Exeter’s small and diverse Jewish community has launched its 250th anniversary celebrations in newly-refurbished premises — a Grade II-listed Georgian synagogue which is the third oldest in the UK. Thanks to the £118,000 generated from a fundraising campaign, encroaching damp was brought under control in time for the festivities to begin.
The synagogue was packed last Friday with members and visitors leaning over the gallery for a better view as children from the local St Leonard’s Primary presented a historical timeline of the past 250 years. The school’s involvement was typical of the interfaith activities pursued by the synagogue, which hosted over 2,500 pupils in 2012. Then Elkan Levy led a short erev Shabbat service. On Shabbat, Movement for Reform Judaism partnership director David Jacobs led a celebratory service, which was followed by a buffet lunch for the community, which retains a strong sense of identity despite a membership of 120 spread thinly across the south-west. It endeavours to cater to all shades of Judaism, alternately holding Progressive and traditional services with visiting rabbis.
“It’s not like being in north London,” explained vice-president Renee Smithens. “You have to work at being a community, maintaining the synagogue and your links with other Jewish people.”
Sourcing kosher food is a problem, although a rabbi brings supplies from London. Young families are catered for through the Dreidel Dribblers for the tots and a religion school for children. There is also a Yiddish study group.
Among the guests at Sunday’s rededication service were the Dean of Exeter Cathedral, Jonathan Draper, Exeter Mosque’s Imam Mohammed Abrar, Mayor of Exeter Rachel Lyons and Liberal Judaism chief executive Rabbi Danny Rich. Rabbi Danny Rich said “the presence of Jews in Exeter for more than 250 years reflects the tolerance of Britain and how the independent Hebrew congregation operates. Hosting Orthodox and Liberal rabbis is a model of tolerance for the Jewish community.”
This week also saw opening of the Jewish Way of Life exhibition at Exeter’s Guildhall and the launch of Helen Fry’s book, The Jews of Exeter.