05 April 2024

Norwich Jewish community
has a 1960s synagogue
and a history that goes
back to the 11th century

Norwich Hebrew Congregation Synagogue on Earlham Road, opposite the Roman Catholic Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Throughout this week, I have been describing some of the cathedrals, churches, monastic sites and places of worship I visited during our short, brief visit to Norwich last week.

The principal synagogue in Norwich, Norwich Hebrew Congregation Synagogue, is on Earlham Road, across the street from Noriwch Roman Catholic Cathedral and just a three-five minute walk from Saint Giles House Hotel where we were staying last week.

At first, a pre-fabricated synagogue was built on the site, and it was in use from 1948. The communal hall, with a flat above to house the congregation’s minister, was built in 1951 and consecrated by then Chief Rabbi, Dr Israel Brodie.

Later a permanent synagogue was built on Earlham Road. This was completed in 1968 and it was consecrated on 16 October 1969 by the then Chief Rabbi, Dr Immanuel Jacobovits.

The mediaeval synagogue was in the city centre close to the castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Jewish presence in Norwich has a long and interesting history. The first synagogue in Norwich was founded in the 11th century. The mediaeval synagogue was in the city centre close to the castle, as the community, who mostly lived in the same area, was under the protection of the King’s representative.

Jurnet’s House, the 12th century Norwich home of a Jewish merchant Isaac Jurnet, is also known as ‘The Music House’. The Grade 1 listed building has fallen into disrepair but there are plans to renovate it as a centre for culture.

The first known ‘Blood Libel’ originated in Norwich in 1144 following the death of a Christian boy, William, in Thorpe Woods just before Passover. William of Norwich is the first known example of a mediaeval blood libel.

Following the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, there was no known Jewish community in Norwich until the mid-18th century.

There was a synagogue at No 2 Tombland Alley (the pink building), opposite Norwich Cathedral, from 1828 to 1848 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

There was a synagogue to the south-west of Norwich Castle in 1746, on an unmarked lane running from Hog Hill to Cheese and Hay Market. This was clearly marked as ‘The Jews New Synagogue and Schools’ on a 1746 map of Norwich by Francis Blomefield.

A number of locations have been identified for the synagogues in the 18th and early 19th centuries, including a large room in a house in Ber Street, in the district of Saint John de Sepulchre, where the first and oldest cemetery was situated; and a room in Gowing’s Court, Saint Stephen’s Street.

Continuous records for the Jewish community in Norwich date from 1813.

For 20 years, the synagogue was in Tombland Alley, opposite Norwich Cathedral, from 1828 to 1848. The building has been identified as 2 Tombland Alley, a restored 17th century building that was designated a Grade II Listed Building in 1972.

The synagogue built in 1849 was destroyed by a bomb in 1942 (Archival Photograph)

A site for a new synagogue on Synagogue Street, previously known as Saint Faith’s Lane, in Mountergate was bought for £150. The foundation stone for the new synagogue on a street corner was laid on 26 June 1848 by the president of the congregation, Joel Fox, and the services were conducted by Revd Simon Caro. The synagogue was consecrated on 6 September 1849 by the Chief Rabbi Dr Nathan Adler (1803-1890).

The Caro, Soman, Samuel, Jacobs and Haldinstein families are among the Jewish families who played major roles in the development of the city and Jewish community life in Norwich, and the Samuel family claim to have been resident in Norwich for many generations.

Michael Samuel (1799-1857) was the father of Benjamin Samuel, long-time treasurer and secretary of the Hebrew congregation. He in turn was the father of Sir Arthur Michael Samuel (1872-1942), who was the first Jewish Mayor or Lord Mayor of Norwich (1912-1913). He later became a Conservative MP and government minister, and was given the titles of baronet and, in 1937 a peerage as Lord Mancroft.

For a short time in the 1940s, Jewish services were held temporarily in the Spiritualist Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

During the Norwich Blitz in World War II, the synagogue was destroyed in a German air raid in 1942. After that, Jewish services were held temporarily in the Spiritualist Church on Chapel Field North, off Theatre Street, until the congregation moved to Earlham Road.

The bones of 17 people, including 11 children, were discovered in the remains of a well in Norwich in 2004 when the Chapelfield Shopping Centre was being built.

After long negotiations, the bones were buried in the Jewish cemetery in Norwich in 2014. Jewish and Christian clergymen participated, in recognition that despite DNA testing establishing markers consistent with Ashkenazi Jews, their identity could not be conclusively proven. There is a plaque to their memory at the Chapelfield Shopping Centre, Norwich.

Inside Norwich Synagogue (Sarah Toon Photography/Smith of Honingham)

The Revd Daniel Rosenthal has been the resident part-time minister of the Norwich Hebrew Congregation since 2013. He had previously held positions in Hackney Synagogue, now Hackney and East London Synagogue, Mill Hill Synagogue, London, and the Yeshurun Hebrew Congregation, Cheadle.

