases, certain legal restrictions apply. Changes proposed to Listed buildings requires Listed Building Consent. For FAQs on Listed Buildings see the English Heritage website. Other Legislation (1992) imposed stricter controls over alterations to the interiors of Listed churches. Synagogues, however, remain outside the operation of the so-called 'ecclesiastical exemption' and must apply for Listed Building and Planning Consents under the normal secular processes.

Listing offers the possibility of public grant aid for restoration work on major buildings.

Over the years, Jewish Heritage has been active in increasing the number of synagogues on the Statutory Lists, given that Jewish places of worship have been under-represented in this area, compared with the Christian denominations. Since the 1990s a number of historic synagogues have been upgraded from the basic Grade II to Grade II* or even, in two cases nationally, to Grade I, which is the highest form of protection that an historic building can enjoy.  Part of our remit is to provide advice and make representations on behalf of synagogues and other sites, including Jewish cemeteries, seeking Listed status and/or funds for preservation and restoration purposes.

If confronted with the prospect of a redundant Listed synagogue, please turn in the first instance to Jewish Heritage. We can liaise on your behalf with the relevant Division of English Heritage, Historic Scotland, the Royal Commissions on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Wales/Scotland or the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland (Belfast), all of which provide expert advice to the Department for Culture, Media & Sport in London on protecting historic buildings.

Please alert us at the earliest opportunity. Failure to comply with statutory law can result in prosecution.


Your soon-to-be-closed synagogue may not be Listed. However, if it dates from before the Second World War (1939) it will have been recorded by the national Survey of the Jewish Built Heritage, which is administered by Jewish Heritage. This project photographed and documented some 350 synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish sites all over England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland (North and South), the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, mainly between 1998 and 2002. It was supported by, amongst other donors, the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage and the Royal Institute of British Architects. The Survey resulted in a number of new Listings and the publication of Jewish Heritage in England: An Architectural Guide by English Heritage in 2006. A second edition retitled Jewish Heritage in Britain and Ireland is scheduled to appear in 2014. This guidebook does not cover synagogues built after the Second World War. Synagogues dating from the 1950s and 1960s are now closing down. The Synagogues of Britain and Ireland: An Architectural and Social History (Yale University Press 2011) was also a product of the original Survey. Both books are by Dr Sharman Kadish,  the Director of Jewish Heritage.

Please contact Jewish Heritage if your post-war synagogue is closing. It needs to be documented for posterity. Jewish Heritage will carry out  'emergency recording' by our professional staff, who include qualified architects. Arrangements will be made for a team of field workers to visit your synagogue to carry out an architectural survey including photography.



In order to assist us in the recording task, we present here a simple checklist of self-help procedures for the guidance of congregations. You require no specialist expertise to play a part in preserving our unique Anglo-Jewish heritage!

When a synagogue is about to close:

  • Photograph the building, both exterior and interior. Snapshots are adequate, but do not be shy to approach Jewish Heritage for professional assistance. General conservation agencies, including English Heritage, have photographic departments which may be able to help.
  • Record the address and exact location of the synagogue. If possible, record also the name of the architect and builder, and the date of construction. This information is sometimes to be found on the foundation stone of the synagogue.
  • Draw a simple sketch ground plan of the site of the synagogue, showing the location of any adjacent buildings such as rabbi's house, schoolroom, communal hall and mikveh. Ideally, a local architect or architectural student may be willing to do a scale ground plan and even measured drawings of the existing buildings. Jewish Heritage is happy to advise on recording techniques to ensure that they are compatible with the National Monuments Record's guidelines.
  • Locate any original architects' plans of the synagogue which may have survived, as well as old title and trust deeds. These may give some information about the history of the building, which may have undergone alterations over time.
  • Draw up an inventory of the contents of the synagogue, giving a brief description of each item. These will include both movable objects and fixtures and fittings.


Contents, Fixtures and Fittings

These may include:

  • Sifrei Torah ['Scrolls of the Law'] and Ritual Silver:
    breastplates, Rimonim [finials and crowns], Yadim [pointers], Havdalah [spice] boxes, Kiddush cups, candlesticks, Menorot/Hanukiot [multi-branched candelabra]
  • Furniture: Ark, Bimah/Tevah [reading platform], Shtender/Amud [lectern], pulpit, pews, chairs, tables, cupboards, sandek/Elijah/bridal chair
  • Hung plaques: Memorial/donor/Roll of Honour/Royal Family boards, Shiviti boards, paintings, photographs, Omer calendars, clocks
  • Textiles: Torah mantels, wimples, Huppot [wedding canopies], Parokhot [Ark curtains], pulpit falls, Tallitot (Talesim) [prayer shawls], carpets
  • Manuscript and Printed material: Scrolls e.g. Megillot Esther, Tefilin, Mezuzot, Seforim
  • Stained or Coloured Glass
  • Metal and Brasswork: Chandeliers, lamp standards, bookrests, circumcision instruments
  • Congregational Records: Pinkasim [congregational record books], minute books, burial registers, title deeds/leases, correspondence files, etc.

Take steps to ensure that items removed from the premises are properly stored to prevent theft or deterioration.


