The Jewish community is one of Northern Ireland’s oldest ethnic and religious minorities. Jews first arrived in the mid 19th Century on account of the linen industry. A small number of German Jewish merchants settled in Ulster and exported Irish linen across Europe and to North America and beyond. Their names included Jaffe, Lowenthal, Boas, Betzold and Portheim.
The first Jewish religious services were held in the 1860s at a private home in Holywood, Co. Down and the first synagogue was built in 1871 on Great Victoria Street, Belfast. There are currently 80 members of the Belfast community.
The community’s founder, Daniel Joseph Jaffe, is commemorated by the ornate drinking fountain located today at an entrance of 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 of German Jewish stock, but his family had converted to Christianity before he was born. The decline of the linen industry after the First World War brought the end of the early German Jewish community. The Jaffe family was forced to leave Belfast in 1916 because of anti-German hostility during the war.
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 peddlers 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. 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. 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.
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. 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 shortly after the Second World War.
Former spiritual leaders of the Belfast community include Rev. Dr Joseph Chotzner (1870-1880, 1892-1897), Rabbi Dr Isaac Herzog (1916-1918) and Rabbi Jacob Shachter (1925-1954). Rabbi Herzog became Chief Rabbi of Israel and his Belfast born son, Chaim, was elected president of Israel in 1983.
A childhood evacuee who lived in Kinnaird Steret, Belfast during the First World War was the distinguished Israeli foreign minister, 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 Belfastin 1917,was a major figure in her own right. Also living on Cliftonpark Avenue around this time, was Maxim Litvinov, who later became foreign minister of the USSR under Stalin. Between 1890-1892 he taught at Harrow school. One of the first Oscar winners, Holywood producer and screenwriter, Benjamin Glazer, was born in Belfast in 1887The BelfastJewish community made a significant contribution to the cultural and commercial life of Northern Ireland. Actors Harold Goldblatt and Harry Towb were members of the Belfast Jewish Dramatic society, one of three societies which formed the famous Group Theatre in 1940.
Helen Lewis brought Laban’s modern dance to Northern Ireland and Solly Lipsitz was a distinguished 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 in York Street such as the Model and Globe and Gilpins on Sandy Row, as well as Enlanders Jewellery.
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, a 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 deportation to extermination camps like Auschwitz, Triblinka and Mali Trostinec. Families 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. The refugee farm in Millisle was established in 1939. From 1954-1965, the community’s rabbi was Dr Alexander Carlebach, a refugee from Nazi Germany.
In 1964, the new synagogue known as the Woolfson Centre was opened on Somerton Road to an award-winning design. it has been described as “one of the most sophisticated small synagogues built in the United Kingdom”. Community members became increasingly associated with the professions and included lawyers, Queen’s Counsel, Crown Prosecutors, and medical consultants. A number of successful business people continued philanthropic traditions to the wider community as well as other civic representation through professional associations. However, 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 and 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 Protestant and Catholics particularly in troubled North Belfast. The last kosher butchers in Belfast and the Levy’s delicatessen and grocery shop, both located on the Antrim Road, 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 for Manchester following a shooting attack and later 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.
The community employs a Rabbi and maintains a range of cultural and religious services for its members and visitors. Under the Jews Schmooze rubric sees thousands visit the synagogue and other venues for plays, concerts and educational talks and displays on Jewish life and heritage. A number of community members make regular broadcasts and contributions to film and television. Belfast boasts a thriving branch of the Council for Christians and Jews and a growing Friendship society for elderly members of the Jewish and wider communities. The Northern Ireland Friends of Israel comprises Jewish and non-Jewish supporters attracting over 5,000 people its events.