Written by Laura Gurevitz and annotated for the website by the Editorial Committee.
How it all began
The origins of Giffnock & Newlands Synagogue go back to 1932 when Lazarus Cram came to live in the Giffnock area with his mother-in-law Mrs. Pollock. She wanted to spend Yomtov in Giffnock. Realising that he would need to find a minyan, he approached his neighbour Mr. Benson and asked if he would help him find enough men willing to carry out the High Festival services at his home. He immediately agreed and the two men set out one evening walking and knocking on every Jewish door they could find in the Giffnock area until eventually they found ten willing men. An advert publicising that the High Festival services would be held in Mr. Cram’s house at Briarlea Drive was placed in the “Jewish Echo” and he was delighted when so many more men than expected turned up. After that, a working committee was formed and with the help of the police they were given the use of the Girl Guides Hall in Church Road where future services for the High Festivals were held for several years until the first Shul was built in 1938.
By 1934, the Giffnock community had grown to such an extent that it became necessary to have somewhere to hold daily services. With the help of the police once more, a room in the Giffnock Police Court House was made available and daily services and Shul meetings were held there until 1938. Jack Gordon acted as President during these years. The High Festival services continued to be held in the Girl Guides Hall and were conducted by Rev Jacob Vainstein who was later to become the first minister.
Meanwhile a suitable site for the building of a synagogue had to be found and a sub-committee consisting of L Benson, E Naftalin, J Gordon, M Abramson, J Lewis, N Katz, E Levitus and J Markson was formed for this purpose. They inspected several local sites and investigated the costs. Fund-raising events were organised at every opportunity and in 1935 a ladies committee was formed by Mrs C Markson and Mrs E. Silverstone for this purpose. Donations for the building fund were given by members of the community and the seat rent in 1936 of £1.1/- per head and £2.2/- per family, payable in advance for the year, also helped towards the project.
In 1937, a site at May Terrace was considered and the Council agreed that this would be a suitable site on which to build a synagogue. An offer of £5,000 was submitted and duly accepted by the solicitors of Giffnock Estates. Plans for a single storey structure were passed by the Dean of Guild Court and building began in June 1938 with a completion date of September of the same year. The builders finished the Shul in time for Rosh Hashanah. The foundation stone was laid on 14th August, 1938 by E Levitus in recognition of his hard work on behalf of the community. He had been mainly responsible for ensuring that building went according to plan and was invited to become the President of the first purpose built synagogue. The official opening was set for Sunday 18th September, 1938 and 180 invitations were sent out. The synagogue was opened by Solomon Wolfson, J.P. and the service was conducted by Rev Hershaw assisted by the Garnethill Choir. After the service, refreshments were provided in the Tudor Halls in Fenwick Road.
In 1935, following a census of all the children in the district it was decided to set up a Cheder. A public meeting at the Court House, addressed by the Rev Dr I K Cosgrove, was called and this resulted in 24 pupils enrolling for Hebrew classes. Lessons formally began on 2nd December 1935 at the Court House, but shortly thereafter the Cheder moved to Giffnock School where they were given the use of two classrooms. Teachers were provided by the Glasgow Talmud Torah who were interviewed and selected by Rev Cosgrove. Fees per term were 2/- for one child, 3/6 for two and 4/6 for three children of the same family.
The First Synagogue
The first minister to be appointed to Giffnock & Newlands congregation was Rev Jacob Vainstein who had conducted the services during the High Festivals since 1934. He was the son of the Minister of Queen’s Park Synagogue and remained with the congregation until he went to Israel in 1945. He was appointed Headmaster of the Cheder in 1943 on the retiral of the then headmaster, Mr Zwebner.
