Earliest Times to the Middle Ages
There is a long-standing connection between the Jewish people and the city of Exeter. Although the possibility of a Jewish presence in Roman Isca Dumnoniorum must at present remain conjecture, we are on firm ground as regards the existence of a Jewish community in the Middle Ages. The first Jew is mentioned in records in 1181, and the community flourished, with its own synagogue and burial ground, until hostility grew, leading to the anti-Jewish rulings of the Synod of Exeter in 1287, and culminating in the expulsion of the entire English Jewish community in 1290.
The Return of the Jewish Community in the 18th Century
After a lapse of over four hundred years, the first Jew known to have settled in Exeter in modern times was Jacob Monis, a native of Padova in Italy, who advertised his services in 1724 as a teacher of Hebrew, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. The first indications of the beginnings of communal life came around the same time with the establishment of a snuff business by the Italian Gabriel Treves. He was joined in his successful venture by his nephew Joseph Solomon Ottolenghi, who found employment as a shochet and as a teacher of Hebrew and Italian. It was the scandalous row between these two which led in 1735 to the publication of a series of tracts that incidentally provide some information about the embryonic community.
The Burial Ground
A number of other Jews began to settle in Exeter at that period, including several of German origin following the accession of the Hanoverians to the throne of England. By 1757 the community was sufficiently organised to take the lease of the Burial ground at Bull Meadow that is still used and maintained by the community, though it is believed that the cemetery was already in use some thirty years previously.
The Building of the Synagogue
On 5th November 1763 Abraham Ezekiel and Kitty Jacobs obtained a lease for a 'parcel of ground in the parish of St Mary Arches' on which the present Exeter Synagogue was built. The ceremony marking the opening of the synagogue on 10th August, 1764, has fortunately (and fortuitously) been recorded. The Ezekiel family continued to lead and support the community for some seventy-five years. In 1815 a special benefit service was held in the Synagogue for the Devon and Exeter Hospital, which also received legacies from individual members. Other special services took place at the coronation of George IV in 1821, and at the death of Prince Albert in 1862.
The Decline of the Community
The community was never large: in 1842 there were about thirty families, some 175 individuals, and throughout the nineteenth century the community declined in numbers. Some, like the Solomons family, moved to London; others went to Australia and America to make their fortunes. In 1855 there were only twenty contributing families, and by 1878 less than ten. The community reached its lowest ebb with the abandonment of regular services in 1889, but six years later it was revived by Charles Samuels, founder of the picture framing business that survived in Goldsmith Street until the 1990s. He remained the community's leader until his death in 1944, as is recorded in a plaque in the synagogue.
Repairs to the Synagogue
The synagogue was enlarged, refurbished and reorientated in 1835, and again restored in 1854. It was once again extensively restored in 1905 through the generosity of the Hoffnung family, descendants of a former minister of the congregation. The synagogue was repaired after receiving damage during the Second World War, and was extensively restored in 1980, with replacement of the rear seating that had been damaged by damp and infestation, and reconstruction of the first floor, lost during the war. During 1998 the synagogue underwent a major restoration with the help of English Heritage, principally of the historic Ark, but also replacing the wall panelling and installing central heating. Costing £150,000 it has restored the building to its full splendour.
The Revival of the Community
Regular services were revived in 1980, and now take place twice each month, on the High Holydays, and on some festivals, with regular parties for Purim and Hannukah, and a communal seder on the second night of Pesach. The congregation now has some sixty members, and many more are involved in the community, covering Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. Although comparatively small in numbers, it maintains an active religious and cultural life, and takes a special pride in the outreach work that it does.
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