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The history of the Jews in York

Our speaker at the meeting held on the 28th July 2023 was Howard Duckworth who spoke on the history of the Jews in York. Howard, who lives in York, is a member of the Ark synagogue in London as well as the warden of the York Liberal Jewish Synagogue.

The focus of the most significant moment in the history of the Jewish peoples in York is on Clifford Tower and York Rotary Club’s recent connection with the Tower provided an insightful link.

It was in 1170 that the first Jews settled in York, mainly bankers but with other trades as well. In 1190 opinion turned against them and they fled to the Clifford Tower for safety. They were offered an escape if they converted to Christianity, although there is some evidence that the few who did were murdered none the less. Consequently about 150 died as a result of a suicide pact within the tower. It is said that the building was then set on fire and the bodies were thrown over the walls into the river.

This latter assumption may not be entirely correct as in 1170 land at Jewbury was granted by the King via Lord Howden for the burial of Jews.

In the 1980’s some graves were discovered as a car park was constructed on the site. This work was stopped by the Chief Rabbi and the bodies were re-interred and the land was purchased by the Sainsbury family trust so that the graves would never be disturbed.

Little known is that In the 1890’s a synagogue was established above a joiners workshop in Aldwark but this was closed in 1975 by Dr David Morris whose grandfather had started it.

Eight years ago. the York Liberal Jewish Community commenced in the friends meeting house and now has a membership of nearing one hundred.

The one-time myth that no Jews are allowed in York since the Clifford Tower massacre has stubbornly remained throughout the centuries but has now been recognized for what it is and the Jewish community has taken new heart, and it is hoped that a new Rabbi will be appointed in coming weeks, the first in 700 years to live within the walls of York. If confirmed, it will be a significant moment for the life of the Jewish community and the city at large. The hope now is for a new building to be found that can be used as the Synagogue.

Of significance in that journey of healing was a service held within the Clifford Tower, using the Kings Chapel, late March 2023, the day the 150 were massacred in 1190. The service was very small, but extremely important for not only Jews in York but throughout the Jewish world.

John Wainwright

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