It was a difficult time during the war years with so many of the members away on active service, but in spite of this the community continued to grow and rallied round in times of need by welcoming Jewish soldiers stationed in the Giffnock area to the Synagogue and offering them hospitality over the High Festivals and Pesach. In 1941 they received a letter from the H.Q. of the Polish Army Corps asking that Giffnock Synagogue be a collection centre for parcels of clothing for the Russian refugees. They were only too pleased to be of assistance. After the war, Rev Vainstein left Giffnock to settle in Israel and a farewell reception for him was held in the Tudor Halls. The following year in 1946, Rev A L Rubinstein came to Giffnock from Clarkston Shul and an induction ceremony officiated by Dayan Swift of London was held in his honour followed by a reception held in the Tudor Ballroom at a charge of 5/- per person. As Principal of the Cheder, he was highly regarded, ensuring that the standard of education was very high, ably assisted by his capable teaching staff. He was given leave of absence in 1947 to go to Gateshead to study for his Rabbinical Diploma. During this time the running of the Cheder was taken over by Isaac Madisky who was subsequently made Headmaster in 1949, a post he held for over 30 years.
Membership continued to grow and by 1947 there were 550 members and a Synagogue with a seating capacity of only 400. The Guide Hall in Orchardhill Church had to be rented once again to accommodate the overflow services for the High Festivals. Building restrictions were still in force after the war and planning permission for a large communal hall with extra classrooms to accommodate the increasing number of children was refused at that time. Sam Barclay organised the building of a wooden hut, comprising a communal hall and three classrooms, at a cost of £2,300. This provided for the needs of the Cheder which now had 120 children on their roll with a large waiting list.
Rebbetzin Rubinstein set up a Ladies Guild shortly after her arrival in 1946 in order to raise money for the building fund. As an offshoot of the Ladies Guild, a weekly sewing group was formed at a charge of 2/- per person, the proceeds of which went towards the building fund. At the end of their first financial year, the committee, under the leadership of Mrs Lily Hill, had raised over £400 through sheer hard work. The classrooms and youth centre were completed in 1949. The foundation stone was laid by Myer Newman in recognition of his great interest and support of the Cheder, and on Sunday 18th September 1949, Sam Barclay was given the privilege of opening the new building. It was attended by 250 people and a reception followed in the Tudor Halls.
In 1949, Bertie Rubin was appointed Shammos, a post he held for 35 years until February 1986 when he officially retired. He was well-known for his impeccable memory, never having to refer to a book for Hebrew names when calling up men for an aliyah. A Shabbat Kiddush was held in his honour on his retiral.
Another project which began following the opening of the new youth centre was the 7.30 Club founded by Mrs. Lily Bernard. Although essentially the teenagers ran the club themselves, they had to draw up a cultural programme and submit it to Rabbi Rubinstein and Mrs Bernard for approval. Boys were expected to make up a minyan when required. The club was open to girls between 15 and 21 and boys between 16 and 21. There were a variety of activities including dances on a Sunday evening, committee meetings on a Monday and football, table tennis, drama, bridge, chess, body-building and weight lifting, swimming and athletics at other times. During the summer there were cycle runs and bus parties to the coast which were thoroughly enjoyed by all. Mrs Bernard chaired the club for 17 years until her retirement in 1965. A Chupah was presented to the synagogue from the proceeds of the club, a fitting gift as many couples met at the 7.30 Club and subsequently married.
The Rebuilding of the Synagogue
The main highlight of the 1950s was the rebuilding of the Synagogue to include a ladies gallery. 350 seats in seasoned oak were installed in the ladies gallery. To help meet the costs of the project, seat rents were raised 25% and a loan of £6,000 was secured from the Royal Bank of Scotland. The synagogue was now able to accommodate 750 members. Owing to the generous donations by the community, the synagogue benefited from a new stained-glass window, new electric Chandeliers, new ark and pulpit and the Ladies Guild presented the synagogue with a beautiful Bimah. At the same time, new seats were installed in the men’s section. Sam Barclay and Isaac Jesner were given the honour of formally opening the ladies gallery in recognition of their work and Sam Barclay was inscribed in the Golden Book and given a Golden Book certificate.
