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Restoration of Penzance’s historic Jewish cemetery

Penzance Jewish CemeteryIt is not widely known that the most westerly and southerly of Jewish cemeteries in Britain is to be found in Penzance. What is more, the cemetery is a Grade II listed site, dating back to the 1740s and recognised as the finest walled Georgian Jewish cemetery outside London.

Until recently, however, the site was in sore need of restoration. Step in the Friends of Penzance Jewish Cemetery, who, working with the owners, the BOD Heritage Limited, and enthusiastically supported by Penlee House Gallery and Museum in Penzance and Penzance Town Council, was awarded a £13,100 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The grant was matched by contributions from visitors to the cemetery and by a number of generous donations from descendants of those interred in the cemetery, from organisations, including the Cornwall Heritage Trust and the Tanner Trust, and from local people and traders, enabling the restoration to take place. Carried out by expert local craftsmen using specialist materials and techniques, the work included repointing and rebuilding the granite wall, repair of the bet tohorah (cleansing house) and the provision of a new entrance door. The whole project was led by Leslie Lipert, Treasurer of both Kehillat Kernow, the Jewish Community of Cornwall, and the Friends of the Cemetery and Jon Pender, former Planning Officer and Chairman of the Friends.

Two ceremonies are scheduled to mark the restoration. The first of these will be a re-sanctification, which will take place on 13 March, to be attended by Kehillat Kernow, and led by David Jacobs from Reform Judaism. Weather permitting the ceremony will include the parading around the cemetery of the Torah scroll. The second ceremony will take place on 18 May and will be attended by the Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, Colonel Bolitho OBE, Colin Spanjar, of the Board of Deputies, local dignitaries, significant donors and friends of the cemetery.

Both ceremonies will mark a renaissance for this important site and its incorporation into the life of the community. The cemetery brings together the narratives of two peoples, Jewish and Cornish. When Jews began to settle in Cornwall in the early eighteenth century, the county was physically remote from the population centres of England, and the first Jewish settlers were very much pioneers. As they settled in Falmouth and then Penzance, they built both synagogues and cemeteries. They quickly integrated with the Cornish while remaining a clearly identifiable group and many came to play prominent roles in Cornish life. Their story is told by Keith Pearce in his book ‘The Jews of Cornwall – A History – Tradition and Settlement to 1913’.

Now that the Jewish community has revived through the growth of Kehillat Kernow, interest has grown in preserving the story of a people who, while never large, played a significant role in Cornwall.

While there was no longer a Jewish community to maintain the cemetery from the beginning of the twentieth century, it has benefited from local care. For some twenty years the voluntary custodian of the cemetery was Godfrey Simmons, great-grandson of Rabbi B. A. Simmons of Penzance. Since 1998, Keith Pearce has been the custodian. The cemetery is also well-placed in a quiet part of the town, between two attractive terraces built in traditional Cornish style.

A cemetery is a place where the past is literally buried, but it is also a place which can help breathe new life into this past. Educational visits have already taken place and are scheduled to continue. School projects will use the cemetery to inspire interest in the lives of previous generations, in their customs and languages, while relating them to the present day. The restored site is, therefore, a valuable addition to Cornwall’s rich store of natural and man-made places of interest.

Commenting on the completed work, Leslie Lipert, Hon Treasurer of Friends of Penzance Cemetery, Agent for BOD Heritage Limited and Treasurer of Kehillat Kernow, said: “The restoration, supported by the generous contributions of the Heritage Lottery Fund and others has revived Jewish and Cornish history and strengthened links between the new Jewish community and the wider Cornish population. It connects both with a shared past.”

Louise Connell, Penlee House Gallery and Museum, Director said: “The Penzance Jewish Cemetery is a place of great local, national and international significance…. Penlee House Gallery & Museum and its governing body, Penzance Town Council, are proud to be associated with this project and will continue to help and support the Friends of the Jewish Cemetery to promote and celebrate Jewish heritage in Penzance.”

Advance appointments to visit the cemetery can be arranged through Penlee House (01736 363625).

Find out more about the Friends of Penzance Cemetery and how you can support or join them here.

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