Today I had the pleasure of visiting the oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue in the English speaking world still in regular use.
The synagogue itself, listed as Grade II, is uniquely beautiful.
It is renowned amongst both Jews and non-Jews for its peaceful and spiritual ambience.
Like all Georgian synagogues it is quite small and is situated very discreetly.
A Jewish community is known to have settled among the tolerant Plymouthians during the 18th Century.
There are though good reasons to suggest Jewish links with South West England may date back to Phoenician times when the lands we now call Cornwall and Devon were famed for and traded tin, a precious metal during the Bronze Age.
There are ancient artifacts and place names that hint of connections…
Moses the Navigator” who sailed with Francis Drake upon Drake’s historic circumnavigation of the globe, only the second ship to have achieved that feat, may well have been Jewish.
English Jews have always had an affinity with the Navy.
Nelson himself wrote he ‘preferred Jewish prize agents, they are more honest’; the roots are deep…
We can’t be sure how deep the Jewish roots go in SW England, pre Saxon?
There is an indefinable ‘something’ in the atmosphere sensed by those sensitive to such mysteries
The community had been granted a lease which was held for them by a worthy non-Jew, one Samuel Champion as the legality of Jews holding leases in England at that period was doubtful, for Jews to own land or property was forbidden by English law.
The joinery we see in woodwork of the Synagogue, style of panelling, seating, and the Bimah (Central platform), are typical of naval construction of the period.
This old schule was built by craftsmen from the naval dockyard. The carpentry speaks for those workmen, of their skill, with a quiet dignity.
One can look at the railings around the Bimah and imagine that one is looking at the stern of one of Nelson’s warships.
Jewish Plymothians contributed greatly to the life of this region and the country.
To this day, prayers and blessings are still regularly offered for the guidance and well being of the government and royal family of Great Britain.
The prayer for the King, affixed to the wall of the synagogue, has a text that is unique.
Fittingly for a city closely connected with military and naval life, it asks God to “raise and remount the planet of his said Majesty’s arms, that his enemies may fall under his feet”
They served in the Volunteer Companies recruited in 1798 to repulse any Napoleonic invasion, also with distinction during the two World Wars.
During World War 2 Plymouth was after Coventry the second most heavily bombed city in Britain.
Most of the historic old city centre was destroyed.
All that survived were the church across the road, the Guildhall around the corner although they were badly damaged; while the the Synagogue was miraculously almost untouched, for which the Community remain eternally grateful.
They also served in local government including as Mayors of Devonport, Torquay and one Lord Mayor of Plymouth.
I am honoured to have among the treasures of this historic synagogue, two watercolours of mine, accepted by the late Percy Aloof, former President but only have a photograph of one to share with you here.