09 June 2023
Rabbi Elias Bernard Levin’s
‘ability and courage of
a high order’ in Limerick
In recent weeks, I have been collaborating on a number of local history projects in Co Limerick with Dr Seán Gannon and Tom Donovan. Seán is editing for publication a collection of essays marking the centenary of the end of the Irish Civil War; Tom is editor of the Old Limerick Journal, and I am working with him on a paper on the Sephardic roots of the Limerick family of John Desmond Bernal, an Irish-born scientist.
Seán Gannon and I are also contributors to Of Limerick Saints and Seekers, the recent collection of essays edited by the Limerick diocesan archivist David Bracken (Dublin: Veritas, 2022), in which I wrote about Barbara Heck and Philip Embury, and Mother Mary Clare Whitty, while Seán wrote about the life and career of Rabbi Elias Bernard Levin, who, he says, showed ‘ability and courage of a high order.’
In his biographical essay, Seán provides the context of communal Jewish life in Limerick, which is marked by the arrival in the early 1880s of immigrants, primarily from the northern Russian empire, who settled in the area around Colooney Street, now Wolfe Tone Street, which became home to a vibrant community that once had about 200 members.
Seán portrays Rabbi Elias Bernard Levin as the central figure in the history of this community and its first minister. He was born in Telz, Lithuania, ca 1863, studied in Telz, Zader and Slonim, and was ordained a rabbi when he was only 19. He earned a reputation in Vilna as an expert sofer or scribe, before emigrating to Limerick with his wife Annie in 1882.
Between 1881 and 1910, they were the parents of 17 children, 14 of whom survived infancy, and at first, he supplemented his income as a dealer and draper. Apart a two-year stay in the US in the mid-1890s, they remained in Limerick until 1912, finally living at No 18 Colooney Street.
Rabbi Levin rebutted allegations raised at a meeting of the Rural Sanitary Board in September 1892 that the cholera in Hamburg could be imported into Limerick through local Jewish trade.
Two vitriolic antisemitic sermons in 1904 by a local Redemptorist, Father John Creagh (1870-1947), gave rise to sporadic violence against Jews that has become known as the ‘Limerick Pogrom.’ A two-year economic boycott which forced several Jews to leave Limerick.
The Jewish Chronicle praised his ‘ability and courage of a high order’ in defending his community’s interests. He sought police protection for the community in the wake of Creagh’s sermons and gained the public support of Irish nationalist leaders for an end to the agitation.
Rabbi Levin was often the target of verbal and physical abuses. He visited Bishop Edward Thomas O’Dwyer in his episcopal palace in Corbally, asking him to intervene. His appeals to the Redemptorist superior general, Father Mathias Raus, had little response. But he gained the support of Bishop Thomas Bunbury of the Church of Ireland.
The Jewish authorities in Dublin and London raised the plight of the Jewish community in Limerick with Irish political and church leaders, and raised funds to help them during the boycott.
In his community work, Rabbi Levin established a Bikur Cholim Society for the relief of the sick, helped to establish the Limerick Hebrew Young Mens’ Association and the Limerick Hebrew Ladies’ Association, and was also a prime mover in setting up both the Limerick Jewish Board of Guardians and the Holy Burial Society of the Limerick Hebrew Congregation.
He helped to heal the divisions that had developed from the 1880s, bringing people together in a single congregation under his leadership. However, he was a central figure in a row about the purchase of the Jewish cemetery in Castletroy in 1902, and this resulted in division and the establishment of a rival synagogue at 63 Colooney Street.
The ‘Limerick Pogrom’ resulted in reunion by 1905, but good relations between the opposing factions were never fully restored.
When Rabbi Levin left Limerick in 1912, the president of the Limerick Hebrew Congregation, Hyman Graff, told him that ‘the entire community recognised the invaluable services he rendered during the troubled period of the anti-Semitic outbreak at Limerick and in all other communal affairs’ for more than 20 years.
Rabbi Levin moved to Leeds, where he briefly served as a rabbi and reader at the Old Central Synagogue. He later became the second reader and shochet at the Great Synagogue at Belgrave Street, Leeds, where he ministered until he died in 1936.
Although the Jewish community in Limerick weathered significant internal and external challenges, the number of members declined in the immediate aftermath of World War I. It was without a minister after 1939 and the synagogue at 72 Wolfe Tone Street was closed in 1947. The building was sold in 1953, marking what the Jewish Chronicle called ‘the final chapter of an interesting community.’
• Of Limerick Saints and Seekers, edited by David Bracken (Dublin: Veritas Books, September 2022), 266 pp, ISBN 9781800970311.