The Jewish congregation in Norwich is the last remaining Orthodox-based congregation in East Anglia. Services are held each Shabbat morning and are traditional in style, using the Singer’s Prayer Book. The service commences at 10 am and is followed by a Kiddush. All Jewish festivals are celebrated and there is a communal Seder each year.

The communal Seder last year took place at the Sainsbury Centre in the University of East Anglia, when the Lord Mayor of Norwich, Councillor Kevin Maguire, made an apology to the Jews of Norwich for the persecution of the Jews in the city in mediaeval times.

An ambitious plan by the shul ‘Visions of a Jewish Community and Heritage Centre for Norwich’ raised funds to refurbish the communal building, create new access, and develop a visitor centre to tell the history of Jewish Norwich.

Today, Norwich has two active Jewish congregations. Norwich Liberal Jewish Community is a diverse and growing community of Jews in Norwich and East Anglia. Dr Hannah Marije Altorf, the student rabbi since 2022, is undertaking rabbinic studies at Leo Baeck College, London. She is also a research fellow at the Iris Murdoch Centre in the University of Chichester.

The Jewish congregation in Norwich is the last remaining Orthodox-based congregation in East Anglia (Photograph: Norwich Synagogue/Facebook)

One of the most curious rabbis, if not the most controversial rabbi, in the history of the Jewish community in Norwich – and one with an Irish connection – is Michael Solomon Alexander (1799-1845), who was attached to the Norwich Hebrew Congregation from 1821 to 1823.

He was born in Schönlanke (now Trzcianka) in Poland, the son of a rabbi, and became a shochet and a teacher. He came to England around 1819, and worked as a teacher in Colchester before he was appointed as minister and reader for the Norwich Hebrew Congregation in 1821. Later he served in the Jewish communities in Nottingham and Plymouth.

Alexander left the congregation in Plymouth abruptly in 1825, converted to Christianity, and was baptised on 22 June 1825 in Saint Andrew’s Church, across the street from Plymouth synagogue. His wife converted six months later and they then moved to Dublin, where he taught Hebrew and became secretary of the Irish branch of the London Jews’ Society.

Archbishop William Magee persuaded Alexander to train for ordination, and he was 28 when he was ordained deacon on Trinity Sunday 1827 in Saint Ann’s Church, Dublin, a mere two years after his baptism. He preached his first sermon that evening in Sandford Church, Ranelagh.

Alexander was ordained priest by Charles Dalrymple Lindsay, Bishop of Kildare and Dean of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin, in December 1827. Although TCD would later confer an honorary doctorate (DD) on him, he did not remain in Dublin. He worked as a missionary among Jews, first in Danzig (1827-1830), and then in London (1831-1841).

He was Professor of Hebrew at King’s College London (1832-1841) and helped the Revd Alexander McCaul (1799-1863) from Dublin of CMJ to revise the mission’s translation of the New Testament into Hebrew (1835) and to translate the Book of Common Prayer into Hebrew.

The British and Prussian Governments agreed with the Church of England and the Evangelical Church in Prussia in 1841 to establish a Protestant Bishopric in Jerusalem. Perhaps on McCaul’s suggestion, Alexander was appointed ‘Bishop of the United Church of England and Ireland in Jerusalem.’ He was ordained bishop at Lambeth Palace on 7 December 1841, when Alexander McCaul preached the sermon.

He arrived in Jerusalem in January 1842, but his three years in Jerusalem were marked by controversy. He antagonised both the local Jewish leadership and the leaders of the other major churches, who consolidated their presence in Jerusalem. However, he lived in Jerusalem for only three years, and died suddenly on Mount Sinai in 1845 while he was returning to England, and is buried at the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

Norwich Synagogue on Earlham Road was completed in 1968 and was consecrated in 1969 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Shabbat Shalom

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
6, 5 April 2024

Would we recognise Jesus on the shore early in the morning? (see John 21: 4) … the beach at Platanias near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are still in Easter Week, and the Easter celebrations continue in the Church Calendar.

Throughout this week, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some [fish]’ (John 21: 6) … a fishing boat with its nets at the harbour in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 21: 1-14 (NRSVA):

1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ 6 He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Beached … an old fishing boat on the sands at Platanias, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Friday 5 April 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Easter Day Reflection.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Dr Carlton John Turner, USPG Trustee.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (5 April 2024) invites us to pray:

We pray today for Carlton and all the USPG Trustees. May they continue to guide and lead USPG with wisdom and grace.

The Collect:

Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
grant that we, being dead to sin
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory;
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be praise and honour, glory and might,
now and in all eternity.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of Life,
who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son
to the death of the cross,
and by his glorious resurrection
have delivered us from the power of our enemy:
grant us so to die daily to sin,
that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his risen life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

God of glory,
by the raising of your Son
you have broken the chains of death and hell:
fill your Church with faith and hope;
for a new day has dawned
and the way to life stands open
in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

A fishing boat at the harbour in Panormos, east of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org