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350 years of British Jewish Life 

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The re-emergence of the Jewish community in England under Oliver Cromwell in 1656 may be seen as a landmark in the development of multicultural Britain.

The history of the Jews in Britain, like the history of Britain itself, is a story of successive waves of migration, of people from diverse countries with different languages and skills.

By allowing the open practice of Judaism in England, Cromwell helped to create an environment in which minority communities could become integrated into society while maintaining their own faith and traditions.

As one of the oldest minority groups in the country, the Jewish community has played a historic part in the evolution of our culturally diverse society.

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The Medieval Community

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After the Norman Conquest of 1066, William the Conqueror encouraged the Jewish population of Normandy to come to England. Relations were initially peaceful, but in the 12th and 13th centuries Jews suffered increasing persecution, culminating in their expulsion in 1290.

Clustering first in London, Jewish settlers soon spread to other towns across England and Wales. They were granted freedom of movement, but the king had the right to tax them as part of his personal income whenever he wished. The early years of settlement were fairly peaceful. Jews and Christians lived side-by-side and developed business and social contacts. Jewish people worked as traders, moneylenders, scribes, clerks and doctors. Religious life thrived, and learned rabbis contributed to Jewish scholarship.

However, relations between the Jewish and Christian communities gradually worsened. In the 12th century the preaching of the Crusades against the ‘Infidel’ led to attacks on Jews in most Western countries.

In 1189, King Richard I refused to receive Jewish delegates at his Coronation. This sign of hostility led to brutal attacks on Jewish quarters in London and other cities. Amongst the worst of these was the siege of Clifford’s Tower in York in 1190, where Jews committed mass suicide to avoid falling into the hands of the mob.

During the 13th century, Christian guilds gained control over trades and crafts. Jews were increasingly forced into money lending, which the Church banned Christians from undertaking.

After the Lateran Council of 1215, English Jews were forced to wear a white cloth badge called a ‘tabula’, shaped like the 10 commandments. A series of expulsions from different towns followed in 1233, and Jews were attacked even in places where relations had once been friendly.

Persecution increased under Edward I. He arrested and imprisoned 600 Jews from all over England in the Tower of London. 270 were hanged, and their property was confiscated. Finally, on 18 July 1290, an Edict of Expulsion was issued, giving Jews three months to leave the country. The medieval Jewish community came to an end, as the refugees from England were absorbed into the greater numbers of the Jews of Europe.


13th century stone mikveh discovered during excavations in Milk Street, City of London, 2001

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The Readmission – 1656

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In 1655, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam came to England to petition Oliver Cromwell to readmit the Jews. After heated debate, it was eventually ruled that the Edict of Expulsion had only applied to Jews living in England in 1290, and from 1656 Jewish people were once again allowed to worship openly.

Although no Jews resided legally in England between 1290 and 1656, by the mid 16th century there was in fact a small population of Sephardim – Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent – taking refuge from persecution in their home countries. These ‘secret Jews’ worshipped outwardly as Christians, but continued to practise Judaism in private.

In the 17th century the political and religious climate changed as England was divided by the Civil War.  The influence of Puritan and non-conformist groups grew, generating interest in the Old Testament. Domestic Bible reading became popular, leading to increased interest in Judaism.

In 1653, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector. The following year, war broke out between England and Spain, and many secret Jews thought it would be safer to reveal their religion rather than be regarded as Spanish.

In 1650, Menasseh ben Israel had written a pamphlet called The Hope of Israel arguing that in order for the Messianic Age to come, there must be Jews in all parts of the world, including England. The book was translated into English in 1652, and in 1655 Menasseh came to England to put his argument to Cromwell and the Council of State in person.

Cromwell was in favour of religious freedom, and may have been influenced by Menasseh’s religious arguments. He was also keen to improve trade and knew Jewish merchants had made an important contribution to Holland’s increased prosperity. However, his Council of State could not agree on the conditions under which Jews should be readmitted, and no conclusion was reached. In March 1656, Menasseh joined some of London’s secret Jews in signing a less ambitious petition, asking Cromwell to allow them to meet in their houses for prayer, and to establish a burial ground.

