This is a temporary article. We hope to be able to upload chapters from Dr David Lewis’ book.
Through the 18th century, there are scattered references to Jews in Oxford, most of them teaching Hebrew and a convert, David Francisco Lates publishing a Hebrew grammar book with the OUP in 1758. James Lates, his son, was a musician and composer, becoming violinist to the Duke of Marlborough. Later in the century a Dr Raphael is referred to as a ‘Professor of Music’ and there are references to Jewish peddlars and even a Jewish dentist, Mayer Lewis, who publishes ‘An Essay on the Formation, Structure and Use of the Teeth’.
In the 1841 census, three Jewish households are recorded in Oxford: Levi, Harris and Woolf, all of whom are clothes dealers but become cigar dealers and jewellers by the 1860s. The founding date of the Oxford Jewish Congregation is taken as 1842, though the synagogue was not on its present site but in St Ebbe’s. Here, a terrible tragedy took place in 1844 when the Rabbi and his daughter, Rebecca, died in a fire and a Sefer Torah was also lost.
Despite this setback, it was clearly an aspirational community: when the Chief Rabbi of the day, S N Adler, wrote to request information about whether or not the community had a mikveh (ritual bath), the answer given was ‘not yet’. By the 1851 census there were ten Jewish families in the city, but enlargement had slowed and by 1871, with only one additional Jew in the previous ten years, the community no longer had a synagogue. However, a visit by the Chief Rabbi prompted the grant of a burial ground at Wolvercote cemetery and the opening of the university to non-Anglicans as a result of the University Reform Act of 1854 and the University Tests Act of 1871 meant that there was at last no legal impediment to Jews who wished to join the University.
In 1869 a Manchester Grammar School boy won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College and by 1882 there were 25 Jewish undergraduates. In the same year, Samuel Alexander became the first Jew elected a fellow of an Oxford College (Lincoln) and the first Jewish professor was the mathematician J.J. Sylvester, who was made Savilian Professor of Geometry in 1883.
Adolf Neubauer became the first resident Jewish scholar to catalogue the Bodleian’s Hebrew manuscripts, gaining his MA in 1873 and becoming Reader in Rabbinical Literature in 1884 and an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College.
Henceforth, progress was slow, though there is evidence of local support for the sufferings of the Jews of Russia in pogroms at the end of the 19th century, as a petition is signed by over 1500 people. The setting up of the first Jewish Society in the country (the Adler Society in 1905) and of the first Zionist Society (in 1906) is evidence that at least the Jewish students of Oxford were organised and interested in new ideas. Indeed, two visits by Chaim Weizmann to Oxford are recorded, at least one of them, in 1922 at the invitation of Lord Sam Segal.
Another key figure in the development of the Oxford Jewish community was Herbert Loewe, who returned from the Great War in 1920 and spent the next 11 years in Oxford.
This card from the Oxford congregation is one of a collection of items in the Jewish Museum, London, relating to Oxford donated in 1993.
They are mostly cards (mostly of the Adler society) and a couple of letters.
Courtesy of Jewish Museum London