THE JEWS OF PLYMOUTH
In the South-West of England lies the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world, but just how old is this synagogue?
Plymouth’s stunningly beautiful Georgian synagogue was built in 1762 and is still in use as a place of worship by the Jewish community of the city.
The foundation of the community is older than its synagogue and dates to settlement around 1720. However there are earlier Jewish connections to Plymouth from Elizabethean Times.
Sir Francis Drakes’ navigator on the circumnavigation of the globe was someone called “Moses” the Jew. Whilst there may have been the occasional Jewish presence in Plymouth over the centuries, a worshipping community began in the 18th century. There was also another “minyan” in a make-shift synagogue in Devonport.
In the early 1700s, economic and trading opportunities brought Jews to Plymouth from Alsace, Rhineland and Bohemia. Others who settled in the city were Ashkenazi Jews who had fled the pogroms of Europe and the War of the Austrian Succession of 1740. Central Europe at that time was a pretty uncompromising place for Jews to live.
The European Renaissance had essentially confined the Jew to the Ghetto, with every kind of repression heaped upon them.
The tenacity and realism of Jewish philosophy and identity kept them alive and ironically, Jews emerged from these areas as virtually the only body of people possessed of a general education, able to read, write and do accounting. They came to Plymouth and were able to settle and thrive with no fear of discrimination or religious intolerance.
The Jews of Plymouth acquired a burial plot on the historic Hoe long before they were able to build a purpose-built place of worship in Catherine Street, near the Barbican.
Although they arrived from the 1720s, there was no known Jewish burial in the city until 1744 when a community member died and was buried in a private garden at Lambhay Green on the Hoe.
The garden was owned or leased by a prominent congregation member, Joseph Jacob Sherrenbeck, who held it in trust for his wife. The Sherrenbeck ‘garden cemetery’ was soon formally acquired by the community.
Its first burial in 1744 makes the cemetery the oldest extant Jewish burial ground in the South-West.
The city has a long history with its Jewish citizens and the Royal Navy, many of whom became ‘slopmen’ and Navy Agents.
From the port of Plymouth sailed Sir Alexander Schomberg (1720-1804), son of Meyer Schomberg, physician to the Great Synagogue in London. Schomberg commanded the frigate Diana at the capture of Quebec in 1759/60.
Midshipman Benjamin Da Costa fought aboard HMS Temeraire at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805; and Abraham Barrett served aboard HMS Vanguard at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. One of the first names on the Naval Memorial on the Hoe is that of Midshipman V. Schreiber who went down with the crew of HMS Monmouth at the Battle of Coronel in November 1914.
It is an incredibly rich history, and one which this books seeks to shed light on.