The SAMS Roots Project

Jewish culture By Helen Singer 16th Nov 2016

St Albans Masorti Synagogue (SAMS) has recently undertaken a fascinating project, SAMS Roots, which was supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The funding allowed us to employ a professional biographer, our own Caroline Pearce, to interview twelve members of SAMS, who were invited to share their memories and experiences, including what brought them to SAMS. The interviewees included a Holocaust survivor, the grandson of Iraq’s Director General of the Treasury and the descendant of a famous eighteenth-century boxer.

The Roots website and a display in the SAMS building ensure that these stories are available for future generations. This article tells you a little more about the project.

Background to the Roots project

Back in 2013, some SAMS members were involved in a talk at the St Albans Museum about the history of the Jewish community in St Albans, and this was followed by a re-run at SAMS. At the time we talked about displaying a map to show where our families had come from. Shortly afterwards our SAMS Listening Campaign found that members would like to find out more about other people in our community.

Funding application

Fast forward to 2015 when a visit to the Centre for Voluntary Service (CVS) led us to find out about a funding opportunity, the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Sharing Heritage fund. Our successful funding application for SAMS Roots was supported by FACE (Faith and Cultural Enterprise, a St Albans interfaith group), the University of Hertfordshire’s Heritage Hub, World Jewish Relief and CVS, and we were delighted to learn that we had been awarded £6,000.

This grant allowed us to advertise for a biographer and to engage our own Caroline Pearce to interview twelve SAMS members about their backgrounds and what brought them to SAMS. We invited some interviewees to take part and advertised for others: everyone has a unique story worth telling and worth hearing. The first interview took place in July 2015 and the last in April 2016.

The interviews

Caroline photographed the interviewees and carried out the interviews, which were then transcribed and distilled into 750-word summaries. We also created a glossary of Hebrew, Jewish and Yiddish terms.

We are very grateful to the interviewees, who were so generous with sharing their memories and with the loan of artefacts and photographs: Beryl Caplan, Beverly Cohen, Nick Grant, Kitty Hart-Moxon, Andrew Hougie, Debbie Hougie, Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth, Darren Marks, Stanley Morris, Rick Taylor, Jenny Taylor and Sylvia Schloss.

The Display

The funding allowed us to purchase display equipment and we are very grateful to the SAMS members who helped get these items installed, despite complicated logistics! We now have a lovely digital photo frame, a noticeboard and a museum-quality display cabinet on the first floor of our building. If you visit SAMS, please take a look. School groups and other visitors will benefit from viewing this and future exhibitions.

The Roots Launch on Sunday, 26 June 2016

This launch event was a huge success, with more than seventy guests, including most of the interviewees, other SAMS members and guests, representatives from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other supporting organisations, and the Right Worshipful the Mayor of St Albans, Councillor Frances Leonard. The event received coverage in the local press and the Jewish Times Online, and was further publicised with a temporary display of photographs in the entrance to the St Albans Council Offices.

Preserving the stories

The SAMS Roots website,, includes the summaries, audio clips, a photo gallery, the SAMS Roots Collection and tour on the virtual Historypin map as well as a link to the full audio files, transcripts and glossary on the University of Hertfordshire’s Heritage Hub. We are pleased that our page on the Masorti Judaism website also mentions the project and we also have a link from Hertfordshire’s Hidden Heroines, which recently produced exhibitions at the University of Hertfordshire and the Verulamium Museum.

Emerging themes

Dr Anne Murphy from the University of Hertfordshire wrote this lovely introduction to its companion website: ‘The oral histories provide a rich insight into Jewish life and experience across time and place. They are, in Goethe’s phrase, about the two lasting bequests people give to their children: “roots and the wings”. The stories are a record of migrations both forced and voluntary, and of families and roots left behind. They are also a record of heritage retained, commemorated and celebrated and new roots set down in the St Albans Masorti community since its foundation in 1990.’

And as we said at the launch: ‘A tapestry of themes emerges:  resilience, refuge, community and above all a deep affection for SAMS.’

Future projects

This multi-media project involved many SAMS members, who in true SAMS style rallied round and contributed hugely. It was an honour to be involved. At SAMS we are looking at possibly extending the Historypin site and considering how to take the project further. The organisers would be happy to share their experiences of the Roots project with any other Masorti communities who may be interested.

Helen Singer & Liz Oppedijk, Project Organisers, [email protected]

Caroline Pearce, biographer, [email protected]

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