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You are in: Suffolk > Faith > Features > Judaism in Suffolk


Judaism in Suffolk

Suffolk doesn't have any synagogues, so the county's jews have to travel elsewhere for holy days. For Passover in the spring of 2006, I went to the feast at the Colchester synagogue.

Every spring, Jews celebrate the Feast of Passover, to commemorate the liberation of the Children of Israel, as commanded by God in Exodus.

Abbey Gate, Bury St Edmunds

Abbey Gate, Bury St.Edmunds by Mark Ward

As there are relatively few practising Jews in Suffolk.  In fact the county has a dark legacy - including the massacre of around 50 Jews in Bury St.Edmunds in the 12th Century (read the article by clicking on the weblink on the right>>). They join members of the synagogue in Colchester, Essex for the traditional meal of Seder.

The room where services are usually held had been transformed into a large dining room, and John Gottesman explained what was to happen: "It’s a service in four parts, opening with a series of blessings commemorating the exodus from Egypt.  Then one of the children asks four questions about the customs of the evening and the Elder in the room will answer. Two or three thousand years ago children didn't have a lot of learning but this way, with a service every year in their home, this is the start of learning."

Those without extended family in the Essex/Suffolk area join together for the annual meal, held on the first two nights of Passover. The question and answer format of Seder means it is particularly suitable for non-Jews as the historical and religious reasons for the ingredients of the meal are explained to the children.

The evening was a combination of food, music, poems, readings, and songs with traditional words but well known modern tunes. Around eighty people of all ages, sat along three long tables and a top table.  Jugs of water were marked 'salt water', wine was served and the meal itself was eaten as the service progressed.


“The salt water represents the tears of suffering” explained Arleen Haigh, from Ipswich.  ”The matsah is the unleavened bread which should be eaten for eight days. When the Jews left Egypt they were in such a hurry they didn’t have time to let it rise. Some people say they carried it on their backs and the sun baked it. Others say they just baked it without the yeast.”

The Western (Wailing) Wall, Jerusalem

The Western Wall, Jerusalem

Served on crockery kept especially for Passover, the three course meal was accompanied by matsah, (looking and tasting like a large cream cracker), hard boiled eggs dipped in the salt water, and parsley and horseradish representing bitter herbs – the  bitterness of the lives of the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt.  Charoset is a sort of pate made of fruits and nuts which is eaten with the matsah. 

After the food of the service had been eaten, a meal of salad, fish and fresh fruit was served, prepared by the members in the kosher kitchen at the synagogue.

The adults at the Colchester synagogue were mainly third generation Jews whose grandparents had come to London, prior to the war, to work in the clothing industry, and then their families moved out into Essex and Suffolk.

A Suffolk synagogue?

John Gottesman says there's no focal point in Suffolk at the moment "The last community of any size was, I think, in Ipswich in 1884, and there’s still a small Jewish cemetery near the docks, but that’s the last community that I know of." 

Another Suffolk jew, Beverley Levi, says that's unlikely to change: "At the moment there isn't any kind of established community in Suffolk but we are working towards building up the community for people who live in the Ipswich area. We do have services sometimes, led by Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, at the Suffolk Inter Faith Resource Centre at Suffolk College.”

"We might meet at a specific place on a regular basis but, being realistic, I don't think there is sufficient interest for a synagogue in Ipswich. There was one that was demolished in 1987 when it fell into disrepair.  Throughout the 20th century, many people have felt they had to be quite secret about their Jewishness.  But, in the 2001 census over 600 people described themselves as Jewish so they certainly do exist in Suffolk.”

The evening was a fascinating experience and I was made very welcome. Apparently it is quite usual for non-Jews to attend Seder, and the mayor of Colchester has been in the past.

Mark Rylance as da Vinci in the BBC's Last Supper

Da Vinci in front of his Last Supper

John Gottesman says there are links with Christianity ”It is exactly the same service, the same event, that Jesus would have conducted at the Last Supper.  It's a straight line in history and it makes it very special”.

So it was an historic event as well as a religious one, and it ended after three hours or so, with the traditional chorus of “Next Year In Jerusalem!”

last updated: 11/06/2008 at 13:25
created: 19/06/2006

You are in: Suffolk > Faith > Features > Judaism in Suffolk

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