In 1959 Rev Phillip Copperman was appointed Chazan of the synagogue where he remained until 1963. Shortly after his arrival he initiated a male voice choir under the direction of Joseph Bernstein, which was continued by Monty Rosenthal until he emigrated to Australia in 1983. Today it still operates under the direction of Michael Barnett.
By 1962 the Cheder was at its peak with 230 children on the roll, and in this year Giffnock was the only Cheder to present candidates for the bursary examinations of the Hebrew college. Rev Gamzu who taught in the Cheder for about 30 years, recalled that in those days the classes had 40 to 50 children. Religious education was also carried over to regular Shul attendance and on a Friday night at the Oneg Shabbat there was a regular attendance of between 70 and 80 children with over 100 at the children’s service on a Shabbat morning. Mrs Gamzu also played an active part, teaching in the Cheder and taking withdrawal classes in Giffnock School which at one time had over 100 children.
Rabbi Rubinstein died in 1964 after serving as minister for 18 years and his passing left a large void in the community. Rabbi Dr S Herman, BA PhD was appointed as minister in 1965, but decided to leave in 1967 to take up a position in Manchester where he felt his children would have a better Jewish cultural life. Rabbi Jeremy Rosen was then appointed as minister. He was the son of the late Rabbi Kopul Rosen who founded Carmel College and had just completed his Rabbinical training in Israel when he came to Giffnock. He introduced a Kiddush after each Shabbat service although as there were about 40 Barmitzvahs each year, the Shul didn’t have to pay for too many of them.
Rev Ernest Levy was appointed as Chazan in 1964. He formed and trained a boy’s choir in 1965 which remained in operation until his official retiral in 1990. He officiated at the memorial service for Rabbi Rubinstein. Over his 26 year association with the Shul, he officiated at approximately 500 weddings. He remained a popular figure at Shul services and events and assisted with services when required right up until he passed away in 2009. His portrait hangs in the Shul entrance hall.
The Building of a New Shul
The community continued to flourish and by the late 1950s/early 1960s many families were moving into the district from Shawlands, Battlefield, Queenspark, Crosshill and areas round about. Applications for membership were so great that from 1962 the Tudor cinema has to be used for overflow services to accommodate the 380 members who did not have seats in the main synagogue. At that time The Glen came onto the market at offers over £7,000 and Isaac Jesner visited the site with Phillip Jacobsen and Maurice Felstein, who was actively involved as joint building convenor in the building of the new Shul. Mr Jesner decided to buy the site and then offer it to the Shul. A few months later the Tudor Cinema came onto the market and was subsequently purchased by the newly formed Community Trust. They offered to lease it to the Synagogue at a nominal rent, with the Synagogue being responsible for the conversion. After much thought and deliberation, it was finally rejected as the costs were too great and it was decided to build on the site of the Glen, retaining the house at the front and building on the land at the back.
Planning permission for the Glen was obtained and it was estimated that building would cost £141,385 and fund raising began accordingly. Meanwhile, Maccabi were interested in the premises in May Terrace for their youth activities and the Community Trust agreed that they would take over the buildings in May Terrace at a price of £30,000 and develop the grounds for Maccabi’s use. The Royal of Scotland agreed an overdraft of £100,000 without guarantors. Dr David Granet, Maurice Felstein, Isaac Jesner and Isaac Sclar were responsible for raising the funds and decided to ask members to covenant donations for the building fund. The response was tremendous and covenanted donations of approximately £125,000 were made, to come in over a period of 7 years. There were interest free loans of over £20,000 and the shortfall of £30,000 in finance was kindly donated to the Shul by the Wolfson brothers.
