First rabbi for York in 800 years

Image credit: York Liberal Jewish community

By Lianne Kolirin

York’s fledgling Jewish community has raised tens of thousands of pounds to engage the city’s first rabbi since the 13th century. 

York is synonymous with the infamous massacre at Clifford’s Tower in 1190, as rumours spread accusing Jews of murdering Christian children. The incident went on to become known as the blood libel. 

Trapped inside the tower of York Castle by a baying mob, many of the community – at the time one of the biggest in England – chose to kill themselves rather than be murdered or forcibly baptised by their attackers.

Perhaps surprisingly, Jewish people returned to the city soon after the massacre and remained until 1290, when Edward I expelled all Jews from his kingdom. 

A small community once again began to build up in the 1890s but in 1975 the York Hebrew Congregation, which never had its own rabbi, closed its doors for the last time due to dwindling numbers. 

The massacre may have occurred more than 800 years ago, but for many, the city is the site of one of the worst antisemitic episodes in British history – something which lives on in British Jewry’s collective memory. 

Ben Rich, who co-founded the York Liberal Jewish Community after moving there from London in 2013, said: “A popular fiction is that, as a result of the massacre, a rabbinic edict was issued against sleeping within York’s walls, although no evidence of such an edict exists.” 

The 2011 census recorded more than 200 Jews in York and by 2014 it became clear that there was an appetite for regular synagogue services.

The first service was conducted in June 2014 by Rabbi Danny Rich, former chief executive of Liberal Judaism. 

Since then the community has flourished and more festivals and religious occasions have been held including weddings, baby blessings and even the world’s first gender neutral bnei mitzvah service. 

Ben Rich, who is a trustee of the Religion Media Centre, said: “When I moved here we knew there was a basis for a community so my wife and I decided we wanted to give it a go. We have a very different model than most synagogues in that our members actually come!

“With nearly a hundred active members, fortnightly services and a full schedule of lifecycle events, the Jewish story of York is very much an ongoing tale.”

The community has been fortunate to have had the support of several student rabbis, but securing a permanent appointment would enable it to extend its offerings in terms of services, events and pastoral and educational support.

They aim to raise £75,000 to hire a part-time rabbi on a 3-year contract. More than half has been pledged to date, so they hope to be in a position to recruit by next summer. 

“I think it would be transformative to have the right person as a rabbi in York,” said Mr Rich.  “There is now a very active community here but it depends entirely on volunteers and that’s very hard work. The right rabbi I’m sure would act as a catalyst for a wide range of activities.”

English Heritage is working on a conservation programme for Clifford’s Tower and the head properties curator, Jeremy Ashbee, has long been trying to connect with the Jewish community in the city.

Last year Mr Ashbee, Mr Rich and Shannon Kirshner, current chair of the community, were interviewed for an English Heritage podcast entitled “Speaking With Shadows: The Medieval Massacre of the Jews of York.”

Mr Ashbee told the RMC: “This for us is a God-send because these are people with an unquestionable interest in the story. I really hope that they can find the funding to have a rabbi because I think the sustainability of the community will go up immeasurably.

“It became very clear that while the community is very keen that the historic Jewish story is told, they really want to emphasise that it’s a living community and a modern story that hasn’t ended yet.”

Ben Rich reflected: “The pogrom of York is one of the most famous events of the Middle Ages and there hasn’t been a big Jewish community in York since. 

“But there is huge potential for there to be now and bringing Judaism back to York is a fantastic legacy for anybody who believes in revitalising Judaism and bringing Jewish life back to places where there should be Jewish life. 

“York is symbolic of other places with small communities such as Bath and Lincoln. It’s an exciting place to be.”

Lincoln was also home to a thriving Jewish community in the Middle Ages until the expulsion of 1290. Two years ago, its historic synagogue hosted its first Jewish coming of age ceremony for over 700 years.

Rabbi Charley Baginsky, interim director of Liberal Judaism, said: “Liberal Judaism is so proud of its York congregation and its incredible success building a thriving and active Jewish community in a place many thought there were no Jews.

“As a movement we have been very involved in helping York grow and will continue to do so as they move onto the next phase of their development in the search for a permanent rabbi and even greater growth in the surrounding area.”

COMMENTATORS:

Ben Rich, Co-founder of York Liberal Jewish Community.

Shannon Kirshner, Chair of the York Liberal Jewish Community

Jeremy Ashbee, Head properties curator, English Heritage

Simon Rothstein, PR for Liberal Judaism