Recommended Repositories

These include:

  • Sifrei Torah, Ritual silver: Secure bank vault or (for London synagogues only) with parent synagogue organisation in London. Rare pieces may be loaned or donated to the Jewish Museums in London or Manchester. Paintings, rare Seforim [religious books], textiles, Shiviti boards: with parent synagogue organisation in London or Jewish Museums.
  • Memorial Tablets, Roll of Honour Boards: Removal and reconsecration at local Jewish cemetery, usually inside the Ohel. N.B. Memorials cemented to the walls, foundation stones, any fixed furnishings and light fittings may NOT be removed from Listed Buildings without permission (Listed Building Consent LBC) (see above note on Listed Synagogues).
  • Stained Glass: Removal to the London Stained Glass Repository or equivalent outside the capital to prevent vandalism, which often affects unused ecclesiastical buildings. N.B. Stained glass may NOT be removed from Listed buildings without LBC (see above note on Listed Synagogues).
  • Archives and old photographs: Place in a public repository, where they may be stored in safe and secure conditions, professionally catalogued and made available for inspection by bona fide researchers on written application. Judaica collections of national importance are held at the London Metropolitan Archives (London material only) and at Anglo-Jewish Archives at the Hartley Library, University of Southampton. Local city and County Record Offices are usually keen to acquire material relating to minority communities in their area. Deposit on a loan basis and guaranteed access for the depositing body can generally be arranged. The Jewish Museum London, the Manchester Jewish Museum and the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre in Glasgow collect material, photographs and all kinds of memorabilia and artifacts other than documents.
  • Marriage Registers of defunct congregations MUST be handed over to the Board of Deputies in London for return to the Registrar General's Office. This is a statutory requirement. They must at all times be kept in a damp-proof and fireproof safe.
  • Original Architects' plans: Ideally, deposit with the Library of the Royal Institute of British Architects in London (RIBA) or the local Record Office. This may be arranged via Jewish Heritage. Even where deposit is either not desired or not possible please contact Jewish Heritage to arrange for  photographic or digital copying for the Survey of the Jewish Built Heritage Archive at the National Monuments Record.
  • Religious books and manuscripts etc. Remove all Tallitot/Talesim, Tefillin, Mezuzot, prayer books and other Seforim on vacation of the building. Any such items which are in poor condition should be deposited in a Genizah or buried in the cemetery as Shemot. Contact your Hevrah Kadisha [burial society] or Bet Din [rabbinical court] for advice. Label books  (except rare books) in good condition ready for reuse, to identify the synagogue which they came from, as a sign of continuity with its former congregation.


Cataloguing, Provenance and Recycling

At a later date, items in store may be recycled in a new synagogue building. When this happens, it is important to have an accurate record of where they came from originally (their provenance).

Jewish Heritage wishes to encourage the creation of a central inventory of Jewish artifacts, both those that are of monetary value and those that are purely of heritage value. All congregations are urged to catalogue and photograph their most valuable items for insurance purposes. A broader inventory of the items enumerated in the previous section would be a considerable aid to art historians. Please help by sending copies of your inventory to the Director for filing in a secure place, accessible to bona fide researchers by written permission only. If objects are being dispersed please let us know exactly where each piece is going. Obtain the name and address of the recipients, whether an individual (often a descendant of the original donor) or another congregation.

Remember to send copies of the information that you have amassed, your inventory and photographs to Jewish Heritage in order to assist us ahead of our site visit. We ensure that all documentation is eventually deposited with the National Monuments Record.


Site Security

Jewish Heritage policy is, whenever possible, to avoid closed synagogues standing empty and unused for any length of time. We actively seek to find sustainable and sympathethic alternative uses for 'redundant' synagogues.  However, often temporarily a building is unoccupied for a while when it is being sold and changes hands. When you vacate the building, it is essential that you ensure that it is secure against fire, flooding, theft and vandalism:

  • Doors and windows should be locked
  • Heating systems should be in good working order, even if they are turned off. In any old building, it is preferable to keep the heating on continually at a low, even level, rather than to heat up a cold interior, say, once a week only when it is in use. Attention should also be paid to ventilation in order to avoid condensation and damp problems. On this issue, see English Heritage's Advice on heating Historic Places of Worship.
  • Alarms, CCTV and external lighting should be fully functioning and set
  • Boundary walls and gates should be in good repair and locked
  • Gardens and forecourts should be kept tidy
  • Windows, especially stained glass, should be protected by external grilles and CST approved security glass. But do not board them up.
  • Access to high levels should be restricted - to prevent metal and roofing theft (such as slates and leadwork). Don't leave ladders lying around!

More practical information on security is available from other sources including the CST. Several church organisations have much relevant advice on offer drawn from long experience.

Community Security Trust

SPAB Faith in Maintenance

Ecclesiastical Insurance company


National Churchwatch


Heritage Plaques

Consider affixing a plaque to the exterior wall of the vacated building, indicating that it was formerly a synagogue. English Heritage and its equivalent bodies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as well as Local Authorities, Amenity Societies such as the Victorian Society, and local Civic Societies, can help here. The English Heritage Blue Plaque scheme, however, is reserved for commemorating prominent individuals associated with a particular historic building. Jewish Heritage will be happy to advise you and to approach the relevant body on your behalf.

Copyright © Text Sharman Kadish 1997 - to date. All rights reserved.