The following article was kindly written by the Swindon community’s president Martin Vandervelde and chronicles the history of the Swindon Jewish Community right up to the present day
The Early Years
In 1939 my brother and I arrived in Swindon as evacuees from East Ham in London. To our knowledge before the Second World War there was only one Jewish family in Swindon. During the war about 20 Jewish families came to Swindon (parents and children), practically all were business people. It is reckoned that, at its peak, there would be around 60 Jews in Swindon. At the end of the war, most families went back to London but about 6 or 7 stayed. We stayed because my father had set up a tailoring business in the town. Mr Len Jacobs, who ran a fabric shop and a market stall, took charge of the community and taught the children Hebrew and the basics of Judaism. Two boys including his son were Bar Mitzvah in London whereas my brother and I had unofficial ones here in Swindon.
By the 1960s most had left Swindon however in 1962 my wife came from London to work in Marlborough and on making enquiries about a Jewish community was sent to talk to Len Jacobs and I met her through this meeting. By the time we were married and had three children we realised that there was another Jewish mother at school who knew others and from that sprung a small community with younger children. We all got together, made friends and arranged social meetings, Cheder, services, committee meetings, cultural events, Purim and Chanukah parties and so on. By 1984 we had a regular newsletter for members. The Reverend Malcolm Weisman OBE a former Minister for Small Communities paid occasional visits with offers of help.
In 1986 the community held its first Bar Mitzvah and Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE from Maidenhead conducted the service. There were further bar and Bat Mitzvahs in 1987, 1988 and 1991. One couple even had an open-air wedding in South Marston! Unfortunately for various reasons these families eventually moved away due to changing jobs and eventually the Cheder became no longer viable.
We had to make a decision as to whether we would think ourselves as an Orthodox group as such (Len Jacobs came from an Orthodox family) or to become Reform to please the majority and in 1986 after a vote, the community decided to join the Reform movement and Rabbi Romain was instrumental in getting us affiliated to the Maidenhead Reform synagogue. His wife Rabbi Sybil Sheridan became the community rabbi for regular Saturday services and Paul Scott became our first Chairman. In the same year the community was lent a 200 year old Czechoslovakian Torah scroll but eventually due to its poor condition it was rendered ‘non kosher’. We now have use of a scroll owned by one of our members.
In 1989 for a short period of time, the community had its own ‘synagogue’. A member who ran a business in Swindon Old Town lent us a room of his first floor premises but unfortunately due to subsequent closure of his business the use of the room for services was lost.
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Friday night services are held in a variety of members’ homes and regularly in a commu
nity hall on Saturday mornings. Festivals are celebrated and we join the Maidenhead community for High Holy Day services. Our newsletter was recently revised and has been well received and now we have our very own website.
At present we do not have enough children to run a cheder class. Families usually choose to take children to other synagogues in the area.