This was granted, and after nearly four centuries of exile Jewish people were permitted to form congregations for worship.



Menasseh ben Israel Portrait thought to show the respected rabbi and scholar, Menasseh ben Israel, after an original by Rembrandt, 17th century.

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Growth of a New Community

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The newly formed Sephardi community flourished, as immigrants arrived from Holland and southern Europe. They were soon joined by Ashkenazi Jews, who came originally from Germany, and later from Eastern Europe.

The first Sephardi synagogue was founded in 1656 at Creechurch Lane in the City of London, and a burial ground was leased at Mile End, further to the east. In 1701 Bevis Marks, a new larger synagogue with seats for 400 men and 160 women, was constructed near the old one. This continues in use as the oldest active synagogue in Britain.

Sephardi Jews worked as physicians, jewellers, engravers, confectioners and street traders. One of the most successful was Sampson Gideon, who became a wealthy financier and lent money to the government to assist in funding enterprises such as the Seven Years’ War.

Among the most famous 18th century Sephardi Jews was Daniel Mendoza, a popular hero and champion boxer of England for most years between 1788 and 1795. He did much to provide a positive image of Jewish people amongst the general public.

Soon after the Readmission, the Sephardim were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from central Europe. The first Ashkenazi synagogue, the Great Synagogue, was founded in 1692 in Duke’s Place in the City of London, and two further major synagogues, the Hambro and the New, opened nearby in the next 70 years.

Among the most notable Ashkenazi immigrants was Nathan Mayer Rothschild, founder of one of the world’s greatest banking empires, who set up a business in Manchester in 1798 and moved to London in 1805. Others were very poor, and scratched a living selling ribbons, watches, jewellery, or old clothes. The Jewish pedlar became a familiar figure throughout the country.

Wars with France and the expansion of the Royal Navy enabled some Jews to become established as marine store dealers, optical instrument dealers and tailors in the West Country seaports.

The famous English boxers Daniel Mendoza (1763-1836) and Humphreys fighting

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The Jew Bill – 1753

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In 1753, the Jews’ Naturalisation Act, popularly known as the ‘Jew Bill’, was passed. It proved so controversial that it was repealed the following year. This encouraged the community to take a more active approach to political life, with the establishment of a Committee of Deputies of British Jews in 1760.

The Jews’ Naturalisation Act allowed Jewish immigrants to become naturalised as British citizens by applying to Parliament, without having to take the Christian oath that was normally required. It was passed by Henry Pelham’s Whig government despite opposition from the Tory party in the House of Commons.

This caused a great public outcry. There were demonstrations in the streets demanding that the Jew Bill be repealed, although in fact only a very small number of Jewish immigrants had sufficient resources to apply to Parliament for naturalisation on an individual basis.

In 1754 the Jew Bill was repealed, and it was not until 1835 that Jewish immigrants were finally permitted to become naturalised without taking a Christian oath.

The events surrounding the Jew Bill encouraged the Jewish community to engage more actively in political life. This led the Sephardi community to establish the London Committee of Deputies of British Jews to pay homage to George III on his accession to the throne, in 1760. Deputies had previously been appointed for special occasions, but this became the first standing committee.

In the same year, the Ashkenazi community appointed their own committee. In 1817 the two were combined as one body, which became the Board of Deputies of British Jews, with the aim of protecting, supporting and defending the interests, religious rights and customs of Jews in Britain. It continues to serve as a representative body of the Jewish community today.

Bill for Naturalization of Jews, 1753

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©Jewish Museum London

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the Jewish community of Britain increased in size and gained growing acceptance in British society. Many of the major charitable and communal organisations that underpin the community today have their origins in this period.

By the end of the 18th century, the Jewish population of Britain had increased to more than 20,000. London remained the largest community, but there were also well established communities in county towns and seaports across the country.

The community’s leaders were increasingly drawn from the Ashkenazim, generally from a handful of influential families. Whilst considerable variations in wealth and status remained, the community was gradually becoming increasingly prosperous, well educated and integrated into British life.

One particularly important figure in the community was Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885), a successful Sephardi businessman who retired at the age of 40 and devoted himself to charitable and diplomatic work on behalf of Jewish people in Britain and across the world.

