Earlier this week I took part in the 250th anniversary of one of our oldest synagogues, home of the Jewish community in Plymouth. It’s small and inconspicuous. One non Jewish visitor told me he’d walked down that street most days for a lifetime and didn’t know until then that there was a synagogue there. But once inside, you’re transported back through the centuries. The woodwork, crafted by local shipbuilders, would not have looked out of place in one of Nelson’s ships. And the architecture, impeccably Georgian, shows how much those first Plymouth Jews, mostly from Holland and Germany, wanted to blend in, to be as English as they could within the parameters of their faith.
And it seemed to me as I was sitting there that there’s a larger lesson in the history of the Plymouth Jewish community. It was never large, usually less than a hundred families, and yet for two and a half centuries they preserved their identity, handing on their faith to their children, while integrating with the wider society and contributing to it in every way they could.
In so doing they were honouring an ancient Jewish tradition that began 26 centuries ago. The Babylonians had conquered Israel, destroyed the Temple, and taken the people into exile. A famous psalm tells us how they felt. “By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” And it was then that the prophet Jeremiah sent them a letter telling them to settle down, raise families, and “seek the welfare of the city to which you have gone and pray to god on its behalf for in its peace, you will find peace,” the first time in history someone set out a vision of what it is to be a creative minority, not seeking to impose your views on others, living at peace with those whose faith and customs are different from your own.
As we witness the rise of extremist and anti-immigrant parties in Europe, I think we need to learn again to value the contributions our many faith communities make to Britain, and the importance of integrating them so that they can bring their unique heritages as gifts to the common good.
The simple principle is: be true to your faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith; and in my opinion, I think most minority communities would agree. The Jews of Plymouth have been doing that for two hundred and fifty years. And it works.