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Oldest Synagogue in English-Speaking World Holds 250th Anniversary Celebration

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The Jewish community in Plymouth, England, assembled last week to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the opening of its local synagogue.

According to media sources, The Plymouth Synagogue is the oldest shul in the English-speaking world, and has conducted Ashkenazi services uninterruptedly during its more than two centuries of existence.
A number of prominent British officials visited the synagogue to celebrate its anniversary. The Lord Lieutenant of Devon—a large county located in southwestern England, to which Plymouth belongs— and the Devon High Sheriff, representing the Queen; the chief rabbi and the president of the United Synagogues; and the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews were among the officials present to honor the synagogue’s enduring commitment to servicing local Jews in Plymouth and beyond.

Jews originally settled in the English city in the eighteenth century; Plymouth’s synagogue first opened doors to worshippers in 1762. Most of its founding members were of Dutch and German origin, according to a local news report.

The synagogue has had its share of challenges over the years; it was one of the few Plymouth buildings to survive the Nazi Blitz during World War II. Generally, though, the shul has remained intact and relatively unaltered in its last 150 years, the Jewish Chronicle reported.

The Plymouth Synagogue’s honorary secretary, Anne Kelly, called the celebration held in the sanctuary’s honor “absolutely fantastic, brilliant”. She elaborated on some of the other notable figures who came to the event, and mentioned a few of the activities that took place to commemorate Plymouth’s years of service.

“I’ve had so many e-mails and messages from people saying what a wonderful, memorable event it was,” Kelly told the Plymouth Herald. “The Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress have been extremely good supporters, and it was wonderful to have the Lord Lieutenant attend. We also had Oliver Colvile MP attend and a number of councillors along with 150 other guests.”

“The Chief Rabbi [Lord Sacks] came as well and took part in the service,” Kelly continued. “He gave it a magical touch and it was very moving religiously. We had afternoon tea at the Holiday Inn and many said they were able to catch up with people they had not seen in many years.”

Members of the Plymouth community have toiled to preserve the synagogue and its services over the years, and, for many of them, the celebration served as a form of acknowledgement and appreciation from the outside communities.

“I’m extremely proud to see [the shul] full today,” David Rappaport, who frequents the synagogue, told the Jewish Chronicle. “It’s like having the family come to visit. We feel very isolated down here, but aren’t Jews isolated everywhere?”

Rappaport added that the celebration had come at a pivotal time for Plymouth’s Jewish community, as the synagogue has struggled to continue providing services in recent years.

“Oh my word, we’re mixing with the bigwigs today,” he added while reflecting on the commemoration.  “I can’t believe how many people are here. I try to come every Friday night. It’s very difficult and we don’t always get a minyan.”

Today, The Plymouth Synagogue hires visiting clergy to accommodate its roughly 100 congregants.

“It’s very sad,” Rappaport finished.

The synagogue in Exeter—another city located in Devon County— is scheduled to hold its 250th anniversary celebration next year.

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