In 1817 the Jews’ Free School was founded, with the initial aims of providing apprenticeships, and countering missionary activity and crime among Jewish youth.

The establishment of the West London Synagogue in 1840 reflected a desire by some Jews to move to a form of worship more in keeping with modern life. This marked the start of Reform Judaism in Britain, a movement that gained further support in the 20th century.

Among the many philanthropic organisations of the period, one of the most important was the Jewish Board of Guardians, established in 1859 to give assistance to the Jewish poor. It was one of the main constituents of what is now Jewish Care.

In 1866, Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler suggested to the Great, Hambro and New synagogues that they should form a closer union, along with the newer Central and Bayswater synagogues.This was formalised by Act of Parliament in 1870,leading to the establishment of the United Synagogue, an alliance of orthodox Ashkenazi synagogues which today includes 65 congregations.

Framed portrait in oils of Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler (1803-1890)

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©Jewish Museum London

Since the Civil War, political debate in Britain had focused on the barriers faced by those who were not members of the Church of England. The Jews were one of the religious minorities seeking to achieve civil and political equality.

Catholics could not enter Parliament until 1829, when a special form of the parliamentary oath was introduced for Catholic peers and MPs. Quakers, whose religion forbids them from swearing oaths, could not enter Parliament until 1833, when they were given special permission to make an affirmation instead of swearing an oath. However, the restrictions on Jews were not lifted until several years later.

In 1835, more than 80 years after the passing and swift repeal of the Jews’ Naturalisation Act, Jewish immigrants were finally permitted to become British citizens without being required to take a Christian oath. This was just the first stage in a long process of political and social emancipation.

David Salomons, an active campaigner for Jewish emancipation, was elected Sheriff of the City of London in 1835. Fifty years later, he was to become the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London.

In 1847 Lionel de Rothschild was elected MP for the City of London, but he was unable to take his seat as he would not make his statutory declaration ‘on the true faith of a Christian’. David Salomons was also returned to Parliament in 1851, facing the same problem.

It was not until 1858, after Rothschild had won four successive election victories, that he was permitted to take an amended form of the oath, finally allowing him to become the first practising Jew to serve as a Member of Parliament. This was followed by the Promissory Oaths Act of 1866, which allowed all non-Christians to take their seats in Parliament.

Other restrictions were also lifted in the mid-19th century. For example, Jews were admitted to municipal office in 1845, allowing the election of Jewish mayors. They were permitted to take degrees at Cambridge University in 1856, and at Oxford in 1871.

With the removal of these disabilities, Jews were able to play an active role in political life. The first Jew to hold ministerial office was George Jessel, who was made Solicitor General in 1871; he later became Master of the Rolls. By the end of the century Nathaniel de Rothschild had been appointed to the peerage, and in 1908 Herbert Samuel joined the Cabinet. Rufus Isaacs was appointed Lord Chief Justice in 1913, and later became Viceroy of India.

Vanity Fair caricature of Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild (1806-1879). He was the first Jewish MP.

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The Great Migration

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During the late 19th century the Jewish population of Eastern Europe was facing increased persecution and economic hardship. Huge numbers of Russian and Polish Jews fled in search of a better life, and many of them settled in Britain.

Jewish residence in Russia was confined to an area called the Pale of Settlement, and only certain occupations were permitted. Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, Jewish communities were subject to widespread pogroms – violent mass attacks, often officially instigated.

Between 1881 and 1914 over 2 million Jewish people left Russia, Poland and the Hapsburg Empire. While the majority went to the United States, around 150,000 settled in Britain, mainly in areas near the docks where they had arrived, in the East End of London and in regional centres such as Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow and Liverpool.

The new immigrants found employment in low wage, labour-intensive industries such as tailoring and cabinet-making, and their presence had a dramatic impact on the Jewish community in Britain.

They generated a vibrant culture based on their native Yiddish, a language derived from Hebrew and German. Yiddish newspapers and literature were widely available and Yiddish theatre flourished.

As boatloads of new immigrants arrived, conditions in London’s East End became increasingly overcrowded. Whole families lived in one room, and sometimes worked there as well.

