Chatham Memorial Synagogue
Built in 1861 by Simon Magnus, in memory of his son Lazarus,
on the site of an even older Synagogue, Chatham Memorial Synagogue is the home
of the Jewish community in mid and north Kent. Although we are a small
provincial community with limited financial resources, we hold regular services
for Shabbat and festivals as well as social and cultural events.
A Venerable Jewish Community in Kent
The Medway Jewish Community, which serves a large part of Kent, is centred on the Chatham Memorial Synagogue, situated in Rochester High Street, whose beautiful baroque interior is becoming known to the wider Jewish community, with the growing popularity of group outings, visiting historic Kent centres, such as the Ramsgate home of Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore, Canterbury, Chatham Dockyard and Chatham Memorial Synagogue.
The Chatham community is one of the oldest in this country, being nearly three hundred years old. Hobbes, in his "Reminiscences of Seventy Years", quotes that as early as the twelfth century there were families of Jews in the area; the present writer has seen an uncorroborated reference in local archives to a plea for shelter to the lord of Rochester castle, in about 1180, Jewish families then being allowed to live for some months in the outer parts of the castle, which are no longer in existence, only the keep and moat now remaining.
The Encyclopaedia Judaica records that, at the entrance to the cathedral chapter house, there is a fine specimen of the conventional medieval carvings representing Church and Synagogue, the latter as a dejected, blindfolded female, bearing a broken staff and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
Chatham and Rochester have been major ports for hundreds of years, with ships trading to and from Baltic, North European and Low Countries ports, so it was not unnatural for Jews, on arrival in this country, as religious or economic refugees, to settle in the immediate area, even if only transiently.
It seems likely that the community assumed some importance during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when some members were listed as Naval, or Admiralty, Agents, deriving profit from the purchase of prize money shares from Royal Naval ships' crews, when captured enemy vessels were sold off, as recorded in Geoffrey L. Green's book, "The Royal Navy and Anglo-Jewry, 1740 - 1820". Amongst those listed for Chatham, Lazarus Magnus and his son, Simon Magnus (builder of the present synagogue) both appear. When the practice ceased, these people tended to become ships' chandlers, or military tailors, some of their companies still being in existence today, in naval dockyard ports. However, the Naval Agents were not the only members to benefit the wider community over the years:
Rochester Guildhall museum has a number of exhibits of Jewish interest, including a heavy gold mayoral chain and signet bracelet, donated by Lewis Levy, who was elected to that office twice, in the mid nineteenth century. Again, in the old cemetery behind the Synagogue, an ornate memorial records the achievements of Daniel Bamard, who owned theatres and music halls in Chatham, Dartford and London and who, amongst other benefactions, founded Chatham Fire Brigade. The Bamard family were responsible for early music halls country wide.
The present Synagogue replaced an earlier building on roughly the same site, which was referred to in Bagshaw's Street Directory of Chatham, dated 1847, as being ".......a small building of brick and wood, about one hundred years old, with a clock, visible from the High Street, noteworthy for having a face with Hebrew characters". Recent research has unearthed a property transfer, or purchase, document, dated March 1750 relating to the purchase of that earlier building, "for the purpose of making a synagogue of the Jews". The original synagogue was of Polish timber design.
The record books of the Synagogue, now kept in the recently built, special-to-purpose, Rochester Archive Study Centre, go back only to 1790 and the earliest decipherable gravestone in the old cemetery is dated about that time. It is worthy of note that a combination of synagogue and cemetery is rare. Some of the graves are certainly older than 1790 and a clearly incised half stone dated 1747, is stored in Rochester Museum, having been found in the foundations of an old theatre, which was pulled down in the 1930's. An interesting gravestone is of one. Abraham Abrahams, who was executed in 1819, for what crime is not clear in the records.
Simon Magnus had the present synagogue built as a memorial to his son, Captain Lazarus Simon Magnus. It was formally opened and consecrated in 1869. The site was in an unadopted area between the two towns, referred to on old maps as "Chatham Intra", or "Chatham Without", which was taken into Rochester about ten years after the building opened. The land originally belonged to the Trustees of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, which was founded by Bishop Gundulph (or Gandolf) in about 1090, after building Rochester Castle (to the instructions of William the Conqueror) starting to build Rochester Cathedral and designing the Tower of London. When the freehold was purchased by Simon Magnus, he was not allowed to buy the freehold of a strip of ground, one yard wide, running up the west side of the plot, which purported to be the passageway used by lepers and other incurables. between the river landing place opposite the- plot and the hospital. The rent of that strip is now 5p per annum, payment of which is, of course, a legal necessity, although any lepers landing there now would have to negotiate a high brick wall between the cemetery and the hospital!
