Watch our new film here to learn the history of our community and then read on…
Ask most people about the Jews of York and they will tell you about the infamous massacre of the City’s medieval Jewish population at Clifford’s Tower in 1190. A popular fiction is that, as a result, a rabbinic edict was issued against sleeping within York’s walls, although no evidence of such an edict (cherem) exists.
It is too often assumed that this was and is the entirety of the York ‘Jewish story’ and yet Jews were back living here within a decade of those terrible events, and have had a continuous presence in the City for at least 130 years. There was a small Orthodox congregation in York from the 1890s until 1975, based at a synagogue above a joiner’s shop on Aldwalk. It closed when it could no longer secure the minyan (ten Jewish male adults) that Orthodox Judaism regards necessary to say certain prayers.
Now, with the growth of the university, the hospital and IT businesses within the City, the Jewish community has once again begun to thrive and prosper. The 2011 census found over 200 self-declared Jews in York, certainly an underestimate. Occasional Jewish celebrations held since the closure of the synagogue were no longer satisfying demand and, by 2014, it had become clear that there was an appetite for more regular and frequent services.
The first such service was held in June 2014 at the Friargate Friends Meeting. It was conducted by Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, a branch of mainstream Judaism that prides itself on egalitarianism, openness and inclusivity. The service attracted nearly fifty people and thirty to seventy people have attended monthly Shabbat (Sabbath)) morning services ever since.
As time has gone on, the community has done more and more: services and events to mark Jewish festivals, weddings, baby blessings and – despite not being a proselyting religion – conversions for those that identify as Jewish.
Over recent years, the community, which has been served by a succession of student rabbis travelling from London, has introduced an additional, once-monthly Friday night service and a religion school (cheder) attended by around a dozen children. It has held the B’nei Mitzvah (coming of age ceremonies), in the City for at least fifty years and sadly had cause to make use of the first Jewish burial plot in the City (at Fulford) since the medieval Jewbury. Members regularly go into schools to talk about Judaism to pupils and to show our amazing Czech scroll – rescued from the Holocaust and lent to us by the Memorial Scrolls Trust.
With nearly a hundred active members, fortnightly services (and, during Covid, weekly online services), festival services, adult education sessions and a full schedule of lifecycle events, the Jewish story of York is very much an ongoing tale.