Thanet Synagogue Trail

Jewish Kent goes Seaside Shul Shlepping

Oh we do like to be beside the seaside - ---

And we and our many fellow day trippers had a lovely day out on October 14th 2007. Going to a synagogue when the sun for once has got its hat on and the sea is glittering blue, is not everybody’s idea of a good day out and as for going to three… Well it turned out to be a treat of a day, educationally, socially and recreationally.

This latest Jewish Kent event billed as the Thanet Synagogue Trail kicked off in Ramsgate at the Thanet & District Reform synagogue. Tea, coffee and homemade cake courtesy of Hazel Fischer and Kay Levy, made for an ideal Sunday morning introduction to this very intimate shul, which when formed we came under the wing of Bromley Reform Synagogue and in particular David Barnet. Rabbinical input was firstly by David Freeman and then by Sylvia Rothschild. Godfrey Fischer welcomed us with an interesting address on the history of the town, some of its notable persons and the development of the synagogue. I now know that thanks to the enthusiastic welcome also given to an earlier visitor to the town, George IV, that Ramsgate has Britain’s only Royal Harbour. The splendid Bimah and Ark were recycled from Derby synagogue when it closed. One could only speculate the bafflement if the enterprising members returning south with their prize had been stopped by the law and asked “well then what have you got in the back of your van?” and they’d replied  “Oh nothing in a particular – just an old ark” .The community justifiably cherish their sefer torah that originated from Klatovy in the Czech republic. The value of this was reflected in a most moving and poignant slide presentation made of a visit to Kaltovy documenting the few traces that still remain of the once thriving Jewish community and the cruel fate that befell its members.

After taking the opportunity to admire the religious themed artwork of Mark Negin (unfortunately all postcards currently out of stock) and another local artist Albert Sincalair who we were to meet up with in person later in the day, it was time to collect a comprehensive set of direction and a brief introduction to map reading by Ian Smiler. So equipped we headed off to our next destination, the famous Montefiore synagogue and mausoluem. This is somewhere I’ve long wanted to see and truth be told the initial reason why I’d personally welcomed the idea of this event.

The Montefiore synagogue is named after wealthy philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, who owned it and who was buried at the site in 1885.

Sir Moses, who died at the age of 101 and his wife, Judith are buried in the synagogue's mausoleum.

Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) was a towering figure of Victorian England, renowned locally, nationally and internationally. The grandson of wealthy Sephardi London merchants he retired from the Stock Exchange a rich man to devote his life to philanthropy. He gave generously locally: his mayoral gold chain features the letter “mem” and .is still worn by Ramsgate mayors.

He first came to Ramsgate in 1812 on his honeymoon with his wife Judith Cohen, sister-in-law to Nathan Rothschild. In 1831, he purchased East Cliff Lodge with its grounds, now George VI Park. The pious Montefiores immediately decided to build a synagogue as a private `chapel' on their estate and they hired a cousin, David Mocatta, to design it. He was the first Anglo-Jewish architect, a pupil of Sir John Soane and architect for railway stations on the Brighton Line.

A striking external feature is the clock, an unusual feature for synagogues (the most famous being that on Prague's baroque Jewish Town Hall). It is inscribed in English with the motto TIME FLIES. VIRTUE ALONE REMAINS. This chiming clock is the only example in an English Synagogue.

Internally the synagogue is a delight to the eye especially on such a sunny day as this. It’s beautifully proportioned and ornately decorated, which as one of our party remarked manages to be just on the right side of being t.t.t

External light came originally through a lantern of clear and red glass set on the octagonal dome roof, a very Regency feature, and by a tiny window over the Ark. Later on windows were introduced at the gallery level.

The synagogue is still lit by candles in their original splendid brass chandeliers.

We were all pleased to hear that the synagogue is still used on an occasional basis and in fact a wedding had only just recently been celebrated there.

The Mausoleum next to the Synagogue is a replica of Rachel's Tomb, on the road to Bethlehem, which Lady Montefiore had had repaired in 1839. David Mocatta was commissioned by Sir Moses to build this mausoleum for his childless wife who predeceased him.

The Montefiores lie side by side in brick vaults covered by tombs of Aberdeen marble. As is traditional the tombs face east towards Jerusalem dimly illuminated by a small stained-glass skylight. The inscription is from the last verse of `Adon Alom''.

:                 Within Thy hand I lay my soul

                 Both when I sleep and when I wake

                 And with my soul my body too,

                 My Lord is close I shall not fear

Of current interest is the squabble over development of the open land around about which was given by Sir Moses to benefit the town. Did he have in mind housing development when he made his bequest?

From Ramagate it was but another short test of our navigation skills to find our way to the home of the Margate Hebrew Congregation. This impressive brick built synagogue in the Clliftonville area traces its construction back to the heyday of Cliftonville as a place to holiday. As the congregation numbers have declined the sanctuary has been cleverly foreshortened to make a function room and it was here that we were welcomed by David Gradus on behalf of the congregation and then served with a fine sandwich and more excellent cake lunch organized by Jacqueline Gradus. This shul has a number of interesting features including a splendid ark with seating to suit the chief rabbi but I was struck by the bimah which incorporates a built in donation letter box on one side and with steps onto it surmounted by welcoming pineapples which double up as sefer torah “bell” holders. 

So having enjoyed the hospitality of two communities we departed in a mellow mood. Gladdened by this practical demonstration of how Jews of different hue can enjoy each others company, a short stroll along the cliff top seemed to be just the thing followed by an ice cream in Broadstairs and then home with a short interlude in Ramsgate to admire their Royal Harbour.   

My personal thanks go to the organizers and helpers who made this well supported Jewish Kent event such a success. I look forward to the next one and hopefully a few more attendees from Bromley.RS

Toby Allin
Bromley Reform Synagogue

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Jewish Kent - Website last updated 18 March 2014