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Key of Belfast Synagogue

The Jewish Community in Northern Ireland

Catherine Lynagh looks at the significant contribution of one of NI's smaller communities

Updated: 14/07/2008

The history of Jews in Northern Ireland dates back over a century and the community has played an influential role in the province’s pre-war history.

There is an estimated 500 Jews living in Northern Ireland today, with 30 members attending the North Belfast Synagogue on a regular basis. As one of the first minority groups in Northern Ireland, the Jewish community and its individuals, has had an important input into Belfast’s history.

The current Belfast Rabbi, Avraham Citron commented: 'It was more the individuals who contributed to Northern Ireland’s community in the past.'

'As a community we can only contribute so much to people of other faiths. However, as individuals the Jewish community have always felt it important to contribute to the greater community and to give what they can back. They were grateful to have been allowed in to the country in the first place.'

Otto Jaffé a prominent Jewish businessman, who came to Belfast from Hamburg in 1877, became Belfast’s first Lord Mayor in 1899, after several years as a city councilor. A year after his term as Mayor, Jaffe was knighted and continued to participate fully in the public and educational life of the city and province. He was also Life-President of the Belfast congregation and presided over the remarkable growth of the whole community.

Perhaps the most famous individual from the Jewish Community to have made his mark in Northern Ireland is Gustav Wilhelm Wolff. Wolff, along with Edward James Harland, formed what came to be one of the largest ship building companies in the world, Harland and Wolf in 1861. The shipyard has built many types of ships continuously since then, undoubtedly the most famous being the RMS Titanic.

Harland bought the small shipyard on Queen's Island, in which he was employed as general manager, from Robert Hickson in 1858.

After buying Hickson's shipyard, Harland made Wolff, a partner in the company. Wolff was the nephew of Gustavus Schwabe, a financier from Hamburg. Schwabe had heavily invested in the Bibby Line, and the first three ships that the newly incorporated shipyard in Belfast built, were for that line.

Prior to the beginning of the 19th century, there is no record of a Jewish settlement in fairly large numbers in Northern Ireland. There was, however, at least one Jew in residence in Belfast in the year 1652. His name was Manuel Lightfoot and he was a tailor.

In or about the year 1845, Daniel Jaffe a merchant from Hamburg and father of Otto Jaffe, visited Belfast for the purpose of establishing contacts for the purchase of linen goods. Jaffe later set up a linen company under the name of Jaffe Brothers and within the next decade, there were two other Jewish linen houses functioning in Belfast by the name George Betzold & Company and Moore & Weinberg.

By the year 1869, the number of Jewish residents in Belfast was 21. In the following year, a synagogue in Great Victoria Street was built at the expense of Mr Daniel Jaffe, the founder members being Mr Jaffe, Mr Weinberg, Mr Betzhold, Mr Boas, Mr Lippman and Mr Portheihis.

In 1907 the National School for Jewish Children was established in Cliftonville Road, North Belfast. A children's hostel was opened in Clifton Park Avenue during the Second World War and all sections of the population in North Belfast united in giving succor to children torn away from their parents.

Millisle KindertransportMeanwhile a Jewish settlement, termed ‘Kinderfarm’ was set up in Millisle Co Down during the Second World War. The farm was part of the UK wide Kindertransport program set up to save and re-home refugee women and children during the War. The farm saved hundreds of children, and one survivor still lives close by.

Members of the early Belfast Synagoues played significant roles in Belfast’s history; Barney Hurwitz the long serving President of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation was appointed a Justice of the Peace and was honored with the OBE.

Jackie Morris who lived in Clifton Drive North Belfast, was ‘His Excellency’ the Israel Ambassador to New Zealand after having been consul in New York. Harold Goldblatt was one of the founders of the Ulster Group Theatre. Whilst, in local journalism the names of Judith Rosenfield and her sister Ray were well known for their contributions to the Northern Whig and Belfast Newsletter.

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