Dr Ephraim Cowan, who was building convenor from 1965 – 1969 supervised the building of the new Shul and to make sure the work was carried out smoothly and satisfactorily, was on site every day the builders were working. At the commencement of the project, Dr Cowan passed the shovel to Maurice Felstein to cut the first turf. The foundation stone was laid by Isaac Sclar. The last service to be held in May Terrace was on Saturday 14th September 1968. On Friday 20th September, the Sifrei Torah were escorted from May Terrace to the entrance of the Glen and carried in procession to the new synagogue. Those honoured in carrying the Sefarim from the entrance were Rabbi Rosen, Cantor Levy, M Felstein, I Jesner, E Levitus, S Barclay, M Newman, J Benson and B Mendelsohn. Services officially began on Rosh Hashanah 1968. The following year on 11th May, the classroom block and banqueting suite were formally opened by Charles Wolfson.
It was decided to appoint a secretary to take bookings for the banqueting suite and to set up an administration system. Mrs Gladys Goodman was appointed in 1969 and continued until her retirement in 1985. She was succeed by Mrs Geraldine Gardner who carried out the role until her retirement in 2009. She has been followed by Michael Conn who combines the role with the maintenance and upkeep of the Shul premises.
In 1971 Rabbi Rosen left the congregation to take up the position of Headmaster at Carmel College and a farewell Kiddush was held in his honour. He was followed by Rabbi David Miller who served as minister until 1975 when he left to go to London. Rev Gamzu, a stalwart of the Shul, stepped into the breach and acted as Rabbi until 1982 when Rabbi Philip Greenberg was appointed minister of the synagogue. He continued as Rabbi until 1999 when he retired to London with the honorary status of Emeritus Rabbi.
The Mikvah (Ritual Baths) which had been situated at the South Portland Street in the Gorbals for many years, was rebuilt in Giffnock Synagogue in 1971 due to the efforts of Isaac Jesner. Liba Bloch Greenberg officially opened it on 25 February. The annual running costs of the Mikvah are very high and it relies heavily on continuous donations from the community. In 1992 the Mikvah was redesigned and rebuilt at a cost of £35,000, thanks mainly to a major contribution from the Community Trust. A new Keilim Mikva for the ritual koshering of crockery and utensils has since been built outside the kitchen.
In 1972, owing to an electrical fault, there was a fire in the reception area and banqueting suite. The costs for reinstatement of the building and replacement of the contents, along with planned improvements, cost in the region of £115,000. As the insurance settlement only amounted to £77,000 there was a shortfall of £38,000 to complete the project. Donations from the members along with an overdraft facility enabled the repairs and improvements to be carried out.
In September 1976, the Friendship Club was initiated by Rev Ernest Levy and set up by Mrs Ray Gamzu and Mrs Kathy Levy, with the help of Mrs E Jesner, Mrs E Stern, Mrs A Smullen, Mrs E Clapham and Mrs M Wolff, as a cultural and social centre for the over 60 age group. Meetings were initially held in the Shul every fortnight, but the club was so successful that they now meet every week. Events include bus outings, visits to the theatre and a speaker or entertainer once a month.
When Rabbi Shapiro, the Rosh Yeshivah in Glasgow made aliyah to Israel in the late 1970’s, a Kollel was established in Glasgow under the leadership of Rabbi M Bamberger and sited in the Giffnock Shul Beth Hamidrash.
Throughout the early years, the Cheder was considered to be of major importance. With the advent of Calderwood Lodge, the Jewish day school in 1962, the number of children attending Cheder gradually began to drop. By 1970, the community was dwindling as people made aliyah and children left Glasgow to study elsewhere. As a result, Clarkston Shul amalgamated their Cheder with Giffnock. By 1973/4 there were only 107 pupils on the roll, 62 of whom came from Giffnock synagogue, 24 from Clarkston and 21 from other congregations. By 1982 there were only 62 pupils on the roll and Mr I Madisky, the long service headmaster, retired. The Glasgow Board of Jewish Education decided to relocate the Cheder classes to Newton Mearns Shul and Calderwood Lodge.
In 1991, Rev and Mrs Gamzu celebrated their Golden Wedding. A tea reception attended by some 260 people was held, and by way of a presentation, an educational trust was set up in their honour to help young men go to Yeshivot in this country and abroad.