Hobbes mentions that the cost of the Synagogue, Minister's house (now demolished) land and endowments amounted to nearly £10,000. In its day the building, designed by the well known ecclesiastical architect, Hyman Collins, was considered to be a structure of outstanding beauty and was described as such by the local press and national architectural records. To quote, "The Synagogue proper is at first sight awe-striking in its beauty and richness of colour. Lovely tinted windows, beautiful green and red marble (scaglio) pillars". Despite this, a letter in a contemporary local newspaper bemoans the lack of worshippers, some fifteen years after its opening! "Plus "ca change ..........."? Recently, the original decor was restored by the good offices of the parents of a local barmitzvah, with the help of English Heritage.
Captain Lazarus Magnus was a highly respected man, active in local and communal affairs. He was a captain in the 4th. Kent Artillery Volunteers, a member of the Board of Management of the Synagogue, a director of the Chatham Railway and a Mayor of Queenborough, a town on the Isle of Sheppey (apparently as a mark of gratitude for his having been instrumental in bringing the railway to Sheerness and Queenborough). He died accidentally, at the early age of thirty nine years, when he was still unmarried.
His grave memorial dominates the cemetery and it is conditional in the Deed of Trust that it shall always be visible from the road. A beautiful Memorial Book, handwritten in classical Hebrew, dated 5595 (c.1835) includes a list of earlier benefactors to be prayed for when Yizkor is recited. Amongst others, it is possible to read the Hebrew names of Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore, who were (and, indeed, their descendants still are) inter-related by marriage with the Magnus family.
When it became necessary, around 1972, to incorporate a classroom and social hall into the building, the Trust Deed condition concerning visibility of the Magnus Memorial caused some difficulty. However, the Charity Commissioners were good enough to arrange for a Parliamentary Bill to vary the Deed, by allowing the new social hall to be built across the sight line of the Memorial, whilst maintaining the spirit of the Deed. By this time the Minister's house had been condemned and had to be demolished and, since a benefactor provided large quantities of glass, the architect was able to incorporate large windows in the new building, leaving the Memorial still visible from the High Street.
The community has no resident minister at present but is fortunate in having capable lay readers, who officiate at services, together with occasional visits from the Minister for Small Communities, the Rev. Malcolm Weisman, O.B.E. Since the former Orthodox communities of Gravesend, Sheerness and Canterbury ceased to exist, the Chatham Memorial Synagogue has become the only Orthodox one in mid-Kent. Members are drawn from a large area, although the majority live in the pleasant environments of the Medway Towns and Maidstone. Newcomers are quickly drawn into taking an active part in communal affairs - a benefit of life in a small Jewish community! A friendly and co-operative spirit is also evident towards the Kent Liberal Jewish Community, which is based in Maidstone and some joint meetings and services are held with the small Jewish community, which was started in Canterbury, a few years ago.
The Ladies' Guild of the Synagogue has a long record of active service. One of the Synagogue museum pieces is a beautifully embroidered Reading Desk Torah cover, or section of a parochet (ark curtain) made to celebrate a wedding by the ladies of the earlier Shul, in a style of needlework called "stump work", popular in Kent and Northern France in the eighteenth century, which has a Hebrew date on it corresponding with about 1820. This hangs in the inner hall. An indication of the erudition of the ladies who embroidered it is given by the quotation from the book of Numbers incorporated in the design: where the original refers to men dominating women, this embroidery reverses the instruction and makes it women dominating men!
During the 1939/45 war years and later, during the time of National Service, hospitality was extended to the many Jewish forces personnel passing through the Medway Towns. In our own day, the ladies designed the Centenary Hall kitchen, to meet the criteria of the Beth Din and they ensure that the rules of Kashrut are strictly adhered to, in its use.
Members of this independent, Orthodox Jewish community continue to play an active part in local life, being District Judges, J.P's, school governors, Local councillors, chairing the local Racial Equality Council and Advisory Councils for Religious Education, amongst other activities. The writer and others address local schools and accept many school groups at the Synagogue, covering the whole county, including the outskirts of London, in accordance with current religious education curricula and carrying out teacher training to this end. As mentioned earlier, Jewish social groups are finding that a visit to Chatham Memorial Synagogue provides historic interest, as well as pleasant refreshment.
The essence of Judaism is strength through community life. Throughout its long history the Medway community has been small but vigorous and, as in the past, its present members possess the strong desire and intention to maintain this tradition by words and deeds.
"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
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