Sunderland’s synagogue’s starring role in Orthodox Jewish film

Stephen Graham as Benjamin in ORTHODOX
Stephen Graham as Benjamin in ORTHODOX
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Hollywood has arrived in Hendon. We take a closer look.

One of Sunderland’s landmark buildings is in the frame for national fame.

Owner of the former Jewish Synagogue on Ryhope Road, George Fraser with his grandaughter Lisa Faser.

Owner of the former Jewish Synagogue on Ryhope Road, George Fraser with his grandaughter Lisa Faser.

The former Jewish synagogue in Ryhope Road has been chosen as a backdrop to new film Orthodox, starring This Is England, Snatch and Boardwalk Empire actor Stephen Graham.

“If this will help put Sunderland on the map, then it is great with me,” said businessman George Fraser, owner of the building. “I’m just pleased to see it back in use – if only for a short while.”

Orthodox started life as a short film by Newcastle-born David Leon, known as DS Joe Ashworth in crime drama Vera, which premièred at the London Film Festival last year to great acclaim.

A three-week shoot across the North East, including Sunderland and Hartlepool, will see the original 25-minute piece turned into a full-length feature – due for release in cinemas in 2014.

Ryhope Road April 1952 old ref number 20-2381

Ryhope Road April 1952 old ref number 20-2381

All of the original cast, including Stephen, Michael Smiley (Kill List), Giacomo Mancini (Top Boy) and Chris Fairbank (Pirates of the Caribbean/Auf Wiedersehen Pet) have signed on for the movie.

And David, winner of the Best Narrative Short award for his film Man and Boy at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, will once again take on the roles of writer and director for the Zeitgeist Films project.

“Thanks to the support of our cast, and positive reaction to the short, we are excited to be expanding the film to feature length and watching these characters evolve,” said producer Daisy Allsop.

Backing for the venture is being provided by Ingenious Media, which was behind such films as Girl With A Pearl Earring, Brick Lane and Vera Drake, through its Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme.

Filming taking place at the former Jewish Synagogue on Ryhope Road.

Filming taking place at the former Jewish Synagogue on Ryhope Road.

Around 70 per cent of the original footage will feature in the finished movie, which focuses on Benjamin (played by Graham) – a man persecuted for his commitment to the Orthodox Jewish faith.

David, who was named as Screen International’s Star of Tomorrow in 2012, said: “Benjamin is a man caught between two worlds, the Orthodox Jewish community and mainstream life.

“Yet the challenges he faces are much like those that we all have to confront. Through the decisions he makes, he becomes an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.”

Filming at the old Sunderland synagogue took place last week, with shots including internal and external views of the Grade II-listed building – which has been standing empty since 2006.

Owner George is planning to donate his film location fee to Macmillan Nurses and Marie Curie Cancer Care, and said: “They have helped lots of friends of mine and I think they do a terrific job.”

•Find out more about Orthodox via Facebook at www.facebook.com/orthodoxfilm or on Twitter @Orthodox_Film

Building’s 1928 consecration

THE need for a synagogue in the Ashbrooke area led to the purchase of land at Ryhope Road in 1922. On December 9, 1928, the synagogue was consecrated.

Designed by Newcastle-based Jewish architect Marcus K Glass, the building was created in a “free Byzantine style,” with a barrel ceiling painted with stars and sky.

The Grade II-listed building has since been described as “an essay in Cinematic Art Deco,” and was rated by the Pevsner architectural guide as “vigorous and decorative”.

Thousands of Wearsiders worshipped at the synagogue but, as the number of Jewish residents dwindled, so the building was sold to a charitable trust and closed in 2006. Sadly, the empty synagogue quickly became a target for arsonists, drug addicts and squatters – prompting businessman George Fraser to step in and pay a six-figure sum for it in 2010.

“I bought it for peace of mind really,” he said. “I live about 20ft away from the building and we were being plagued by vandals, people having rave parties, fly-tippers and drug takers.

“I didn’t have any real idea of what to do with it when I bought it; I just wanted to get the troublemakers out. But it would be nice to do something to benefit the community.”

George has already turned the nearby Hebrew School into houses, but has yet to decide on the future of the synagogue – which was sold with a ban on selling or consuming alcohol on site.

“I’m not going to give the synagogue away, but I’d like to put it to a good use. At least it is in a better condition now than the unsightly tip it was when I bought it,” he said.

Sunderland’s Jewish history

l The first Sunderland Jew was Abraham Samuel, a Dutch jeweller who arrived in 1750.

l Polish arrivals converted part of an old house on Vine Street into a place of worship in 1781.

l A Jewish cemetery on Ballast Hills, Ayres Quay, was created in the 18th century.

l The Adath Yeshurun community met at the home of silversmith Jacob Joseph in 1790

l Marriages “after the manner of Jews” took place in Sunderland from 1791.

l Sunderland’s Jewish population numbered around 200 in 1851.

l A synagogue was built in Moor Street in 1861 – consecrated by chief rabbi Dr Nathan Adler.

l A Jewish section at Bishopwearmouth Cemetery opened in the 1860s.

l Dozens of Jewish migrants escaping Russian persecution arrived in the 1880s.

l Jewish groups included the Hebrew Board of Guardians, Loan Society and Ladies’ Guild.

l 150 members of the Jewish community fought in World War One. Sixteen were killed.

l A new synagogue on Ryhope Road was built and consecrated on December 9, 1928.

l A hostel for Jewish girls fleeing the Nazis was set up in the Second World War.

l Jack Cohen was elected Mayor of Sunderland in 1949 – the first Jewish mayor.

l Wearside’s Jewish community flourished until the 1960s – with 1,400 residents at its peak.