The Jewish Community of Exeter
Earliest Times to the MiddleAges
There is a long-standing connection between the Jewish people andthe city of Exeter. Although the possibility of a Jewish presence inRoman Isca Dumnoniorum must at present remain conjecture, we are onfirm ground as regards the existence of a Jewish community in theMiddle Ages. The first Jewis mentioned in records in 1181, and the community flourished, withits own synagogue and burial ground, until hostility grew, leading tothe anti-Jewish rulings of the Synod of Exeter in 1287, andculminating in the expulsion of the entire English Jewish communityin 1290.
The Return of the JewishCommunity in the 18th Century
After a lapse of over four hundred years, the first Jew known tohave settled in Exeter in modern times was JacobMonis, a native of Padova in Italy, who advertised his servicesin 1724 as a teacher of Hebrew, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. Thefirst indications of the beginnings of communal life came around thesame time with the establishment of a snuff business by the ItalianGabriel Treves. He was joined in his successful venture by his nephewJoseph Solomon Ottolenghi,who found employment as a shochet and as a teacher of Hebrew andItalian. It was the scandalous row between these two which led in1735 to the publication of a series of tracts that incidentallyprovide some information about the embryonic community.
A number of other Jews began to settle in Exeter at that period,including several of German origin following the accession of theHanoverians to the throne of England. By 1757 the community wassufficiently organised to take the lease of the Burial ground at BullMeadow that is still used and maintained by the community, though itis believed that the cemetery was already in use some thirty yearspreviously.
The Building of theSynagogue
On 5th November 1763 Abraham Ezekiel and Kitty Jacobs obtained alease for a 'parcel of ground inthe parish of St Mary Arches' on which the present Exeter Synagoguewas built. The ceremony marking the opening of the synagogue on 10thAugust, 1764, has fortunately (and fortuitously) been recorded. TheEzekiel family continued to lead and support the community for someseventy-five years. In 1815 a special benefit service was held in theSynagogue for the Devon and Exeter Hospital, which also receivedlegacies from individual members. Other special services took placeat the coronation of George IV in 1821, and at the death of PrinceAlbert in 1862.
The Decline of theCommunity
The community was never large: in 1842 there were about thirtyfamilies, some 175 individuals, and throughout the nineteenth centurythe community declined in numbers. Some, like the Solomons family,moved to London; others went to Australia and America to make theirfortunes. In 1855 there were only twenty contributing families, andby 1878 less than ten. The community reached its lowest ebb with theabandonment of regular services in 1889, but six years later it wasrevived by Charles Samuels, founder of the picture framing businessthat survived in Goldsmith Street until the 1990s. He remained thecommunity's leader until his death in 1944, as is recorded in aplaque in the synagogue.
Repairs to theSynagogue
The synagogue was enlarged, refurbished and reorientatedin 1835, and again restored in1854. It was once again extensively restored in 1905 through thegenerosity of the Hoffnung family, descendants of a former ministerof the congregation. The synagogue was repaired after receivingdamage during the Second World War, and was extensively restored in1980, with replacement of the rear seating that had been damaged bydamp and infestation, and reconstruction of the first floor, lostduring the war. During 1998 the synagogue underwent a majorrestoration with the help of English Heritage, principally of thehistoric Ark, but also replacing the wall panelling and installingcentral heating. Costing £150,000 it has restored the buildingto its full splendour.
The Revival of theCommunity
Regular services were revived in 1980, and now take place twiceeach month, on the High Holydays, and on some festivals, with regularparties for Purim and Hannukah, and a communal seder on the secondnight of Pesach. The congregation now has some sixty members, andmany more are involved in the community, covering Devon, Cornwall andSomerset. Although comparatively small in numbers, it maintains anactive religious and cultural life, and takes a special pride in theoutreach work that it does.
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