24 November 2023

A search for Jewish
Berkhamsted and
the mediaeval and
modern communities

Elvyne Hall, Chesham Road, Berkhamsted, was used as a synagogue, for Hebrew classes, and as a Jewish community centre in the 1940s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I have been writing over the past week about Berkhamsted and its architecture, castle, churches and literary heritage. But during my two visits to Berkhamsted this month, I also went in search of the legacy of the mediaeval and modern Jewish communities in the Hertfordshire market town.

Abraham of Berkhamsted, a wealthy banker and important moneylender who lived in the town in the mid–13th century, was a financier to the Earl of Cornwall. This was unusual for a small town in England at a time of heightened persecution of Jews.

Abraham’s patron, Richard Earl of Cornwall, was a brother of King Henry III and his principle centre was Berkhamsted Castle. Richard and Abraham had developed an association by 1231, and in 1235 permission was given retrospectively in 1235 for Jews to settle in Berkhamsted and establish an archa there.

However, Richard had Abraham and the archamoved to Wallingford Castle in 1242. Abraham was a tallage assessor in 1246 and 1249. In April 1250, he was described as ‘the king’s Jew’ in his appointment to a commission investigating the Jewry in London, York, Canterbury, Lincoln and Nottingham.

Matthew Paris claimed that Abraham was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1250 for desecrating a statue of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child on her lap. It was alleged that he put the statue in his privy and did ‘most filthy and unmentionable’ things to it and convinced his wife Floria to do the same.

It was said that Floria secretly washed the dirt from the statue and that when Abraham discovered this he suffocated her. He was put in the ‘foulest dungeon of the Tower of London’ and ‘almost all the other Jews’ lobbied for his execution.

When the Earl of Cornwall spoke on Abraham’s behalf, he was offered him 1000 marks (£666 13s 4d) to keep Abraham in prison. For a fine of 700 marks (£466 13s 4d), Richard was able to secure his release.

Of course, there is no evidence that Matthew Paris’s story about Abraham of Berkhamsted and the statue is true. Abraham was indeed in legal trouble in 1250. But this may have been related to financial issues, not charges of murder or blasphemy. He only lost his chattels for this and the records describing the case state that judgment of death or loss of limb was to be reserved to the king.

This would have been quite lenient treatment and a slight punishment in the 13th century England if Abraham had both murdered his wife and desecrated a Christian statue. In January 1255, he was granted to Richard, permitted to lend money ‘in the king’s land like the king’s demesne Jews’, and exempted from tallage and from having any debts owed to him pardoned.

After Richard’s death in 1272, Abraham was granted by Henry III to Richard’s son and heir Edmund.

Five years later, Abraham of Berkhamsted, son of Hagin, was held as a prisoner in the Tower of London by 13 June 1277. Sometime after 13 June 1277, Abraham was fined 10 shillings by the Tower sergeant for fighting in prison.

The date of his imprisonment coincides with the mass incarceration of England’s Jews on the trumped-up charges of coin-clipping, and this may have been the accusation levelled against him. Abraham was probably one of the many Jews executed in the coin-clipping trials. He had been executed by June or July 1281, when he was described as a ‘condemned Jew’ and his debts had been forfeited to the crown.

Abraham of Berkhamsted had worked at Berkhamsted Castle in the mid-13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

After a lapse of almost seven centuries, a modern Jewish community was formed in Berkhamsted during World War II, when a congregation was formed by war-time evacuees from London. The Berkhamsted United Synagogue Membership Group first held services for the high holy days in September 1940, according to reports in the Jewish Chronicle.

The first services were held at Elvyne Hall on Chesham Road in Berkhamsted in September 1940. When the membership group was officially inaugurated in February 1941, it was already holding regular Sabbath services and Hebrew classes in Berkhamsted.

The Jewish Chronicle later reported the membership group had acquired the premises at Elvyne Hall, Chesham Road, ‘to be used as a Synagogue, Hebrew classes, and communal centre.’ It followed Ashkenazi Orthodox ritual and was linked to the United Synagogue.

Elvyne Hall on Chesham Road stands immediately opposite the house where the author Graham Greene was born.

Jewish activities in Berkhamsted soon included regular Sabbath services and Hebrew classes under the direction of the Revd M Katz, who is also referred to in 1941 as the group’s secretary.

The Jewish community held high holy day services in Berkhamsted Town Hall in 1941 and 1942 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

However, the high holy days daytime services were held at the Town Hall in Berkhamsted in and at the Congregational Church Hall in 1943, an indication that the regular premises were too small to hold the large number of people attending on the high holy days.

The Revd M Katz, later rabbi, served the congregation from at least 1941. He was the minister and secretary in 1945-1946 and secretary in the 1947 and 1948. He also taught at the Hebrew and religious classes of the nearby Hemel Hempstead United Synagogue Membership Group.

Rabbi Katz of Berkhamsted was a guest preacher at a number of London synagogues in 1946 and 1947, and he addressed the membership group’s Hebrew classes annual prize distribution in 1947. The group continued to list its address at Elvyne Hall, Chesham Road, in the Jewish Year Books in 1947 and 1948, but seems to have closed in or shortly after 1947.

