The Jewish community is amongst Northern Ireland's oldest ethnic and religious minorities and has thrived over four or five generations. If today its numbers have declined, the Jewish community continues to play a significant role in the religious and cultural life of the province.
Where did the Jews of Northern Ireland first come from?
Strangely, from Germany. It was during the 1860s and 1870s and Jews first arrived because of the linen industry. A small number of German Jewish merchants arrived in Ulster and exported Irish linen across Europe and to North America and beyond. Their names included Jaffe, Loewenthal, Boas, Betzold and Portheim.
The first Jewish religious services were held in the 1860s in Holywood, Co Down and the first synagogue built in 1871 on Great Victoria Street. The community's founder, Daniel Joseph Jaffe, is commemorated by the ornate drinking fountain which is located today at an entrance to the Victoria shopping centre in Belfast. His son, Sir Otto Jaffe, was twice Lord Mayor of the city. Gustav Wolff, a founder of the world-famous shipyard, Harland and Wolff, was also born into a German Jewish family but which had converted to Christianity before he was born.
Are the Jews in Belfast today descended from those families?
No, the decline of Ulster's linen industry after the First World War brought the end of the early German Jewish community. The Jaffe family was forced to leave Belfast because of anti-German hostility during the war. Before the war, Sir Otto had served as German consul in Belfast.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, the number of Jews in what is today Northern Ireland increased to nearly a thousand with the arrival of refugees from Eastern Europe, who were fleeing poverty and persecution. Most of this second wave of Jewish immigration came from Lithuania but there was also a minority of Polish Jews. Jewish pedlars selling goods door to door became familiar figures on the streets of Belfast and across the Province. The settlers also included glaziers, cabinet makers and tailors.
Was there a Jewish quarter in Belfast?
Many of the new arrivals lived in North Belfast, in the streets which linked the Old Lodge and Crumlin Roads, such as Fairview Street and Bedeque Street. At first they established prayer rooms in private houses nearby and formed breakaway congregations from the established community on Great Victoria Street. In 1904, the community united under one roof when Sir Otto and Lady Jaffe built a new synagogue at Annesley Street, off Carlisle circus, which still stands today. The Jaffe family also built a school around the corner, at the bottom of the Cliftonville Road, which by their stipulation was open to Protestants and Catholics as well as children from the Jewish community. Hebrew classes were taught at Jaffe school after school hours.
But the Jewish community was not limited to one particular part of the city. In the 1890s small Hebrew congregations were also established in Lurgan and Londonderry. The former lasted until the 1920s and the latter, with its synagogue on Hawkins Street, survived until the end of the Second World War.
Who were the rabbis and other noteworthy members of the Belfast community?
Spiritual leaders of the Belfast community include Rev Dr Chotzner, Rabbi Dr Isaac Herzog (1916-18) and Rabbi Jacob Shachter (1925 - 1954). Rabbi Herzog became chief rabbi of the land of Israel and his Belfast-born son, Chaim, was elected president of Israel in 1983. A childhood evacuee who lived in Kinnaird Street, Belfast during the First World War was another distinguished Israeli, Abba Eban. Therefore, in 1918 Belfast boasted a future chief rabbi, president and foreign minister of the state of Israel. Chaim's mother, Sarah Herzog, who came to Belfast in 1917, was a major figure in her own right. The largest psychiatric and geriatric hospital in the Middle East, the Sarah Herzog hospital in Jerusalem, is named after her.
Also living on Cliftonpark Avenue around this time was Maxim Litvinov who later became foreign minister of the USSR under Stalin. One of the first Oscar winners, Hollywood producer and screenwriter, Benjamin Glazer, was born in Belfast in 1887.
What contribution did the Jewish community make to Northern Ireland?
The Belfast Jewish community made a significant contribution to the cultural and commercial life of Northern Ireland. Well-known actors included Harold Goldblatt and Harry Towb. The Belfast Jewish Dramatic society was one of three societies which formed the famous Group theatre in 1940. Other Jews prominent in the arts included Helen Lewis, who pioneered modern dance in Northern Ireland, and Solly Lipsitz, jazz commentator. The Rosenfield sisters, Judith and Ray, pioneered women's journalism. Amongst well known Jewish-owned businesses were Goorwitch's outfitters, Solomon and Peres (music producers and distributors), Berwoods furniture stores in Portadown, Dungannon and Lisburn, and furniture shops on York Street such as the Model and Globe, and Gilpins on Sandy Row.
