23 September 2022
Finding the locations
of the two former
synagogues in York
During my visit to York last week, I went in search of the site of the mediaeval synagogue, which survived in the heart of the centre for 100 years, from the massacre at Clifford’s Tower in 1190 until the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, and for the location of the synagogue that stood on Aldwark from 1892 until 1975.
The massacre of the Jews of York in 1190, which I was writing about last night, was a horrific catalogue of violence and murder driven by religious intolerance and greed. It was sadly only one of countless incidents of mob-violence against Jewish communities across England and Western Europe in the Middle Ages.
After the pogrom, the city of York was punished with a heavy fine, but by then the instigators had escaped and no individuals were ever punished for the crimes of that fateful night.
Clifford’s Tower, the scene of the massacre, was rebuilt 60 years after the massacre, but the earth mound on which it stands may still contain evidence from 1190.
A new Jewish community was established or re-established in York soon after the massacre in Clifford’s Tower, although it never regained its former importance. This community remained in the city for a century until 1290, when Edward I expelled all Jews from England.
It is likely that the noted Aaron of York or Aaron fil Josce, the financier and chief rabbi of England, was a son of Josce of York, one of the leading Jewish figures in York at the time of the massacre. It is probable that Josce and Samuel Hoppecole held the land in London on which the chief synagogue was built.
Jubbergate, off Parliament Street, was once known as Jewe Bretagate. It stands at the entrance to a bustling market and, as the name suggests, this may once have been the location of Jewish homes and businesses.
As the Jewish community in York recovered after the massacre in 1190, Coney Street was at the heart of Jewish life in mediaeval York. The building that houses the Next shop at No 32 Coney Street stands on the site of a 13th century synagogue, although it is not known what the building looked like.
Several prominent Jews in York had their homes nearby. Aaron of York and his father-in-law, Leo Episcopus, were considered to be amongst the 12 most wealthy Jews in England in 1219.
Aaron in particular flourished between 1236 and 1243, and during that time he was appointed as the Presbyter Judaeorum or senior representative of the English Jews in 1237, in succession to Josce of London. He did not hold that office for more than a year, and he was succeeded in 1237 by Elias of London.
Henry III went to war in 1243, and in his absence Aaron of York was charged with transgressions against the King, although these are not recorded. He was sent to prison and left only when he paid a fine of £100. The following year, he was accused of forging a deed and was summoned before the King. Under the threat of imprisonment, he paid the sum of 30,000 marks in silver to the King and 200 gold marks as a gift to the Queen.
At this time, the king was desperate for money for his war in France, leaving Aaron of York in ruins. The king realised that he was no more use to him and dismissed him from his office.
The Jewish community in mediaeval York had its own cemetery outside the city walls at a place that became known as Jewbury.
York’s Jewish community was in serious decline by the 1270s, and Jews in England faced significant antisemitism under the rule of Edward I.
The property next to Aaron’s house was owned by his nephew, Josce, who was hanged in London in the late 1270s. Many Jews were executed during this time for alleged crimes of coin forging and clipping – undoubtedly a pretence to confiscate their wealth.
When Jews were expelled from England in 1290, the Archbishop of York, John le Romeyn, warned the Christians of York not to harm any Jews on pain of excommunication. By then, only six Jewish households still remained in York, including one on Coney Street, which was the home of a Jew named Bonamicus.
In later years, the Jewish area of Coney Street became the site of a mediaeval coaching inn, the George Inn.
Jews were only permitted to return to England in the 17th century. Jews began to return to York in significant numbers in the late 19th century, and the Jewish Chronicle reported in 1892 that a small number of Jews have recently settled in York.
No 3 Aldwark, once a joiner’s shop, officially became a synagogue in 1892. The Jewish Chronicle reported on 23 September 1892, that the Jews in York and had applied to Chief Rabbi for facilities to celebrate New Year and Day of Atonement.
The Chief Rabbi presented the new synagogue with Sepher and Shofar, and the report in the Jewish Chronicle noted, ‘Divine service will therefore be held on the New Year in York for the first time, in all probability, since the expulsion in 1290.’
The Aldwark Synagogue served the Jewish community in York from 1892 until 1975. Jewish community numbers had reached 124 by 1903. However, work in the joiner’s shop continued and the business and the synagogue seem to have been closely related. Work would stop in the shop so the joiner’s family could worship as well.
When the joiner’s shop closed in 1975, the synagogue closed too. The York Hebrew Congregation had declined in numbers and it affiliated to Leeds United Hebrew Congregation for religious services and burial rights. The building now houses the RAF Association.
For almost four decades, from 1975 until 2014, York had no synagogue, although 165 people in the city identified themselves as Jewish in the 2011 census.
A new Liberal Jewish community was formed in York in 2014, when the York Jewish Liberal Community organised the first regular Jewish services in York for almost 40 years.
York Liberal Jewish Community has one Friday night service and one Saturday morning service each month, with about 60 people attending the monthly services in Friargate Quaker Meeting House.
The services follow the Liberal tradition, with men and women taking part on an equal basis and prayers in English and Hebrew. Services are either community-led or led by a visiting student rabbi from Leo Baeck College. Services are held on all the major holidays and festivals, including the High Holy Days and a communal Passover seder.
The community is fundraising to hire a part-time rabbi for York, who would become the first appointed rabbi in York since 1290.
Yesterday: The massacre at Clifford’s Tower
Tomorrow: The mediaeval Jewish cemetery at Jewbury