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Synagogue Auctions Its Silver Judaica

The oldest Ashkenazic synagogue in the English-speaking world, built in Plymouth, England, in 1762, plans to auction its rare collection of religious ornaments. It’s a move that has drawn criticism from a heritage group about the wisdom of selling the family silver.

Family Silver: Plymouth Hebrew synagogue in England plans to auction its rare collection of religious ornaments, including the Torah finials and pointer above. Image by COURTESy OF BONHAMS

Up for sale will be a pair of crown-surmounted rimmonim, the decorative finials for a Torah scroll, made in 1783, probably by John Robins, who was known to have crafted a pair in 1803 for London’s Central Synagogue. Along with a yad, or pointer, they form the earliest set of English ritual Torah furnishings ever to come up for auction, said Nicholas Shaw, head of silver at Bonhams, the London auction house where the items are to be sold.

The collection, which also includes an early 19th-century Polish-made Torah shield and other examples of rimmonim, shields and pointers, is estimated to fetch about $100,000.

The reason the Plymouth Hebrew Congregation plans to auction the collection? Financial necessity.

“The silver up for auction has not been used for 20 to 30 years,” Dr. Peter Lee, synagogue treasurer, said. “It’s been stored in a bank. We are not selling any items currently in use. We are investing for income to allow future development. Cash flow is more important as people leave.”

The move prompted a charity called Jewish Heritage UK to question the wisdom of the auction and to criticize the congregation. “This is a huge shame,” director Sharman Kadish said in an interview with Britain’s Jewish Chronicle in late October. “Those items are part of the history of the community.”

But synagogue leaders, noting a reduction in both attendance and funds, said there seemed to be little other option.

“The synagogue isn’t in imminent danger,” honorary secretary Anna Kelly said. “We have 50 paying members, of whom quite a few are husbands and wives. But we don’t want membership prices to go any higher than they are now. We don’t want to put people off, and we’ve exhausted all other avenues of funding.”

The congregation believes that it is more important to preserve a living community than to keep its historic collection intact.

Plymouth Hebrew is among the oldest extant Jewish communities in England. Following the 1290 expulsion from England by King Edward I, Jews returned to the country in the 17th century under the promise of protection from King Charles II. Ashkenazic immigrants arrived from Central Europe and overtook Sephardim in number; they moved out of London in search of work, eventually establishing congregations across the country.

Jews settled in Plymouth, a port town on the south coast, in the mid 18th century. By 1759, the community — primarily descended from two families, one Dutch and the other German — was large enough to build its own synagogue.

Though small and discreet, the Baroque Holy Ark, the stained glass and the ornate bimah carved by dockyard craftsmen make a grand place of worship.

But now Plymouth and other peripheral communities are suffering from reverse migration; the fall in synagogue attendance stems in part from a generation of Jews leaving their hometowns, initially to attend college and later for work.

Fundraising efforts will soon begin as the congregation prepares for its 250th anniversary celebrations in 2012. Plymouth Hebrew hopes to repaint the synagogue, which because of complicated scaffolding requirements and special paint needed for the building, will cost about $50,000.

With such high maintenance costs ahead, the congregation is hoping to attract large bids when the ornaments are sold at Bonhams on November 25.

They could be in luck. Items in the collection have been displayed previously at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and the auction is attracting much international interest.

Though the congregation is willing to part with the items, some members are hoping they don’t end up too far away. “It would be nice if they stayed in England,” Kelly said.

Contact Joseph Manning at [email protected]

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