Fri 24 Mar 2017
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Baroque Holy Ark
The following history and description of the Synagogue are an edited version by Dr. Peter Lee, of text by the late Rabbi Dr. B. Susser z"tl, who was the last permanent Rabbi at the Synagogue. Additional information was contributed by our late Life President Benny Greenberg z’’l whose more detailed story is under the History tab.
The Jewish community settled in Plymouth in the mid 18th Century. Its members came from Central Europe, mainly Holland and Germany and stemmed from largely one family – of the name of Emden.
By 1745 they were holding regular services in their homes and then in rented rooms. In 1759, they planned this Synagogue and in 1762, 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 Plymouth Synagogue is the oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue still in use in the English speaking world.
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.
On entering the Synagogue, on the left and right hand side (North and South), you will see the original windows, which in the 20th Century received their stained glass. They celebrate the Three Pilgrim Festivals, New Year, Day of Atonement and the Sabbath. The two windows on either side of the Holy Ark at the East end were cut into the wall after 1874 and picture well known symbols of Judaism: the ram’s horn, the Ten Commandments, the Shield of David and a Chanukiah.
The superb Baroque Holy Ark was most likely made in Holland, shipped and then assembled in the Synagogue. At the top are two fine tablets with the first words of the Ten Commandments in front of which is the Everlasting Light reminding us that one lamp in the seven branched Menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem was always kept lit signifying the presence of the Lord. It is kept permanently lit. The Working Party on Jewish Monuments in the UK and Ireland stated in their 1999 publication that "…it is the only full-blooded Baroque Ark surviving in this country, complete with shadow painting of the Hebrew characters."
The Bimah is the platform from where services are conducted and has a large desk on which the Torah Scroll is unwound for reading during services. The brass candlesticks are original from 1762. We believe that the Bimah was made by artisans from Devonport Dockyard and the ornate woodturning and design of the seat are reminiscent of that seen on wooden sailing ships of the period. The joints are typical of eighteenth century naval craftsmen.
Jewish Plymothians have contributed greatly to the life of the area. They served in the Volunteer Companies recruited in 1798 to repulse any Napoleonic invasion and also served with distinction in the two World Wars. They also served 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 for which the Community is eternally grateful.
The Community is independent and entirely self-financing, operating under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi. It is licensed to perform marriages.
Services take place every Friday evening at 6pm and Saturday morning at 10am. All the major Festivals and High Holy Days are celebrated.
This II* listed building is renowned amongst both Jews and non-Jews for its peaceful and spiritual ambience.
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Plymouth Synagogue Windows
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