Did the community experience anti-Semitism and how was it affected by the Holocaust in Europe?
A social club, the Belfast Jewish Institute, was formed in 1926 at Ashfield Gardens, off Glandore Avenue, following an incident when Jewish children were refused membership of a local tennis club. Out of that negative experience of discrimination grew a thriving social and recreational centre for the Jews of Belfast, with function rooms, restaurant and tennis courts.
The towns and villages of Eastern Europe where many Belfast Jews came from were scenes of massacres of Jews by the Nazis and deportations to extermination camps like Auschwitz and Triblinka. Family left behind in Eastern Europe were decimated.
During the Second World War the community, assisted by generous friends from outside the community, took in refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe, and a hostel was opened on Cliftonpark Avenue. In 1939 a refugee farm was established at Millisle County Down which was run along the lines of an Israeli kibbutz. Amongst those who found refuge at Millisle were members of the kindertransport (children who were permitted entry into the UK on the eve of the war, but without their families). The community's then lay leader, Barney Hurwitz, was personally responsible for acting as surety to scores of refugees from Nazi persecution. After the war, the Millisle farm was a place of recuperation of child survivors of Auschwitz. The story of Millisle has been told in the children's book, Faraway Home, by Marilyn Taylor.
Members of the community made the ultimate sacrifice fighting in the British armed forces during both world wars.
What happened to the Belfast community after the war?
From 1954-65 the community's rabbi was Dr Alexander Carlebach, himself a refugee from Nazi Germany. In 1964 the new synagogue was opened on Somerton Road to an award-winning design. Community members became increasingly associated with the professions in Northern Ireland. They included lawyers, such as Ronnie Appleton QC who was senior crown prosecutor, Ivan Selig, senior partner at the firm of Mills Selig, and medical consultants, including Doctors Louis and David Hurwitz and Dennis Coppel. Even before the onset of the Troubles in 1969 the community's numbers were in decline as young professionals tended to emigrate to larger Jewish communities in England, USA or Israel, in search of jobs and marriage partners.
How did the Troubles impact on the Community?
The 1970s and 80s were decades of severe decline for the community which found it difficult to maintain essential services in the midst of political unrest. The synagogue complex was considered a neutral venue and the community hosted efforts at reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics, particularly in troubled North Belfast. The last Kosher butchers in Belfast and the Levy's delicatessen and grocery shop, both [of which were] located on the Antrim Road, [have since] closed. The Belfast Jewish Institute was burnt down by vandals in 1981. Leonard Kaitcer was one of three Jews to be killed as a result of the Troubles. Leonard Steinberg, a local businessman, left Belfast for Manchester following a shooting attack. He expanded his business, Stanley Leisure, and was raised to the peerage as Lord Steinberg of Belfast.
During the Troubles, the community found it difficult to attract the services of a minister and for a number of years relied upon clergy who visited during the festivals. The synagogue was partitioned in two in the early 1990s to make way for an on-site social centre.
What kind of future does the community have today?
Although the community is today down to under 80 members it continues to make a contribution to life in Northern Ireland out of proportion to its numbers. The Jews Schmooze cultural festival, organised by Dr Katy Radford MBE, saw thousands visit the synagogue for plays, concerts and an educational display on Jewish life. Academic Dr Leon Litvack is a well-known broadcaster. Recent rabbis are Rabbi Citron and Brackman and today, Rabbi David Singer services the religious needs of the community. Belfast boasts a thriving branch of the Council of Christians and Jews and a friendship society for elderly members of the Jewish and wider communities. The community plays a significant part in supporting annual Holocaust commemorations in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Friends of Israel combines Jewish and non Jewish supporters and has attracted over 5,000 people to its events.
What is there to see?
Places of Jewish interest in Northern Ireland include the Jaffe fountain at the Victoria Centre mentioned above, the birthplace of Chaim Herzog on Cliftonpark Avenue (which is marked by a blue plaque) and the older of the two Jewish cemeteries, which is a separate plot located at the City Cemetery in west Belfast and which has been renovated in recent years. A portrait of Sir Otto Jaffe in mayoral garb is on display at Belfast City hall and the former business premises of Jaffe Brothers is today Ten Square Hotel at the back of City Hall. Visits to the synagogue are welcome and can be organised by contacting the community.