In response, the established Jewish community set up many charities to assist those in need. Notable institutions included the Jews’ Hospital and Orphan Asylum in Norwood, formed from the amalgamation of two older institutions, and the Jews’ Temporary Shelter, giving short-term assistance to new arrivals.

The number of pupils at the Jews’ Free School grew rapidly, and by 1900 the school roll had increased to 4,250, making it the largest school in Europe. It educated boys and girls in both secular and religious studies, anglicising the children of immigrants and helping them integrate into British society.

Numerous small synagogues, hevrot, were founded in all types of premises. In 1887, Samuel Montagu founded the Federation of Synagogues to unify these new communities and give them a recognised communal voice.

The Fox family at their Passover Seder c.1900

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Jewish Life in the Regions

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Throughout the history of Jewish life in Britain, there have always been thriving communities outside London. At the turn of the 20th century, the largest of these were in great industrial cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.

Earlier Jewish communities had mostly been located in ports and county towns, as these offered the best opportunities for traders and merchants. Outposts were often established by travelling pedlars, who gradually saved enough capital to open shops.

In 1800 there were about 20 organised communities outside London, and this number had doubled by the mid-19th century. They included fashionable resorts such as Bath and Brighton, ports such as Plymouth, Exeter and Great Yarmouth, and regional centres such as Gloucester, Bedford and Canterbury.

In the second half of the 19th century, the northern manufacturing towns became dominant, and many of the earlier, more rural communities faded away. The period of the Great Migration saw the growth of large Jewish populations in Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Hull, Bradford and Sheffield. There were also clusters of smaller communities in the mining areas of South Wales, and in the shipbuilding area of the north-east coast.

Ireland’s small Jewish community, probably dating originally from the 16th century, also peaked in size in the late 19th century.

Although the majority of these new arrivals were Ashkenazim from Russia and Poland, there was also a new settlement of Sephardi Jews from North Africa, Turkey and the Middle East in Manchester. They were involved in the city’s textile trade, and opened their first synagogue in 1873.

There was generally more factory working in the regional centres than in London, although small workshops were also common. The predominant trades were very similar in all the largest Jewish communities: tailoring, boot and shoe making, and cabinet-making.

Samuels Sisters playing Tennis in Tredegar, Wales c.1906



A view of the exterior of New Synagogue, Liverpool, erected in 1856.

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The Aliens Act – 1905

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The large numbers of Eastern European Jews arriving in Britain faced hostility in some quarters, and there were calls to curb immigration. In 1905 the Aliens Act was passed in ord

er to restrict Jewish entry to Britain, and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 brought immigration to a halt.

The Aliens Act was the result of a sustained campaign to restrict the immigration of ‘pauper aliens’ to Britain. New immigrants frequently faced hostility and prejudice, and were blamed for a range of social problems. They were accused of causing overcrowding in the inner-city areas where they lived, and of taking jobs from English workers by accepting lower wages and poor conditions.

Significant anti-alien support in Parliament led to the appointment of a Royal Commission, reporting in 1903, to consider the ‘evil’ of unrestricted immigration, and how it could be controlled.

The Royal Commission’s findings led to the passing of the Aliens Act, the first peacetime law restricting the entry of immigrants to Britain. It was targeted primarily at Britain’s most visible minority community – Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

The Act allowed Britain to refuse entry to immigrants with no visible means of financial support or ability to earn a living. The Aliens Act set the template for increasing government control of immigration, defining it as a problem to be dealt with by law.

The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 brought general immigration to a halt and dramatically increased government control over immigrants. All foreign citizens had to register with the police, and ‘enemy nationals’ were interned, even if they had been British residents for many years.

Satire on the Aliens Act, drawing of Britannia turning away a group of refugees who have just disembarked at a port (1906).

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World War I

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Young Jewish men signed up in large numbers to fight with the British forces in World War I. Yet, after the war, government controls on immigrants living in Britain were extended.

Jewish men fought for Britain in all parts of the armed forces. 27-year-old Lieutenant Frank de Pass became the first Jewish recipient of the Victoria Cross after losing his life in action near Festubert, France, in November 1914.

