The Jews of South-West England
Thesis by Rabbi Bernard Susser
Jewish settlement in Devon and Cornwall, the two most South-Westerly counties of Great Britain, began in the remote mists of Biblical and Roman times. There was an officially recognized Jewish community in medieval Exeter until 1290 which is well-documented. Then the pages of Jewish history in the South-West are virtually blank for the next four centuries until individual Jews once again settled in sufficient numbers to coalesce and form independent Jewish Congregations, in Devon in the mid-eighteenth century and in Cornwall in the latter part of that century.
The Congregations were formed in the mold of contemporary English institutions, and thus were an early initiation for the ethno-centric immigrant on the road to acculturation and eventual assimilation. By and large, the indigenous population of the South-West accepted and even welcomed the immigrants - certainly the English-born Jew merged almost indistinguishably into the wider social scene.
Two factors, economic and religious, mainly determined the rise and decline of the four South-West Congregations, Falmouth and Penzance in Cornwall and Plymouth and Exeter in Devon. On the economic front, Jews came to the South-West when they could earn a better living there than elsewhere, in their heyday these four Congregations formed a significant proportion of Anglo-Jewry. When better opportunities arose elsewhere they emigrated to new pastures. At the same time religious considerations played their part. Jews who wished to abandon the observances of their faith, did so either formally by conversion to Christianity or, more usually, informally by simply living like their neighbours. In either case, they generally moved away from the four centres with established Jewish Congregations and synagogues. Jews who wished to retain their ancestral faith and its observances stayed close to the synagogue and their fellow Jews. When a Congregation became attenuated through emigration for economic reasons, religious factors came into play. If the Congregation could no longer provide a proper Jewish education for children, a Jewish social life for the young unmarrieds, regular synagogal services and a full provision of kasher food, observant Jews together with their families moved to larger communities where they could find these facilities. Jews who were prepared to compromise their religious observance and stayed behind rapidly became fully assimilated, and they or their children disappeared from the Jewish community.
To examine this rise and decline of Jewish communities in the South-West it will be necessary to investigate the areas of town settled by Jews, their numbers, demographic data, occupations, communal organization, as well as religious and cultural life. The slow process of assimilation will be examined in detail, describing the stagnation of the Exeter Congregation and the dissolution of the Falmouth and Penzance Congregations in the late nineteenth century and the steady decline of the Plymouth Congregation in the late twentieth century. Many provincial Anglo-Jewish Congregations in the nineteenth, and even more so in the twentieth, century have followed in the footsteps of the four South-West Congregations. The chapters which follow are a memorial to Anglo-Jewish life in the provinces which is fast vanishing from all but a handful of British cities.
[Webmaster's comment regarding reformatting: The pages of Rabbi Susser's thesis appear to have be taken from the original using an OCR method. Although we are endevouring to rectify the document, a number extraneous letters and symbols still remain, certain text (in particularly some tables) still require deciphering and reformatting and two parts (Chapter 2, Part 3 and Chapter 3, Part 2) are currently blank.]
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