09 June 2023

Rabbi Elias Bernard Levin’s
‘ability and courage of
a high order’ in Limerick

The Redemptorist and the Rabbi … John Creagh (left) and Elias Bernard Levin (right)

Patrick Comerford

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.

Rabbi Elias Bernard Levin was living at No 18 Wolfe Tone Street from 1889 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

Hillview on Wolfe Tone Street … once a synagogue in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.’

Shabbat Shalom

The Jewish Cemetery in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Of Limerick Saints and Seekers, edited by David Bracken (Dublin: Veritas Books, September 2022), 266 pp, ISBN 9781800970311.

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (12) 9 June 2023

Trinity College, Cambridge, was founded by Henry VIII in 1546 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with Trinity Sunday (4 June 2023). The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (9 June) recalls Columba, Abbot of Iona, Missionary (597), and Ephrem of Syria, Deacon, Hymn Writer, Teacher of the Faith (373).

Over these few weeks after Trinity Sunday, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at relevant images or stained glass window in a church, chapel or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Inside the chapel of Trinity College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Chapel, Trinity College, Cambridge:

My images this morning (9 June 2023) are from Trinity College Cambridge, founded by Henry VIII in 1546 and one of the oldest and largest colleges in Cambridge. Trinity College Chapel, which dates from the mid-16th century, was begun in 1554-1555 by Queen Mary and was completed in 1567 by Elizabeth I.

The architectural style is Tudor-Gothic, with Perpendicular tracery and pinnacles. The roof is of an earlier style than the rest of the building, and may have been re-used from the chapel of King’s Hall, the college that preceded Trinity on this site. Only the walls and roof date from the Tudor era.

The chapel has a fine organ, originally built by ‘Father’ Smith in 1694. Many alterations were made over the years until, in 1913, an almost totally new organ was built. Some of the pipes were so large that they would not fit in the organ loft and instead had to stand in a corner of the ante-chapel. In 1976 the present mechanical-action instrument, based on the surviving pipework and within the original cases, was completed by the Swiss firm Metzler Söhne. There are regular recitals on Sundays during term time.

The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, is composed of around 30 male and female Choral Scholars and two Organ Scholars, all undergraduates of the college. As well as singing the liturgy in the chapel, the choir has an extensive programme of performances and recordings.

The Dean of Chapel is the Revd Dr Michael Banner; the current Director of Music, Dr Stephen Layton, is stepping down after 17 years, and the vacancy was advertised in the Church Times last Friday (2 June 2023).

The chapel has memorials to the Cambridge Triumvirate – Brooke Foss Westcott, Joseph Barber Lightfoot and Fenton Hort – and to Isaac Newton, Bishop John Robinson, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Charles Villiers Stanford, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Babington Macaulay and AE Housman.

The Cambridge Triumvirate commemorated in Trinity College Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 12: 35-37 (NRSVA):

35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? 36 David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,

“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’.”

37 ‘David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.’

The entrance to Trinity Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s prayer:

The theme in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) this week is ‘Protecting the Environment in Zambia. This theme was introduced on Sunday by USPG’s Regional Manager for Africa, Fran Mate, with a reflection from Zambia for the United Nations World Environment Day on Monday.

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Friday 9 June 2023):

Let us pray for the government of Zambia. May it work to raise awareness of environmental damage and seek to implement policies to protect the country’s health and environment.


Almighty God,
who filled the heart of Columba
with the joy of the Holy Spirit
and with deep love for those in his care:
may your pilgrim people follow him,
strong in faith, sustained by hope,
and one in the love that binds us to you;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
in that new world where you reveal
the fullness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share with Columba and all your saints
in the eternal banquet of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Tennyson’s statue in the Ante-Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Key figures in the story of the Anglican Reformation depicted in a window in Trinity College, Cambridge, from left (top row): Hugh Latimer, Edward VI, Nicholas Ridley, Elizabeth I; (second row): John Wycliffe, Erasmus, William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)