History of Bedfordshire Progressive Synagogue
In Martin Gilbert’s fascinating book ‘An Atlas of Jewish History’, Bedford is listed as a town with documented evidence of a Jewish presence prior to the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290.
In more recent historical times, Jews have been documented as having lived in Bedford in small numbers from the early 1800s, and have probably been present continuously ever since.
One of the factors that have encouraged this Jewish settlement was the town’s reputation for religious tolerance due, in no small part, to the determination of John Bunyan.
In the mid 1600s John Bunyan spent twelve years in prison in Bedford for expressing dissenting religious views. It was largely through Bunyan, and the support he received from the local population, that the right of the individual to hold non-conforming religious opinions was established in England.
Even in the 1700s the Jewish congregation remained small so that no synagogue existed and, as at present, services were held in private homes. Nevertheless the congregation must have been soundly established, as it was apparently traditional that at Sukkot, willows from the Great Ouse were sent to London for use as lulavs.
At the turn of the 20th century the Bedford Jewish community was still very much in existence. It was in the early part of this century that the ‘Abrahams’, the most famous Bedfordshire Jewish family, were beginning to make their mark. Of the four distinguished brothers, Harold was an Olympic gold medallist; Adolph was a doctor, knighted, in part, for his services in helping refugee doctors gain permission to practise in the UK; Solomon was knighted for work in the Colonial Service and the fourth brother became a coroner.
In the 1939-45 war the local Jewish population expanded in dramatic fashion, with over 400 Jewish families being evacuated from London and at one stage there were even two Rabbis!
The community, however, did not have a synagogue and has basically survived through the endeavours of a small number of people ensuring that traditions were maintained.
In 1967, the Beds-Herts Liberal Jewish Synagogue was formed, meeting mainly in St. Albans and Bedford. Since 1982 we have been based at Luton, where we now hold the majority of our services. Over the last two or three years, the local Bedford Jewish Congregation has seen a renaissance with regular monthly services held in Bedford under the auspices of the Rodef Shalom Synagogue. However, certain special events (Chanukah, Succoth etc.) still take place in our members’ homes underlining our thriving community.