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Plymouth and it's Jewish Community by Elkan Levy

Starting with Moses the Jew, Drake’s navigator on his circumnavigation of the globe, English Jews have always had an affinity with the Navy. From the beginning of the Georgian period, ships and supplying them, and acting as Navy agents to collect the prize money, became associated with Jews. Among the earliest provincial communities therefore were Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Chatham – Portsmouth at one time was the largest provincial community in England.

All these communities still exist and flourish. Plymouth indeed still uses its original synagogue in Catherine Street in the heart of the city. First opened in 1762, it is the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in Britain and holds the European record of nearly 250 unbroken years of use.

The synagogue itself, listed as Grade II*, is uniquely beautiful and is renowned amongst both Jews and non-Jews for its peaceful and spiritual ambience. Like all Georgian synagogues it is quite small and is situated very discreetly. The entrance is round the back, and to this day there is nothing on the frontage to Catherine Street that indicates what is the function or nature of the building.

The joints used in woodwork of the Synagogue, the panelling, the seating, and the Bimah (Central platform), are typical of naval construction of the period and show that the shul was built by craftsmen from the dockyard The carpentry has a dignity that speaks of the skill used by the workmen. It is possible to look at the railings around the Bimah and imagine that one is looking at the stern of one of Nelson’s warships.

The Holy Ark however was brought over from the Netherlands in parts and assembled on site –a sort of Georgian flat-pack! A marvellous classical confection of white and gold, it stands in sharp contract to the plain wood of the rest of the building.

The community has always participated fully in both civic and naval life; at one time there were minyan rooms – small branch synagogues –in both Devonport and Stonehouse, although the members of those branch shuls had to join with the main community on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur “cheerfully”.

The supply of uniforms to the ratings was a business with significant Jewish involvement. At one time a large naval outfitter owned by a member of the Plymouth community and based in Devonport had branches in Portsmouth, Chatham, Gibraltar and Malta.

The prayer for the King, affixed to the wall of the synagogue, has a text that is unique. Fittingly for a city closely connected with military and naval life, it asks God to “raise and remount the planet of his said Majesty’s arms, that his enemies may fall under his feet” – I always use that text when I take the service at Plymouth.

The heavy bombing attacks in WW2 destroyed most of the centre of Plymouth; all that survived were the Synagogue, the church across the road, and the Guildhall around the corner, although they were badly damaged while the shul was almost untouched.

The Plymouth community is warm and inclusive, and welcomes everyone to its services and activities. Services are held every Friday evening at 18.00 and every Shabbat morning at 10.00