In June 1993, a new Sefer Torah was written by Mr Barry Solomon (a Glaswegian who now lives in Israel) and presented to the synagogue by Mr Fred Miller. A dinner was held in the Banqueting Suite to celebrate this momentous occasion and the guest of honour was the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Rabbi Cyril K Harris.
The Diamond Jubilee
On Sunday 4th March 1995, over 250 guests were seated in the Banqueting Suite waiting for the celebratory M’Lavah Malkah to begin when it was announced that Rev Avrom Gamzu had collapsed and subsequently passed away as he walked into the Banqueting Suite. Everybody was saddened and shocked and there was talk of cancelling the evening. However, Mrs Gamzu insisted that the proceedings carry on as that would have been what her husband would have wanted. Gammy, as he was affectionately known, had been associated with the Shul for 50 years and had acted in every ministerial capacity, gaining a reputation as Mohel and Baal Keriah. The evening opened with a minute’s silence, continuing with tributes to a much loved man. The guest of honour was Rabbi Jeremy Rosen who was the Rabbi when the Shul moved to Fenwick Road.
Chief Rabbi comes to Giffnock
On Shabbat 7th February 1998, The Shul was honoured with a visit by the Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks. A lunch was organised in his honour and attended by around 190 members of the congregation and community at large. It was a memorable day and a triumph for the congregation.
Change of Rabbi
At the end of 1998, Rabbi and Mrs Greenberg announced their intention to retire to London after 17 years of dedicated service. A farewell dinner was held in January 1999 in their honour with over 180 people in attendance.
With the retirement of Rabbi Greenberg, Rabbi Moshe Rubin who had been assistant Rabbi since 1994 took over as Rabbi of the Shul in 1999 and was inducted by the Chief Rabbi on 31st October. Rabbi Rubin started Giffnock’s own Sedra Sheet. As well as a short explanation of the week’s Sedra, it includes anyone who has a Mazeltov, birthday, anniversary, Yahrzeit or bereavement, as well as forthcoming social events.
Rabbi Rubin also introduced a monthly Shabbat Yom Huledet, a birthday Kiddush for the children. At the end of the Shabbat service, the Rabbi reads out the names of children having a birthday that month and a special chocolate cake is provided at the Kiddush. Each child receives a birthday card signed by the Rabbi. In October 1999 Rebbetzin Rubin set up a Mother and Toddler group which is still in going.
As some of the Shul’s Torah scrolls were in need of repair due to their age, the Torah 2000 project was launched. An appeal was made, and within 6 months, due to the support of members, expatriates and friends, over £50,000 was raised and the Shul was able to commission two Sifrei Torahs and a Megilla. The dedication took place on 10th June 2001 in the presence of the Chief Rabbi. Following the procession into the Shul, each Rabbi was invited to complete a letter in each Sefer Torah. The last letter in one Torah scroll was written by the Chief Rabbi and in the other by Rabbi Greenberg who had come to Glasgow for this memorable occasion. Rabbi Rubin wrote the second last letter in each. Mincha was led by Rev Levy accompanied by the Choir.
On 20th September 2002, 19 year old Yoni Jesner was killed on a bus in Tel Aviv by a suicide bomber. The whole community was shocked. Yoni was a very popular member and had played a prominent role in the Shul and wider Jewish community. A memorial service to a packed Shul was held on 2nd October 2002.
Stained Glass Windows
After Queen’s Park Shul closed its doors in October 2002, a decision was made to relocate 22 stained glass windows by artist John Clark, each one depicting a different Jewish theme, and install them in Giffnock. This was done with the help of a grant from the National Lottery Fund. The Shul has subsequently been invited to take part in the Doors Open Day each year, attracting over 300 visitors.
Other major ongoing projects that were realised during 2004-5 were the installation of a hearing loop system at a cost of £2,000, refurbishment of the banqueting suite, a new pulpit and a security barrier around the Aron Kodesh for when it is not being used.
New Ladies Seating
In January 2004, a small section of seating downstairs was separated off by a Mechitzah to cater for lady members who had difficulty in climbing the stairs.