At the same time, Italian and German citizens resident in Britain, including many Jews, were interned on the Isle of Man and at Alexandra Palace as ‘enemy nationals’.

In November 1917 the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, sent a letter to Lord Rothschild pledging the government’s support for the establishment of ‘a National homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine’. This letter became known as the Balfour Declaration. The support was given a more concrete basis at the end of the war when Palestine, as a part of the former Turkish Empire, was placed under British Mandate. However, it would be another 30 years before the creation of an autonomous Jewish state.

The 1919 Aliens Restriction Act and the 1920 Aliens Order confirmed and extended the British government’s wartime controls on immigration. In addition to registering with the police and providing proof of financial support, ‘aliens’ now needed work permits, and were subje ct to deportation for causing unrest.

Crucially, the right of admission for refugees fleeing persecution, which had been incorporated in the 1905 Aliens Act and suspended during World War I, was not included in the newlegislation. This meant that there would be no automatic right of asylum for Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe in the 1930s, or for any other refugees, until the Geneva Convention of 1951.

Cecil, Percy and Lawrie Levy in military uniform whilst serving in World War I, 1915

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Refugees from Nazism

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Before the outbreak of World War II, about 60,000 refugees came to Britain from Germany and other countries under Nazi control. They faced restrictive immigration laws, prejudice and even internment, but they worked hard to build new lives for themselves.

In 1933, the Nazi party came to power in Germany with an openly anti-semitic policy. The Nazi government encouraged violence against Jewish people, their homes and property, and removed their civil rights. Fearing for their lives, many German Jews wanted to emigrate, but few countries were prepared to receive them.

Many would-be emigrants were highly educated, from professional or artistic backgrounds. However, in order to be admitted to Britain

under the increased restrictions on alien immigration, they had to find jobs or guarantors before leaving Germany. In their search for safety, many took positions as domestic servants.

About 10,000 unaccompanied children also came to Britain, in a series of specially arranged journeys known as the Kindertransport. They arrived between December 1938 and September 1939. Some were guaranteed by private sponsors, and others were looked after by organisations such as the Refugee Children’s Movement. After a few weeks in reception camps, they were taken to Jewish and non-Jewish foster homes or hostels throughout the country. Many were destined never to see their parents again.

Anti-semitism was also present on the streets of Britain. The British Union of Fascists was active from 1932, engaging in acts of violence against Jewish people and buildings, particularly in the East End of London. This culminated with Oswald Mosley and his ‘blackshirts’ attempting to march through East London on October 4th 1936. Under the slogan ‘They Shall Not Pass,’ a crowd estimated at 10,000 turned out to block the streets, and the resultant violent clashes became known as the Battle of Cable Street. Fascism never took root in Britain, and the BUF was disbanded in 1940.

Inter-Aid Committee for Children ID card of Grete Glauber, 1939

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World War II

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Both British Jews and the new refugees from central Europe played important roles in Britain’s war effort, at home and in the armed forces. At the end of the war, as the devastating reality of the concentration camps was exposed, a number of camp survivors also came to live in Britain.

At the start of World War II, many of the recent refugees were interned as ‘enemy aliens’. Although they had fled from Nazi-occupied Europe, they were still not considered above suspicion. Even some older children who had come on the Kindertransport were sent to internment camps.

Following public protest, most were released by late 1940, and many of them joined the Pioneer Corps and fought courageously for the British armed forces. They also contributed to the war effort in other ways, on the home front and later as camp liberators and relief workers.

Meanwhile, British Jews were also playing their part in the war. About 60,000 Jewish men and women served in the armed forces. Jewish people were equally involved in all aspects of the war effort at home.

The East End of London was among the worst damaged areas in the Blitz, and many people were evacuated to the countryside. In some places, such as Bedford, this flight from the city re-established Jewish life in communities that had declined in the late 19th century.

After the war, the British government agreed to admit 1,000 young survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, but only 732 could be found. They included many who would contribute substantially to British life, such as Hugo Gryn. This group of teenage survivors became known as ‘the Boys’, although there were girls among them. Through their comradeship they helped one another to build new lives.

