16 September 2022

The Jewish community in
Oxford has recovered 800
years after synod’s decrees

The Oxford Jewish Centre provides for all Jews in Oxford and holds services with Orthodox, Masorti and Progressive prayer, sometimes simultaneously (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

When I left the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford earlier this year, my stay in Oxford was so brief that I had no opportunity to visit the Oxford Jewish Congregation and the Oxford Jewish Centre, which is a unique Jewish presence in Oxford.

However, I made some amends when I visited Oxford last week, and took the opportunity to visit the unique shul on Richmond Road, which is a centre, a congregation, a community. The OJC hosts Orthodox, Progressive and Masorti services, as well as egalitarian Friday nights, women’s services and Progressive Chavura suppers, all under the same roof.

Some are weekly, others monthly, and at times different services are held simultaneously. But members belong to the OJC as a whole, rather than to one specific religious denomination, creating a model of Jewish community that is warm, inclusive and welcoming.

The congregation is a small community that includes both residents and students. The OJC cultivates a sense of unity and common Jewish identity, based on respect for the different strands of Judaism.

St Aldates in Oxford was home to the original Jewish community in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The original Jewish community in Oxford dates to the Norman conquest, and it was one of the most important Jewish communities in mediaeval England. Jews arrived in Oxford ca 1080, and took up residence in the St Aldate’s area in the heart of the commercial centre.

The street became known as Great Jewry Street, and about 80 to 100 Jews lived in Oxford.

Great Jewry was centred along what is now St Aldate’s and the side streets, many of which were obliterated when Christ Church was being built.

The Synagogue in Oxford was established in 1228 opposite Pennyfarthing Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Synagogue was established in 1228 opposite Pennyfarthing Lane. Earlier Jewish stone-built houses were also located east of Great Jewry – Merton College and Oriel College were founded in Jewish properties, and others were located throughout what is now Christ Church.

The Synod of Oxford at Osney Abbey in Oxford on 9 May 1222 enacted harsh anti-Jewish laws, adding to the already discriminatory decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

The Synod of Oxford, convened by Archbishop Stephen Langton of Canterbury, imposed restrictions forbidding social relations between Jews and Christians, levied church taxes on English Jews, decreed English Jews were to wear an identifying badge, and banned Jews from certain professions. The synod also banned building new synagogues in England.

The first Jewish cemetery in Oxford was on the High Street, where the tower, chapel and cloisters of Magdalen College now stand. The cemetery was in use until 1232, when the Hospital of Saint John-the-Baptist ‘appropriated’ it for its own use.

Although Christian scholars consulted Jewish rabbis and scholars, and there may have been a Talmudic academy in Oxford, Jews were prohibited from attending the university.

The first Jewish cemetery in Oxford was on the site of the tower, chapel and cloisters of Magdalen College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Jews of Oxford suffered increasing antisemitism throughout the 13th century. The attacks usually took place during Christian festivals, particularly at Easter. In the Ascension Day riot in 1268, it was alleged that a Jew had attacked a university religious procession and trampled a crucifix to the ground. The whole community were jailed, and the king punished the Jews of Oxford by forcing them to pay for a marble and gold crucifix in Merton College.

Eventually, the hostile environment created by the rulings of the Synod of Oxford led to the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, and England became the first country to expel Jews en masse. King Edward I ordered professing Jews to leave England for ever on 18 July 1290. Between 16,000 and 17,000 Jews were forced to flee, and for almost 400 years no Jews returned to England – until 1656.

The property confiscated from the Jews of Oxford eventually passed to Merton College, Balliol College, and then to Christ Church when it was established. Evidence in the Bodleian Library suggests some Jewish converts, including scholars, remained in Oxford at the Domus conversorum or house of converts in the 14th century, producing Bibles in Hebrew and Latin.

Evidence in the Bodleian Library suggests some Jewish converts remained in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

After the expulsion, though, Jews were not found again in Oxford officially until the early 17th century. They assisted in cataloguing Hebrew manuscripts in the Bodleian Library or taught Hebrew privately to university students. One Jew, Jacob Wolfgang, who converted in 1608, seems to be the first known Jew to be a member of Oxford University.

The Jews who began to drift back to Oxford in the 17th century included tradesmen. One known as Jacob – probably Cirques Jobson – introduced coffee and coffee shops to the city and to England – a fact for which I remain grateful.

By the 1730s, a small community was established in St Clements, a village close to the East Gate. They included pedlars, grocers and clothes traders. St Clements was outside the religious and civic jurisdiction of the university, and the small number of Jews were neighbours of the small Roman Catholic minority.

The Jewish community in Oxford remained small until the 19th century, when new opportunities and freedoms were opened to Jews, including political freedom and the end of the bar to unconverted Jews attending the university. Jewish undergraduates were admitted in 1856, and college fellowships were opened to all in 1871.

