This month’s lecture was given by Dr Leonard Mars, lecturer, author and Honorary Research Visitor in Social Anthropology at Swansea University.
It was Gerald of Wales who mentioned the first Jewish person in Wales – a monk in Margam Abbey who had converted to Judaism, much to the horror of his fellow monks. The next reference is in 1768 when David Michael signed a lease with Swansea Corporation to acquire land in Townhill for a Jewish cemetery. Services were held in houses until 1818 when a Synagogue was built in Waterloo Street. Another Synagogue to replace it was built in Goat Street in 1859, one year after the emancipation of the Jews. This Synagogue was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1941.
Both the Swansea Rabbi Simon Goldberg and the Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler were born in Germany. They were both Anglophiles and Anti Zionists and maintained a long correspondence until 1904. The Goat Street Synagogue was financed by members and different tariffs were charged for six categories of seats, which then conferred different privileges. The Synagogue was patriarchal, hierarchical and run by an oligarchy. It was a house of assembly providing free education in Hebrew and members enjoyed the right to marriage, burial and other Jewish rites. In 1905 the Cambrian Newspaper recorded an attendance of 500 for the Jewish New Year.
In 1855, the Chief Rabbi, Nathan Adler established a Jewish College in London to train ministers for the British United Synagogue movement. His own son was sent to Germany to study as a Rabbi. Antisemitism in Eastern Europe and Russia led to an influx of Yiddish speaking Jews who set up their
own Synagogue in the Hafod, a poorer district where they lived. Assistance was provided by the Goat Street Synagogue and some Jews were members of both. In 1909 the Hafod Synagogue affiliated
to the Goat Street Synagogue, sharing clergy and burial rights in Townhill cemetery.
Between 1941 and 1955 when a new Synagogue was built in Ffynone, the Jewish community used the Chapel in Henrietta Street and the Church of St Andrews. By 1975 the Townhill Cemetery was full and a new burial ground was acquired in Oystermouth. In 2009 the Synagogue sold their building to Lifepoint but continue to rent a room for their use. With only 40 members who are all over 70 years of age, the oldest Jewish community in Wales may cease to exist in a few years.