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ON TOUR: Plymouth - plus its Synagogue

Thinking of a UK waterside break?  Plymouth is the place. 

The city with a population of 250,000 is by far the largest metropolitan area in the South West and the gateway to Cornwall.  It is a fine place to base oneself for a week or so. It has a strong Jewish connection.

When Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world in 1557 his quartermaster and navigator was Moses the Jew, from the Barbican, Plymouth.
Plymouth has hosted a synagogue since 1762, the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue still in regular use in the English-speaking world.  

In the 17th century Plymouth was the home of the Royal Navy and attracted business people and the whole industry that supported the ships. It also welcomed persecuted Jews from all over continental Europe.  They grew in numbers.

By 1745 the congregation was holding regular services in their homes and then in rented rooms. In 1759, they purchased land in the very centre of the city close by Plymouth’s historic Minster Church.  They were granted a lease which was held for them by a non-Jew, one Samuel Champion, as the legality of Jews holding leases was doubtful. The congregation bought the freehold in 1834.

The only major alteration to the building since its erection was the extension in 1864 of the Ladies Gallery with the addition of the North and South wings. The superb Baroque Holy Ark was most likely made in Holland, shipped and then assembled in the building.

Jewish Plymothians have contributed greatly to the life of the area. They assisted in the Volunteer Companies recruited in 1798 to repulse any Napoleonic invasion and also served with distinction in the two World Wars. They also worked in local government and supplied Mayors of Devonport, Torquay and a Lord Mayor of Plymouth.  

Miraculously, the synagogue suffered no major damage from the bombing of Plymouth during the Second World War.  The centre of Plymouth was all but totally destroyed.

The Community is independent and entirely self-financing, operating under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi. It is licensed to perform marriages.  It is small but active and very welcoming.  Caretaker is Jerry Sibley, who in 2007 had just retired from the Army, answered a recruitment advertisement for the position.  Over the years he has become part of the fabric of the synagogue.  Not Jewish, he is now very versed in many aspects of Judaism, and of course its links in Plymouth.  His tour of the building is enthralling.

Besides the Shul (Yiddish) synagogue what is also remarkable is the old Jewish cemetery on Plymouth Hoe along Lambhay Hill, within the City walls, and discovered by Jerry hidden away by undergrowth.  There is an audio trail of 16 tracks available, short stories of some of the people buried within the cemetery including its history and evolution.  The current Jewish cemetery is in the main Plymouth Gifford Park burial ground in a walled off enclave along the north-east side.

Finding the old forgotten cemetery was a momentous occasion for Gerry.  After a tipoff, research on Google Maps resulted in the possibilities of a long-lost burial ground.  He found the door which was locked.

Back in the synagogue Jerry asked around and was given an almost forgotten box of keys. Luckily one of them worked and the door scraped open to reveal a jungle of vegetation, interspersed with headstones.

“It was an amazing moment”, says Jerry. “The whole thing looked like a wild garden and because the hill in front of the door had been built up, there was a big drop before me — I had entered at the level of the tree branches!”

Volunteers helped to cut down the undergrowth and eventually the stones were revealed, showing that the earliest burials dated from 1744.

If you are on a cruise ship that is visiting Plymouth, the caretaker will make viewings  possible of the synagogue.  Tell the entertainments manager to put it in the ship’s daily programme.   

Plymouth is 200 miles from London by road via Bristol with an excellent variety of hotels and many, many interesting places to visit.  The Theatre Royal has an active programme, Dartmoor is not far away and once you pay to get access (the Tamer Bridge costs £2.60) you are into Cornwall and the Eden Project, the Gardens of Heligan, fishing villages and beaches. Great Westen offer trains from Paddington in just over three hours.   

Malcolm & Linda Ginsberg were met at the Pilgrim Steps off Ambassador Ambition by Jerry Sibley, a fine host.  Visitors are welcome at the synagogue by prior arrangement, and there are services Friday evenings and Saturday morning, but do check the website. Also please note that Plymouth Argle will be playing in the Championship next season (just), and will meet Luton Town, previously of the Premier League.




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