“The upward course of a nation’s history is due in the long run to the soundness of heart of its average men and women.” Queen Elizabeth II
Neighbours rushed to help after arson attack of Britain’s third oldest synagogue, Exeter Synagogue, just before 8pm on Saturday 21 July 2018. Staff members at a nearby bingo hall, Mecca, heard an explosion and used a fire extinguisher to battle the flames before the police and fire brigade showed up. Prompt response by the community limited the damage by a man who tried to ignite a fire by pouring inflammable substance into the building.
“Thankfully nobody was injured and the damage to the building was not extensive. We have been in regular contact with the synagogue and police since receiving that report and we are grateful to the emergency services for their swift action”, spokesperson for the Community Security Trust
Tristan Morgan, 51, ‘of no fixed abode’, was charged with arson with the intent of endangering life. He was later charged with offences under Terrorism legislation. He continues to be held on remand until the start of his trial, later this year.
Exeter Synagogue, like most eighteenth-century synagogues, is tucked away from the main thoroughfares of the old city, presumably as a security feature during its time of construction.
“Jews have been in Devon, almost continuously, since the Norman conquest and possibly even earlier. In the first period of Anglo-Jewish history that ended in the year 1290, Jews were involved in the Devon stannaries, and indeed some of the finance for the building of the great and beautiful Exeter Cathedral came from Jewish sources.
Following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 there were communities of secret Jews in Devon as there were in many parts of the kingdom. When Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the world in 1577 his navigator was Moses the Jew, from the Barbican in Plymouth.
Jews began to resettle in Exeter in Georgian times, and in 1763 they created the synagogue which from then and until today has served as the religious and social centre for the Jews of this great city. It is in fact the second oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in the United Kingdom, and in the English-speaking world.” Elkan Levy, former Minister of Small Jewish Communities.
Following recent events in the City and commentary nationally around hate crime, civic and faith leaders have jointly called for a positive response and renewed efforts to ensure even greater community cohesion through tolerance and mutual respect.
“We are grateful to the general community who safeguarded the Torah scrolls and the silver Torah ornaments during the months that the synagogue could not be used; the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral who made a room available for services in the immediate aftermath of the attack; the moral support that this congregation received from other religious groupings in Exeter; St Olave’s Court where the congregation met for some months; the support of the Town Council and the Mayor, and last but not least the members of the congregation who carried on during the difficult months of homelessness, and whose lives were so totally taken over by their concern for their synagogue and their community.” Elkan Levy
Statements by local religious leaders speak volumes about a compassionate community that cares for their neighbors.
President of the Synagogue, Mr Richard Halsey, “We live in a wonderful city that has demonstrated tolerance and support for each other at times of need. The response from the local community had been incredible. Both the Bishop of Exeter and Exeter Mosque have offered their full support.”
The Bishop of Exeter, Rt Rev’d Robert Atwell, “Tolerance and mutual respect are hallmarks of a civilised society, and I would implore everybody, regardless of their religion, to condemn any action that seeks to intimidate or harm others. Everybody should be free to practice their religion, and I ask Christians to stand in solidarity alongside our Jewish neighbours and people of all faiths.”
Exeter Mosque have reiterated that “We have offered our full support to the synagogue. We were shocked by what has happened, but events such as these should not change our view that we can and should all respect religious beliefs in peace”.
Local Police Commander, Superintendent Matt Lawler, “Exeter’s excellent response has shown how we have come together with renewed effort to build even greater community ties amongst us all. Since the fire at the synagogue in July last year, local officers, and the Crown Prosecution Service have worked together on a wide investigation. The alleged arson and terrorism matters will be dealt together at a single trial later this year. When the fire occurred the public, civic leaders and faith groups in the city all came together, and a collective message of support and tolerance was shared. That tremendous goodwill has continued since, and we should all be heartened by the genuinely positive way in which the community as a whole has responded.”
Daily life continues in Exeter; at Mecca Bingo, City Hall, Police, Fire, and Exeter Synagogue. The unity of the Exeter community coming together was recently reflected in The Lord Mayor’s Civic Service of rededication of Exeter Synagogue. The Mayor was accompanied by his Consort, in the presence of the Deputy Lord-Lieutenant of Devon, dedicated police/fire, and the average citizens who rose to the occasion to help one’s neighbor.
A small reception at the 800 year old Guildhall was held after the Service. A real celebration of a small British community. The leadership of the Lord Mayor of Exeter speaks volumes about his dedicated to the city.
“One of the great things that has come out of this test has been the realisation that the things that unite us are far more important than the minor divisions that we encounter. In the somewhat fractured society of the 21st century it is often too easy to forget that those who are not in our image are nonetheless in G-d’s image and that a world that has no space for difference has no space for humanity.” Elkan Levy
UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, “In the aftermath of that dreadful event, it was heart-warming for us to witness the solidarity shown and support given by so many people. At a time when we are increasingly concerned about rising levels of hate speech and hate crime in the UK, the outstanding social cohesion and responsibility shown by the people of Exeter has been an inspiration for us all. The empathy shown by so many outside the Jewish community has touched the whole of UK Jewry and serves as an example for the whole country to follow.”