Plymouth Synagogue

by Alex Archer

For several years I have been niggling to my husband, Howard, that I wanted to visit the Eden Project in Cornwall and this year he surprised me and responded "So organise it - let's go for our Summer holidays!" So organise I did. We went to Cornwall, stayed in St Austell and saw the Eden Project and other usual sights - the Gardens of Heligan, fishing villages and beaches - all of which were simply amazing. The whole family had the most fantastic holiday. But my wonderful holiday is not the reason for writing an article for the shul website!

 

Wherever we go in the world, I usually manage to fit in the odd shul or two. But Cornwall..... I understand there are loads of Jews in Cornwall, but not exactly religious one! I believe the last shul in Penzance closed its doors in 1850!

 

Ah ha........not to be caught out, I prepared the family for a trip to yet another fishing village, Mevagissey. We walked up and down the medieval hilly back streets, ooohed and aaahed at how quaint the cottages are, how magnificent the view was, then horror of horrors, I insisted that we paid a visit to the local museum!

 

The kids were handed activity sheets which actually made them take interest in the village memorabilia, but it wasn't until we went upstairs that my youngest said "Mummy, what's this?" There at the top of the stairs was a glass cabinet of blue and white ceramics. But not just any ceramics. Hidden amongst them there was a character wearing a tallit, and a couple with a Magen David painted on them.

 

Although the museum's website had pulled me to this collection, there was no explanation of their true origins in the museum and having spoken to the curator, I am not convinced that he knew what was in that glass cabinet!

 

The museum's website fills you in. Quite simply, their creator, Bernard Moss, was the son of Russian émigrés who had escaped the pogroms in the late 19th Century and had settled in Mevagissey! He and his wife were talented in ceramic making and painting and in several cases chose a Jewish theme.

 

Not to be outdone with our obligatory holiday shul visit, my planning took us to Plymouth. (I know its in Devon, not Cornwall, but if you are a Londoner like me, its as good as!) A few phone calls later and we were on the way to shul!

 

The shul itself has the usual lack of distinguishing marks outside, except for a circular window near the top with a Magen David. Even the apparent front door has no mezuzah as it is not really the front door - it is the door to the "open space" in front of the shul which is an extension to the front of the original building - apparently the argument still rages today as to whether a mezuzah should be fixed!!

 

The shul is the oldest Askenazi shul in continuous use in Europe, dating back to 1762. It was established after the return of the Jews from Amsterdam following their expulsion in the 13th Century. The Jews returned planning to use Plymouth as a stepping stone on their journey to America - many of whom did continue. However the presence of the naval docks and the need for goldsmiths, tailors (military uniforms) and other skills was plentiful and many stayed - hence the establishment of the shul.

 

In fact, prior to the building of the shul, a mikveh had been built which Jerry (the caretaker) believed would be fit for viewing within the next few months after our visit in August 2011.

 

The look of the shul clearly has naval input which is obvious from the picture. The railings around the bimah could have been taken from a ship. The ark was imported "flat pack" from Amsterdam - it has the look of being marble, but in fact it is wood.

 

There is even a succah - upstairs - which has a roof which can be opened to the sky and a partition wall opening into the Ladies' Gallery thereby ensuring the temporary nature!

 

Many items have seen the shul's history. Isabel is holding a shofar which may be 250 years old and the menorah could certainly date from the same time.  The prayer for the Royal Family clearly dates back 100 years!

 

Interestingly there are only 34 families, the youngest member is 68, but the shul is surviving and paying for itself funded by the membership and donations. Even Jerry the caretaker has 12 hours of paid work!

 

Perhaps next year you could organise Cornwall into your holiday schedule and pay Jerry a visit. It would be terrific if your visit, and those of your friends, could ensure the continuation of the Plymouth Hebrew Congregation, and who knows, even finance Jerry having a full time caretaking position so that he doesn't have to rely on his second occupation.......teaching the history of Judaism!