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A Short History

by Rev. Bernard Susser, B.A., O.C.F.

It is difficult to determine the terminus quo of a Jewish Community. Does it start from the time that the first Jew settles in a district or the town? Or should we rather not reckon when the first service with a Minyan is held in somebody's front room? Perhaps it ought rather to be from the time that a purchase, invariably a "House of Life" as the cemetery is euphemistically styled, is made in the joint names of the incipient Congregation? That there was a regular Minyan held in Plymouth prior to 1745 is attested by the evidence of a Silver Pointer, dated by Joseph Sherrenbeck as "here in Plymouth 1745." When one considers that the old cemetery on the Hoe was probably in use as early as 1744 when it was already in the possession of Sarah, wife of Joseph Sherrenbeck, it appear almost certain that there was a properly organised community lacking only a permanent House of Worship. In April, 1762 the Mayor and Corporation leased a parcel of land with certain buildings on it to a Samuel Champion who held it in trust for Sherrenbeck and for Gumpert Michael Emden "Elders of the Synagogue" who had "purchased the buildings at their sole expense."

By now the Community must have numbered some thirty to fifty families, and plans went ahead to find the finances to pay for the Shool. On the 3rd of September, 1762, Elizabeth Avent, of Plympton St. Mary, advanced a Mortgage on the security of the land and the buildings which had been on it when the Mayor granted the lease in April. The loan was for £300, and an express condition was that Sherrenbeck and Emden had to enter into a penal bond to repay just double £6, if the original sum was not paid back with lawful interest within 12 months. A start had been made already on the Shool buildings, for the deed recounts that the mortgage had been granted "to enable the said Joseph Jacob Sherrenbeck and Gumpert Michael Emden to complete the buildings, edifices and erections now building and erecting thereon and which is designed for a Jewish Synagogue .... for persons professing Judaism."

The mortgage hung like a millstone around the necks of the founders. Although payments were made over the years, in 1770 there was still £336 outstanding, and a new mortgage was raised to pay off the executors of Mrs. Avent, and one Christopher Harris agreed "to advance £22 on the security of the Synagogue and £150 on the joint bond of Lyon Homberg, Hyam Lazarus, Abraham Joseph, Henry Hart and nine other persons professing the Jewish religion." Sherrenbeck, Homberg and Lazarus signed this deed, the latter in Hebrew characters. A schedule of items contained in the Synagogue at that time reads: "One altar and one tabernacle, three large brass chandeliers, 8 large brass Candlesticks, 5 sets of the five Books of Moses engrossed on parchment in Hebrew language, one clock, seats or chairs and other furniture." A note records that "three of the scrolls are the sole property of Joseph Jacob Sherrenbeck, one belongs to Henry Nathan, Shopkeeper of Stoke Damerel and one to Abraham Joseph and are not intended to be sold .... but remain the property of the said gentlemen."

By 1780 they had paid over £500 and there was still a large debt hanging over their heads, and it appears that this was only cleared when a few years later Abraham Joseph shouldered the debt himself. It was probably to mark this event that a silver shield, still affixed to the walls of the Shool was made and inscribed with the names of the nine men who had seen the work through: "And the work was finished on the 4th of Sivan, 5584," that is on 24th May, 1784. But the work was hardly completed, when it was necessary to paint and refurbish.

The first major restoration of the Synagogue was in 1805, and those who gave donations to the fund, had their names recorded on a parchment which is exhibited in the Synagogue. 87 subscribers promised £141, and though most of the Donors came from Plymouth, some came from Exeter, London, Basingstoke, Bristol and Portsmouth. The amount was either not paid, or the bill was rather more than expected, because the Yiddish minutes reveal that in 1806, the Congregations still owed the builders £120, and was forced to sell some of its securities to pay the debt.

From that time until this very day, almost every decade the Synagogue has been cleaned and repaired, painted and decorated. Every fifty years or so there has been a major attempt to improve the amenities or to restore the condition of the Synagogue. Just a century ago, Leon Solomon "unsolicited enlarged the (ladies') gallery, painted and redecorated the Synagogue at his sole expense." This worthy man, father of 22 children, lived at Dawlish, where he occupied the largest house and employed his own Shochet. One of his sons went to America and changed his name to Simpson, his son married Wallace, who eventually became the Duchess of Windsor.

A striking ceremony of re-consecration after extensive renovation took place in 1910, when the Revs. Jacobs and Slavinsky led fourteen elders of the Congregation into the Shool, carrying the sacred Scrolls of the Torah. At that time the ladies' gallery was again enlarged, electric light was installed and the ark was painted in red and gold.

Two world wars and more than half a century have passed since then, the ravages of war and time have been repaired and today we once again follow the tradition of our predecessors and prepare to restore our House of God to its glory as in days of old and as in ancient years.

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First published on JCR-UK: December 2003
Latest revision or update to this page: 7 August 2014



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