In order to comply with legislation, a disabled ramp was completed and installed in October 2004. The total cost was defrayed by the generosity of members.
A new befriending group, known as Big Hearts, was launched in 2006 to organise visits to elderly or infirm members of the congregation in their homes. It was extended in 2009 with the launch of a new project to help mourners immediately after a funeral with arrangements for candles and food.
Robert Sherman evening
In March 2007, a very successful evening was held in the banqueting suite where guests were entertained by Robert Sherman and his son Robbie. Robert is an American songwriter specialising in musical films including songs from Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Slipper and the Rose and the theme park song, It’s a Small World After All. The evening was sold out. Robert also donated two limited edition prints of his paintings, one of Moses and the other of Abraham, which are currently hang in the reception area.
Kirking of East Renfewshire Council
For the first time, in September 2007 the Kirking of East Renfrewshire Council took place in the Shul attended by local dignitaries, councillors and MPs. A short service was followed by a Kiddush.
Pinny Rubin’s Barmitzvah
For the first time in 45 years, the son of the Shul Rabbi celebrated his Barmitzvah in Giffnock. On Monday 20th April there was a calling up ceremony followed by breakfast. The following Sunday there was a Barmitzvah celebration to which all the members were invited. There was a short afternoon service followed by speeches and a sumptuous afternoon tea. The event was packed out.
The anniversary dinner took place on Sunday 6th September in the banqueting suite and tickets were sold out. The guest speaker was Dayan Ivan Binstock of St. John’s Wood Synagogue and guests travelled from as far as Israel for the evening.. A photo exhibition of events over the last 75 years was created in the reception area.
On the social side the Shul hosts sit down Kiddushim with guest speakers, twice yearly Friday night suppers, Shavuot lunch, Simchat Torah reception, Chanukah Social, Purim breakfast, Lag B’Omer celebrations, Melava Malkas, Shabbatons, quiz evenings, cinema outings, mother and toddler group, and FAB goes MAD.
Despite the fact that the Glasgow Jewish community continues to decline as members move to Israel and elsewhere, the Shul continues to hold three services every day.
Schools continue to visit the Shul and for the past three years, over 300 visitors each year have walked through its doors, admiring its achievements.
For nearly twenty years there have been discussion between Newton Mearns Hebrew Congregation and Giffnock Newlands Hebrew Congregation about the feasability of merging the two congregations into one building.
This was as on and off project that seemed to start well and then for many reasons stalled.
In 2021 under the leadership of Jeffrey Jesner, Chairman of Giffnock & Lewis Orchant, Chairman of Newton Mearns a decision was finally reached to merge the two congregations.
The first step was to agree a name, which one would have thought would have been straightforward.
We initally had a ballot with 5 or 6 suggested names. This was whittled down to two and a vote for the name was taken. The outcome in July 2021 was for GNMS. Giffnock Newton Mearns Synagogue.
Having agreed the name there were long discussions on which building would be the best for the new congregation. Again numerous discussions took place over many months with ideas and suggestions coming form all parties from both buildings.
It was decided that there needed to be another ballot, this time for choice of venue and on May 24 2022 the decision was made that the site at Larchfield Court would close and all services, both religious and social would take place at Fenwick Road.
A very tough decision then had to be made as to when Larchfield’s last service would take place. Understandably the Larchfield Court members wanted to stay open as long as possible but as one of the main reasons for merging into one congregation was to reduce our overheads it was felt that closing sooner rather than later would be the best option.
The last service held at Larchfield Court was in December 2022 although we had a special closing service and ceremony along with a Dinner in Larchfield Court, attended by the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis on January 22 2023. Emotions ran high but the overasll atmosphere was very positive.
From January the numbers of former Newton Mearns members coming to Fenwick Road steadily increased over the following months and culminated in the Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur services September 2023 reaching all time highs. The atmosphere was wonderful and everyone seemed to be very happy with the merger.