The village of Pekela arose at the end of the seventeenth century as the result of the exploitation of the surrounding peat bog region. The first Jews to settle in Pekela were a tobacco dealer and his sons. They arrived in the village in 1683. A decade later, the Jews of Pekela purchased ground for a cemetery in the Draijerswijk. The cemetery, which was also used by the Jews of the city of Groningen, is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the province. In 1710, the ruling council of the province of Groningen decreed that all Jews be banned from the province. The village of Pekela ignored the decree.
At the outset of the eighteenth century, Pekela split into two separate villages: Oude (Old) Pekela and Nieuwe (New) Pekela. At the time, most Jews in Pekela worked as butchers, tanners, or sellers of textiles. Prior to 1737, the Jews of Pekela gathered to pray in private homes. A synagogue was founded in Oude Pekela in 1737 at the initiative of a Jewish woman from Veendam. The building was replaced with a new synagogue built on the same site in 1792. The new synagogue was renovated in 1843. From 1781 on, the Jews of Pekela maintained a hostel for Jewish travelers in a private residence. The hostel was mostly used by Jews visiting from Germany.
Following the founding of the NIK (the central consistory of Jews in the Netherlands) early in the 19th century, the Jewish community at Oude and Nieuwe Pekela was granted the status of Ringsynagoge or regional community.
At the time, most of the Jews in the two villages continued to work as butchers or traders. After 1850, the economy of the villages diversified. Cigar manufacturing arose as well as the trade in rags and metal.
The local Jewish-owned Catz Elixir factory began to flourish during the same decade. During the nineteenth century, most members of the local Jewish community were unable to pay their head tax. This suggests that most of the Jews in the two villages were poor. A Jewish school for the poor had been established in the villages in 1838.
The Jewish community of the Pekelas was governed by a community council and maintained a council for aiding the poor. Jewish voluntary organizations in the Pekelas included a burial society, a society for caring for the sick, and a society for maintaining a synagogue and its appurtenances. The community also organized fellowships for the study of Hebrew as well as theater and choral clubs. Until the early years of the 20th century, the Pekelas boasted a popular family orchestra of its own, comprised of a Mr. Stoppelman and his seven sons.
The Jewish community of the Pekela' grew in numbers up to the 1880s. In 1884, the community built a new synagogue complete with a ritual bath and an apartment for its teacher.
Under the German occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War, the majority of the Jews of the two Pekelas were interned at the detention camp at Westerbork and from there were deported to Nazi death camps in Poland and murdered. Only a dozen or so members of the Pekela community were able to survive the war in hiding. The community's Torah scrolls and archives were hidden in Amsterdam. The synagogue and its contents were heavily damaged.
After the war, Jewish life in the Pekelas did not resume. In 1948, the Pekelas were assigned to the jurisdiction of the Jewish community at Stadskanaal. A monument to the memory of the murdered Jews of the two Pekelas was unveiled in the local Jewish cemetery in 1950. The synagogue was sold in the same year and was razed thirty years later; all that remains of the building is a portion of its façade. The Jewish cemetery, now surrounded by the suburban neighborhood of Draijerswijk, is maintained by the local authorities. It was renovated in 2014.
The Jewish population of Oude and Nieuwe Pekela and its surroundings:
The size of the Jewish community over time