Oxford Jewish Community





Page created: 13 June 2003
Reformatted: 1 November 2011
Latest revision or update: 4 August 2016

Brief History of the Oxford Jewish Community

by Harold Pollins

The medieval Jewish community was an important one. They tended to live in what is now St Aldate’s, in the centre of the city, their houses these days occupied by the Town Hall. A cemetery existed near Magdalen Bridge, commemorated by a plaque in the present-day Botanical Gardens.

After the expulsion in1290, notably in the 17th century, an occasional Jew (converted to Christianity) taught Hebrew in the University although after the readmission in the mid-seventeenth century the post was occupied by Jews. There was however only a handful of Jewish residents before the late 1830s and 1840s. The Census of 1841 listed four households and a few single men totalling 18 people plus four ‘possible’Jews but it seems the first birth was in 1838. In the early 1840s there was a resident known as a rabbi - so-called in newspaper reports of his death, and that of a daughter, in a fire in St Ebbe’s, the district where the Jews lived. There may also have been a local shochet. The male heads of household were mainly clothes dealers.

The opening of the railway to Oxford may have been the cause of an increase in the resident population from the 1840s. At the 1851 Census 53 were recorded of whom 14 were hawkers and peddlers, mostly single men and in 1861 there were 47 plus one ‘possible’. They tended to be jewellers and tobacconists. The highest population in the 19th century was at the Census of 1871 when there was a total of 57 together with one ‘possible’. Thereafter the numbers fell, 45 (four ‘possibles’) in 1881, 30 (eight ‘possibles’) in 1881, 30 (four ‘possibles’) in 1891 and 25 (9 ‘possibles’) in 1901.

There was a slight change in the occupational structure towards the end of the century. In 1881 there was a furniture dealer, a music seller and a dental surgeon’s assistant. Ten years later there was a dentist as well as a waterproof manufacturer (who combined that with being a glass and china dealer.) In 1901 the heads of two family households were dentists.

The waterproof manufacturer was Joel Zacharias who was very active both within the community and in the wider one, where he was a Colour Sergeant in the local Volunteers as well as an Alderman. He was instrumental, in the 1890s, in negotiating a place for Jewish burials within the municipal cemetery at Wolvercote. And in the 1890s a marriage secretary was authorised and marriages could thenceforth be held under synagogue auspices. Previously marriages of Oxford residents were often conducted by the

Cheltenham minister, or were held in other towns.

With such a small community it was difficult to afford a full-time minister but from time to time there would be one, normally lasting for a short period. But to compensate for the small numbers of residents there was a growing number of Jewish undergraduates, once it became possible for Jews to become members of the university. Indeed, for much of the twentieth century it was the undergraduates who really comprised the community. By the time of the First World War there was a mere handful of Jewish residents (apart from the temporary influx caused by the war) and indeed this continued until after the Second World War (again apart from the temporary increase during the war.) But from the 1960s the numbers grew until by about 2000 there were some 500 in residence. As a result the old synagogue was demolished and a new one opened in 1974.

The new building is held by a company, The Oxford Synagogue and Jewish Centre Ltd. There is an unrepealable clause in the Memorandum of Association of the Company which provides that the building should be made available to all forms of Jewish worship. Thus Orthodox, Progressive and Masorti services are held there. It is clear that one reason why there is no minister is the impossibility of finding someone who could work with the different groups - although it is notable that there is no animosity between them. When different services are held on the same day members of both join together for kiddush.

There are several organisations associated with the community. The Oxford Menorah Society holds monthly meetings on a variety of topics as does the Oxford Jewish Friendship Club, for older residents.

The Hebrew classes meet every Sunday and there is a pre-Cheder group. Oxfordshire is a choir and Oxford WIZO and from time to time Habonim (depending on the availability of appropriate undergraduates.)


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