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

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