Plymouth shul celebrates 250 years of British history

By Marcus Dysch, May 17, 2012
Plymouth Synagogue, the oldest functioning Ashkenazi shul in the English-speaking world, celebrated its 250th anniversary this week

Plymouth Synagogue, the oldest functioning Ashkenazi shul in the English-speaking world, celebrated its 250th anniversary this week

The hidden area between a municipal car park and two alleyways off a bustling Plymouth street may seem a peculiar location for the oldest functioning Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world.

Indeed, many British Jews do not know of the existence of the magnificent, ornate, Grade II listed Plymouth Synagogue that is currently celebrating its 250th anniversary.

There is little that this historic shul - so important in the history of Anglo-Jewry - has not witnessed and overcome.

It was one of the few buildings in the city to escape damage during heavy Nazi bombing, and has undergone barely any alterations for almost 150 years.

Its special anniversary celebrations on Sunday marked the community's biggest day for a quarter of a century - since the service to mark the 225th year.

Almost all the community members had been assigned special jobs. Among those welcoming visitors from across the country were an "entrance overseer" and an "official escort".

As the congregants excitedly filled the wooden pews and awaited the arrival of Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, many were looking to the community's future rather than concerning themselves too greatly with the building's past.

One of the shul’s distinctive windows

One of the shul’s distinctive windows

The community now has fewer than 100 members but still holds services at the shul every Shabbat. Its trustees are keen to promote the city as a potential "staycation" destination for Jews.

For regular shul-goer David Rappaport, Sunday was a unique day. Watching dignitaries including Board of Deputies president Vivian Wineman and United Synagogue president Stephen Pack filed into the building, he said: "Oh my word, we're mixing with the bigwigs today. I can't believe how many people are here. I try to come every Friday night. It's very difficult and we don't always get a minyan. It's very sad.

"I'm extremely proud to see it full today. It's like having the family come to visit. We feel very isolated down here, but aren't Jews isolated everywhere?"

Mr Rappaport regularly undertakes the hour-long bus journey to Plymouth from his home in Tavistock to take part in services. He moved to Devon from Essex following the death of his wife two years ago and says becoming part of the community has been a "return to my roots. I wish we could always get a minyan but we make the best of it. We want to come here and we want to show we are still committed to our religion."

The moving anniversary service opened with Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks heading a procession of community leaders carrying Sifrei Torah around the decorative wooden bimah, still adorned by its 1762 brass candlesticks.

Elkan Levy, a regular visiting minister to Plymouth, led the davening, with the Chief Rabbi reciting the shul's unique prayer for the Royal Family before giving his sermon in front of the Baroque ark - the only surviving one of its type in the country.

Lord Sacks described the building as "an architectural gem" and urged British Jews to visit. It was "deeply moving" that the anniversary should coincide with the Queen's diamond jubilee.

He added: "A synagogue does not have to be vast, nor a congregation huge, to be a true home to God. It only has to be a place where people open their hearts to God and to one another."

Shul trustee Adam Jacobson commented: "If only a fraction of the funding that goes into communities in London came out across the country it would be enormously beneficial."

Last updated: 2:43pm, May 18 2012