Dedication of Synagogue at RAF Mildenhall, 1944

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Britain and Israel

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In 1948, the British Government withdrew from Mandate Palestine and the State of Israel was established. This had important consequences for Jewish people across the world – many migrated to Israel, and others suffered from antagonism sparked by anti-Israel hostility.

Zionism had begun to develop in Britain in the late 19th century, rooted in sympathy for the plight of the Jews of Eastern Europe, and small numbers of British Jews emigrated to Palestine in the early part of the 20th century.

After World War II, partly in response to the Holocaust, the creation of an autonomous Jewish state received more general support in Britain, among both Jews and non-Jews. On November 29th, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed its resolution on the partition of Palestine, and the State of Israel came into being the following year. Several thousand British Jews emigrated to Israel soon after its establishment.

The first President of Israel was Chaim Weizmann, a Russian scientist who had settled in Manchester in 1904, and had spearheaded the movement to achieve official British recognition of the Zionist cause.

The declaration of the State of Israel sparked anti-Jewish manifestations, particularly in Arab lands, and the situation of Jews in those communities deteriorated markedly. As a result, in the years that followed, Jews left places such as Yemen, Aden, Iran, Iraq and North Africa, often in very difficult circumstances. While most went to Israel, some came to Britain.

There was also an exodus of Jews from India, which had been granted independence by the British in 1947. Although there was no history of anti-semitism in India, many Jews left in the 1950s and 1960s. While the majority wished to make a new life in Israel, others came to Britain.

Each of these groups has brought its own distinctive customs and traditions to enrich British Jewish life and culture.

Solly Irving, a young Holocaust survivor who settled in Britain but went on to volunteer for the army in Israel, 1949

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Social Change

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In the decades after World War II, the Jewish community changed in many ways. Its economic profile altered, as more people joined the professions, and the centres of population moved from the inner cities to increasingly distant suburbs. The religious profile of the community also became more diverse.

The movement of the Jewish population away from traditional occupations such as tailoring and cabinet-making began in the 1930s, and accelerated after World War II. Jobs such as hairdressing, taxi-driving and retail became increasingly common. The numbers of Jews entering the professions expanded enormously following the introduction of state-funded further and higher education from the 1940s.

Like other new immigrant groups, Eastern European Jewish immigrants had mostly settled in inner city areas. However, by the 1920s, as they became able to afford it, Jewish people began to leave the inner city and move to the suburbs in search of a more peaceful and spacious lifestyle.

In London, the main movement was north, along the new Underground lines to the newly established suburbs of Golders Green and Edgware, as well as east to Redbridge and Ilford. By the 1970s, settlement had extended as far north as the green belt area of Radlett.

A similar process took place in other cities. For example, in Manchester, the original centre of settlement was in Red Bank, and later Cheetham Hill. By the end of World War II, the Jewish population had mostly moved north to Prestwich, and in the 1960s and 70s there was extensive settlement to the south of the city, from Didsbury to Cheshire.

The religious structure of the community also changed. The Reform movement, founded in the mid-19th century, grew in strength. Increasing numbers of synagogues were affiliated to Liberal Judaism, a movement founded in 1902 aiming to offer a less traditional, more inclusiv

e form of worship. In 1962, the Masorti movement was founded by Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, who argued that religious tradition was open to new interpretation, drawing on the resources of modern scholarship. In parallel with these new developments, there was also an expansion of the ultra-orthodox community.

While in the early 20th century the concern of the established community was to anglicise the immigrants and their children, in more recent decades there has been a change of emphasis towards the retention of a strong Jewish identity. This has contributed to the growing popularity of Jewish schools.

Jack Winstock, with friends from the Brady Club playing tennis in Edgware, north London, where he travelled from the East End to play

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A Diverse Community

©Jewish Museum London

In the 21st century, British society is more diverse than ever before. The Jewish community continues to play an important role in this changing society.

The Jewish community is itself diverse, including a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and religious viewpoints. Jewish society in Britain today is lively with a vibrant array of cultural and educational activities.

Although they have always been a small minority, Jewish people are active in contributing to public life. They are well represented in all parts of society, from politics and the arts to business and the professions. They have been able to integrate fully into British life while maintaining their Jewish identity and traditions.

Family at Jewish Museum London, 2011

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