The Congregational Church in Berkhamsted was built in 1867 and demolished in 1974 … the church hall was used for high holy day service in 1943

The Jewish journalist and television presenter Dame Esther Louise Rantzen was born in Berkhamsted in 1940, a daughter of Katherine Flora (Leverson) and Henry Barnato Rantzen (1902–1992). She presented That’s Life on the BBC in 1973-1994. She is a campaigner for children and the elderly, and established the helpline Childline.

Berkhamsted had a Jewish population of 140 in 1947. Today, the Jewish population of Berkhamsted totals 0.5 per cent of the people in the town.

In recent years, the South Bucks Jewish community has emerged as an informal and inclusive Jewish community with members across Buckinghamshire and West Hertfordshire. Rabbi Neil Janes describes it as ‘a friendly, informal and inclusive Jewish community which welcomes Jews and those interested in Judaism from across South Bucks and West Herts.’

It is a growing congregation with about 240 adults and children. It meets online and in Amersham for services, runs a religion school, and welcome all Jews, non-Jewish partners and families to its weekly and festival services as well as social and community events.

The community joined the 800th anniversary celebrations last year in Saint Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted, where an interfaith gathering incorporated a Sukkot service. The shul created an decorated a sukka in the churchyard.

Shul and church members met again for a ‘bring and share’ lunch at Saint Peter’s and Simchat Torah celebration.

Elvyne Hall, the 1940s synagogue in Berkhamsted, stands opposite the house where Graham Greene was born (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Shabbat Shalom

Daily prayers in the Kingdom Season
with USPG: (20) 24 November 2023

Colossus Way in Bletchley recalls the giant computers at Bletchley Park … where did Saint Paul’s Colossae get its name? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In this time between All Saints’ Day and Advent Sunday, we are in the Kingdom Season in the Calendar of the Church of England. This week began with the Second Sunday before Advent (19 November 2023).

Throughout this week, I am reflecting on the seven churches in cities or places that give their names to the titles of nine letters or epistles by Saint Paul: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessaloniki.

My reflections this morning follow this pattern:

1, A reflection on a Pauline church;

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

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Harbour of Rhodes … the medieval poet Manuel Philes linked the name of Colossae with the Colossus of Rhodes (Photograph: RGH Travel)

Saint Paul’s Colossae:

Colossus was a set of computers at Bletchley Park developed by British codebreakers in 1943-1945. They were the world’s first electronic computer with a single purpose: to help decipher the Lorenz-encrypted (Tunny) messages between Hitler and his generals during World War II. The first computer was immediately dubbed ‘Colossus’ by the staff at Bletchley Park due to its immense proportions.

The Colossus of Rhodes (Κολοσσός της Ρόδου) was a colossal statue of the Greek sun god Helios that bestraddled the harbour of Rhodes and it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Colosseum in Rome may have taken its name from a colossal statue of Nero on the model of the Colossus of Rhodes.

When I was on Colossus Way in Bletchley earlier this month, I wondered where the city of Colossae, which gives its name to one of Saint Paul’s letters, derived its name from. The medieval poet Manuel Philes, incorrectly, connected the name ‘Colossae’ with the Colossus of Rhodes. More recently, the name has been connected to the idea of setting up a sacred space or shrine. Another proposal relates the name to the Greek κολάζω (kolazo), ‘to punish,’ while others suggest the name derives from the manufacture there of a dyed wool known as colossinus.

The Apostle Paul wrote 14 of the 27 books the New Testament. He founded several Christian communities in Asia Minor and Europe from the mid-40s to the mid-50s AD, and wrote letters to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessaloniki. The Letter to the Colossians is the twelfth book in the New Testament.

The Letter to the Colossians is addressed to the church in Colossae, a small Phrygian city near Laodicea, which is named in the Book of Revelation, and about 160 km (100 miles) from Ephesus in Asia Minor, which is also named in the Book of Revelation and which also received a letter from Saint Paul.

Colossae (Κολοσσαί) was an ancient city of Phrygia in Asia Minor, and one of the most celebrated cities of southern Anatolia (modern Turkey). Colossae was 15 km (9.3 mi) south-east of Laodicea on the road through the Lycus Valley near the Lycus River at the foot of Mount Cadmus, the highest mountain in Turkey’s western Aegean Region, and between the cities of Sardeis and Celaenae, and south-east of the ancient city of Hierapolis and Pamukkale.

The first mention of the city may be in a 17th-century BCE Hittite inscription, which refers to a city called Huwalušija, which some archaeologists believe is a reference to early Colossae.

Colossae was significant city from the 5th century BCE. At Colossae, Herodotus describes how, ‘the river Lycos falls into an opening of the earth and disappears from view, and then after an interval of about five furlongs it comes up to view again, and this river also flows into the Maiander.’

The geographer Herodotus is the first to refer to Colossae by name in the fifth century BCE. He says it was a ‘great city in Phrygia’ that accommodates the Persian king Xerxes I when he was on his way to wage war against the Greeks in the Greco-Persian Wars. By then the city had reached a certain level of wealth and size. Writing in the 5th century BCE, Xenophon described Colossae as ‘a populous city, wealthy and of considerable magnitude.’