Still, there were few Jewish undergraduates until the end of the 19th century, and Sir Isaiah Berlin became only the fifth Jewish academic in Oxford when he became a fellow of All Souls College in 1932.

World War II brought 500 refugees from Germany to Oxford, and many families who were evacuated from London. When these people moved on after the war, the community shrank dramatically, and for 24 weeks of the year undergraduate Jewish students were the dominant group.

The Oxford Jewish Centre was built in 1974 and rebuilt in 2005 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The synagogue building was acquired by an independent trust, including residents, dons and undergraduates representing both Orthodox and non-Orthodox traditions. But by the 1960s, the old synagogue building was in serious disrepair. Eventually, a new centre was built on the site.

A non-profit charity was formed to hold the new building and all the underlying properties, and to ensure the OJC, the Oxford University Jewish Society (OUJS) and the kosher meals service could use the building in perpetuity. Special provisions were made too to protect student and Progressive interests.

Since the centre was built in 1974, the congregation has become increasingly pluralistic in outlook and character. The OJC describes itself as an ‘independent orthodox’ congregation, but membership is open to ‘all persons of the Jewish faith.’ Significantly, the community does not have a rabbi or other formal spiritual leader, and, except on the High Holydays, all services and funerals are run by synagogue members.

The synagogue was rebuilt in 2005. Ten years later, in 2015, the Oxford Jewish Community commissioned a new ark designed by the distinguished architect Niall McLaughlin, whose work includes the award-winning Bishop Edward King Chapel at Ripon College Cuddesdon.

The Jewish community in Oxford remains small, with around 200 families, and makes a virtue of the unique fact that different congregations are housed under one roof.

The Oxford Chabad House opened on Cowley Road in 2001 with a new rabbi, and a new student centre in at 61 George Street opened in 2006. The David Slager Jewish Student Centre is named after the grandfather of an alumnus of Exeter College, David Slager, who died in Auschwitz.

The Oxford Centre for Hebrew Jewish Studies is at the Clarendon Institute on Walton Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Additionally, Jewish studies are thriving inside and outside the university, in the Oriental Faculty and at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew Jewish Studies nearby at the Clarendon Institute on Walton Street.

The Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies is the leading research centre for academic Jewish Studies in Europe. The centre teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Hebrew and Jewish Studies that include Jewish history, culture and relations with other traditions from antiquity to modern times, and the study of Hebrew of all periods, Aramaic and Yiddish.

The building also houses the Leopold Muller Memorial Library with one of the best collections of books and periodicals in Jewish Studies in Europe. The library has several rare collections and archives, including the archives of Sir Moses Montefiore and Rabbi Hugo Gryn, and over 800 memorial volumes for communities destroyed in the Holocaust.

A service in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, in May 2022 marked the 800th anniversary of the Synod of Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In recent months, the Diocese of Oxford has declared that the ‘prejudicial’ laws passed at Oxford 800 years ago were the precursor to further anti-Jewish statutes, in particular those passed in 1253 and 1275, and contributed to increasing intolerance that culminated in the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290.

Earlier this year [May 2022], a service was held in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, to mark the 800th anniversary of the Synod of Oxford. The service was organised in association with the Oxford Jewish Congregation, and included contributions from different Jewish and Christian traditions.

Bishop Michael Ipgrave of Lichfield, who chairs the Council of Christians and Jews, said at the service that Christians need to repent of their ‘painful and shameful history’ of antisemitism.

‘So much antisemitism and anti-Judaism can be traced back to distorted Christian teaching,’ Dr Ipgrave said. ‘We need to recognise how our history has contributed to the teaching of contempt which generated hostility towards and suffering for our Jewish brothers and sisters.’

Bishop Steven Croft of Oxford said that it had been ‘deeply moving’ to hear Jewish music played and Jewish songs sung by a choir in the cathedral. Archdeacon Jonathan Chaffey of Oxford, one of the organisers of the service, described it as a symbolic opportunity to apologise for the past.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue said the English Jews who faced persecution, massacres, and forced exile in the 12th and 13th centuries ‘would have been astonished and pleased to hear words in Hebrew ring out in this cathedral.’

Shabbat Shalom

The new ark in the Oxford Jewish Centre was designed by the prize-winning architect Niall McLaughlin

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Friday 16 September 2022

‘The Falling Angel’, Marc Chagal (1947)

Patrick Comerford

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (16 September) recalls Saint Ninian (ca 432), Apostle of the Picts, with a Lesser Festival, and Edward Bouverie Pusey (1882), Priest and Tractarian, with a Commemoration.

Two of us are returning to Stony Stratford today after a few days in York following my ‘gamma knife’ or stereotactic radiosurgery in Sheffield earlier this week. But, before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

The Library in Pusey House, Oxford, founded in memory of Edward Bouverie Pusey following his death in 1882 (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882) was born in 1800 and educated at Oxford, where he became a Fellow of Oriel College in 1823. He became an expert in biblical languages and criticism and in 1828 he was appointed Regius Professor of Hebrew in Oxford, the same year he was ordained.