Colossae was famous for its wool trade. According to Strabo, the city earned great revenue from the flocks and the wool of Colossae gave its name to the colour colossinus.

The rebellious Persian satrap Tissaphernes was executed in Colossae In 396 BCE, when he was lured there and slain on the command of Cyrus the Younger.

The city continued to enjoy commercial prosperity during the Hellenistic period. But it had dwindled greatly in size and in importance by the time of Saint Paul, when it was known for a local angel cult.

Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians points to the existence of an early Christian community. It may have been written in the 60s, while he was in prison. Colossians could have been written in Rome during his first imprisonment, at about the same time he wrote his letters to Philemon and Ephesians, as all three letters were sent with Tychicus and Onesimus. Other scholars, however, suggest it was written in Caesarea or Ephesus.

Colossae was known for its fusion of religious ideas and practices, including Jewish, Gnostic and pagan strands, in what was described in the first century CE as an angel cult. This unorthodox cult venerated the Archangel Michael, said to have caused a curative spring to gush from a fissure in the earth. Saint Theodoret of Cyrrhus said these cults survived in Phrygia during the fourth century.

Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians addresses the challenges the Christians in Colossae faced in the context of syncretistic Gnostic religions that were developing in Asia Minor. According to the letter, Epaphras seems to have been a person of some importance in the Christian community in Colossae, and tradition presents him as its first bishop. The epistle also seems to imply that Sain Paul had never visited the city, because it only speaks of him having ‘heard’ of the Colossians’ faith.

In his Letter to Philemon, Saint Paul speaks of his hope to visit Colossae after he is freed from prison. Tradition also names Philemon as the second bishop of Colossae. The first historically documented bishop is Epiphanius, who did not attend the Council of Chalcedon. Thee metropolitan bishop Nunechius of Laodicea, the capital of the Roman province of Phrygia Pacatiana, signed the decrees of Chalcedon on his behalf.

Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis were destroyed by an earthquake in the 64 CE, and Colossae was rebuilt independent of the support of Rome. Colossae was part of the Roman and Byzantine province of Phrygia Pacatiana. The city’s fame and status continued into the Byzantine period, and in 858 CE, it was a Metropolitan See. The Byzantines also built the church of Saint Michael in the vicinity of Colossae, one of the largest church buildings in the region.

The town may have been abandoned when Arab invasions forced the population to resettle nearby in Chonae (Chonai), modern-day Honaz. Colossae’s famous church was destroyed in 1192-1193, during the Byzantine civil wars. Chonae was the birthplace of the Byzantine Greek writers Nicetas and Michael Choniates, and it was ruled by Manuel Maurozomes in 1206-1230.

What remains of the buried ruins of Colossae (‘the mound’) is 3 km north of Honaz. The site has never been fully excavated. Instead, most archaeological attention has been focused on nearby Laodicea and Hierapolis. The site extends to 8.8 ha (22 acres), and includes a biconical acropolis almost 30 metres (100 ft) high.

A theatre on the eastern slope could seat around 5,000 people, suggesting the city had a population of 25,000 to 30,000 people during the Roman period. A necropolis has Hellenistic tombs. The remains of sections of columns may have marked a processional way, or the cardo or main street in the city. The remains of one column mark the supposed location of a church once stood, possibly that of Saint Michael.

In this letter, Paul condemns the false teachings circulating in Colossae. He insists that angel worship, ‘secret’ knowledge and asceticism have no place in Christian belief, and he repeats his teaching that Gentile believers do not need to adopt Jewish religious laws or be circumcised.

Saint Paul constantly tells his readers that the whole law is summed up in one single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Galatians 5: 5). On more than one occasion, he summarises the Christian message in this way. In the Letter to the Galatians, for example, he says: ‘The only thing that counts is faith working through love’ (Galatians 5: 6). Then he writes, ‘For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.’ (Galatians 5: 14).

In the Letter to the Colossians, Saint Paul writes: ‘Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in harmony’ (Colossians 3: 14).

The Colosseum in Rome … Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians may have been written in the 60s while he was a prisoner in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 19: 45-48 (NRSVA):

45 Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; 46 and he said, ‘It is written,

“My house shall be a house of prayer”;
but you have made it a den of robbers.’

47 Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.

The remains of the ancient city of Colossae (Photograph: A. Savin / Wikipedia / FAL)

Today’s Prayers (Friday 24 November 2023):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’. This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (24 November 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Give thanks for the lives and work of women throughout the world. Pray for an end to gender inequality.

The Collect:

Heavenly Father,
whose blessed Son was revealed
to destroy the works of the devil
and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life:
grant that we, having this hope,
may purify ourselves even as he is pure;
that when he shall appear in power and great glory
we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom;
where he is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Gracious Lord,
in this holy sacrament you give substance to our hope:
bring us at the last
to that fullness of life for which we long;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Yesterday’s Reflection (Philippi)

Continued Tomorrow (Thessaloniki)

The site of Colossae has never been fully excavated

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

What remains of the buried ruins of Colossae (‘the mound’), 3 km north of Honaz