His patristic studies and his firm adherence to a Catholic interpretation of doctrine made him one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement. He was significant in encouraging the revival of Religious Life within the Church of England and was a noted preacher. His austere way of life made him much revered by his contemporaries and they founded Pusey House and Library in Oxford in his memory, following his death on this day in 1882.

Luke 8: 1-3 (NRSVA):

1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

Today’s reflection: 5, ‘The Angel of Death’

For my reflections and devotions each day these few weeks, I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

For these six days this week, I am listening to Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra.

The oratorio falls into the six continuous sections or movements, and I am listening to these movements one-by-one in sequence each morning.

I am posting a full recording of the cantata each day, so each movement can be listened to in context, but each morning I am listening to the movements in sequence.

The six sections or movements are:

1, Agnus Dei

2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)

3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)

6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)

This morning [16 September 2022], I am listening to the fifth movement, ‘The Angel of Death’.

5, ‘The Angel of Death’

Vaughan Williams’s text for this movement, ‘The Angel of Death,’ is derived from a speech on 23 February 1855 in the House of Commons by the great Victorian politician and reformer John Bright. In his speech, Bright condemned the Crimean War.

John Bright (1811-1889) was a leading Quaker, a Radical and Liberal statesman, and one of the greatest orators of his generation. The historian AJP Taylor says ‘John Bright was the greatest of all parliamentary orators … the alliance between middle class idealism and trade unionism, which he promoted, still lives in the present-day Labour Party.’ He is best remembered for his opposition to the Corn Laws, which came to an end in 1846.

Bright was an MP from 1843 to 1889, promoting free trade, electoral reform and religious freedom. He was almost a lone voice in opposing the Crimean War. In a speech in Birmingham in 1865, he became the first politician to refer to Westminster as the ‘Mother of Parliaments.’

Bright’s speech in 1855 draws on images in the Passover story in the Book Exodus, where the Angel of Death kills the firstborn children of Egypt, but spared any Israelite where the lintels and the door posts have been painted the lintels of his door posts with the blood of the lamb (see Exodus 12: 21-32).

Of course, the Exodus story makes no mention of the ‘Angel of Death’ as the author of this tenth and final plague. But Bright’s eloquence helped to popularise this image.

Afterwards, Benjamin Disraeli told Bright: ‘I would give all that I ever had to have delivered that speech.’ However, the speech did not prevent the Crimean War. As Bright had predicted, the campaign wasted many lives. More were lost through incompetent preparations than on the battlefield. Despite the technical military advances the British military had acquired, the war was marked by incompetence and 600,000 people were left dead.

Shocked by the disaster, and frustrated at being unable to avert it, Bright experienced a nervous breakdown. He lost his seat as MP for Manchester, although he was soon elected MP for Birmingham in 1858.

Bright’s words seem so appropriate to quote today and seem so relevant when we consider the present war in Ukraine, almost 170 years after the Crimean war. At the time Vaughan Williams was writing this oratorio, Bright’s speech was finding new relevance in England with the rise of Nazism and Fascism on Continental Europe, and a fear of yet another great war.

Bright’s words were given new prominence in those fearful days in the 1930s, when they were quoted by the pacifist former Dean of Canterbury, HRL (‘Dick’) Sheppard (1880-1937) in his We Say No (1935), published a year before he founded the Peace Pledge Union and a year before Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem was first performed.

In this movement, Vaughan Williams creates an atmosphere of anxiety and expectation, which leaves us wondering whether the war will ever end, whether we shall ever find peace.

The ostinato bass which has played out the ‘veterans’ in the last movement now plays in the Angel of Death.

The fifth movement begins with the baritone soloist and a quote from John Bright’s speech in which he tried to prevent the Crimean War: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land …’ Darkness seeps through the music, first quietly then with a dramatic interjection of Dona nobis pacem.

In the final movement that follows [17 September 2022], the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death shall cause the chorus to burst into another cry for peace, but only more trouble rolls across the land: ‘We looked for peace, but no good came … The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved …’

5, ‘The Angel of Death’

The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land;
you may almost hear the beating of his wings.
There is no one as of old …
to sprinkle with blood the lintel
and the two side-posts of our doors,
that he may spare and pass on.

John Bright, who made his ‘Angel of Death’ speech in the House of Commons in 1855, was the first MP to refer to the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer (Friday 16 September 2022):

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Holy Cross Day,’ and was introduced on Sunday with a prayer written by Naw Kyi Win, a final year undergraduate student at Holy Cross Theological College in the Church of Province of Myanmar.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us give thanks for Holy Cross Theological College, and the work they do to train the clergy of the Church of the Province of Myanmar.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org