By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
An Israeli and an Irish Jew walk into a bar. After a shot of whiskey and a pint of Guinness, they discuss neither leprechauns nor the verdant landscape, but rabbinics.
That’s because Irish Jews’ claim to Jewish fame is the late Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Dr. Isaac Herzog and his son, former Israeli President Chaim Herzog, the latter who was born in Belfast, Ireland. Chaim Herzog’s son, Member of Knesset Isaac Herzog, is the Israeli legislature’s current opposition leader.
“We are all very proud of that,” said Malcolm Gafson, chairman of the Ireland Israel Friendship League.
Rabbi Dr. Isaac Herzog was chief rabbi of Ireland from 1921-1936 before immigrating to Israel. Chaim, his son, was trained in law in Dublin before going on to his illustrious Israeli political career. Herzog Park, opened in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar in 1995, is a site frequented by Jewish tourists in Ireland.
“One of [Chaim] Herzog’s first visits abroad as [Israel’s] president was to Ireland,” Gafson noted with delight.
According to Gafson, many Irish Jews cling to this bit of Irish-Jewish history because it reminds them of better times. Today, Ireland’s Jewish community is no longer robust.
Ireland’s 2011 census revealed that there are 1,900 Jews in the country. Dublin-based Cantor Alwyn Shulman said the actual Jewish population figure is likely lower because many Jews remaining in Ireland are intermarried or non-practicing. Others are transient Israelis working in Ireland’s high-tech sector.
Shulman and Chabad-affiliated Rabbi Zalman Lent serve the Hebrew Congregation, a 150-member Orthodox synagogue. Around 12 people attend daily prayer services, and up to 80 attend on Shabbat.
Two other synagogues remain in Dublin. According to Stuart Rosenblatt, head of the Irish Jewish Genealogical Society, a second Orthodox synagogue, which does not communicate with the other, has just more than a dozen members. A liberal synagogue that doesn’t communicate with either Orthodox synagogue has 180 members. A fourth synagogue in Belfast has around 60 registered members.
Jews have a rich history in Ireland. Rosenblatt recounts how, according to Irish mythology, a “Hebrew princess” came to the European country from the east, bringing with her the harp that is until today Ireland’s national symbol. The Hebrew princess also brought the Stone of Destiny, considered the rock on which the biblical patriarch Jacob rested the night he wrestled with an angel. When Scottish tribes conquered Ireland, this stone was brought back with them and became known as the “Stone of the Scone.”
“Scottish kings and later British kings have been crowned on it ever since,” Rosenblatt told JNS.org.
The first formal record of Jews living in Ireland is the year 1079, when five Jews “came to Ireland from over the sea, bringing with them gifts to Toidelbach, King of the Munster, and then were sent back to sea,” said Rosenblatt. A handful of Jews immigrated to Ireland in the 1200s following the Jewish expulsion from Britain by King Henry III, and then again in the 1490s and 1530s following the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. The first Irish synagogue was established in 1660 and the first Jewish cemetery around 1718, both in Dublin.
Jewish immigration picked up in the late 1800s, mainly from Lithuania. By 1900, Ireland was home to more than 3,000 Jews, said Rosenblatt. The largest influx of Jews came between 1880 and 1910, when approximately 2,000 Jews arrived from Eastern Europe. Most settled south of the center of Dublin in an area eventually dubbed “Little Jerusalem.” The community peaked around the end of the 1940s, with approximately 5,500 Jews, mostly Holocaust refugees. Since then, the community has been declining.
Rosenblatt said the first Jewish immigrants in Ireland were peddlers, petty traders, and money lenders. Second-generation Irish Jews became a powerful force in the clothing and furniture manufacturing business, and later prominent doctors and lawyers.
Multiple synagogues and a Jewish day school thrived in 1940s Ireland. Born in 1942, Rosenblatt remembers a vibrant childhood of involvement with Jewish scouting, the Bnei Akiva youth group, a Jewish drama society, a golfing club, writers’ circles and many charities. Stratford National School remains open, but caters mostly to transient Israeli Jewish children and Catholic students; a separate team of educators teach Hebrew studies to the few Jewish pupils.
In the 1990s, the Irish parliament had one Jewish member in each of the country’s three major political parties. In recent years, only one Jewish representative remained, Alan Shatter of the Fine Gael Party, but he lost his seat in last February’s election.
“Times have changed,” Rosenblatt said with a sigh.
The majority of Irish Jews have immigrated to the United States, where Rosenblatt has tracked more than 56,000 individuals with Irish-Jewish connections. Approximately another 500 Jews of Irish descent live in Israel.
Irish flair in Israel
Gafson said the Israeli-Irish community continues to celebrate its Irish roots with zest, including throwing impressive St. Patrick’s Day and Bloomsday parties. The Ireland Israel Friendship League hosted a conference marking 40 years of diplomatic exchanges in conjunction with Open University in the central Israeli city of Ra'anana for prominent politicians, ambassadors, and professors.
Irish music and dancing is increasingly popular in Israel, said the Friendship League’s Gafson. The Israeli Academy of Irish Dance has six active branches.
In Ireland, however, the government is increasingly hostile toward Israel. In 2014, thousands of protesters symbolically sieged Dublin’s Israeli embassy, calling for expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to Ireland. Cantor Shulman said there is a rise in anti-Semitism in Ireland, in line with the rest of Europe.
Nonetheless, many Irish Jews remain active supporters of Israel. The Irish4Israel initiative hosts Israeli cultural and political events, and advocates for the Jewish state through letter writing and other campaigns. Shulman’s synagogue raises funds for Israel through an entity called the Jewish-Irish Appeal.
“Could build up the community again?” asked Shulman. “It’s bleak at the moment, but there’s always hope.”
***Corrections: This article initially incorrectly identified Chaim Herzog as the former chief rabbi of Ireland. Instead, his father Rabbi Dr. Isaac Herzog was the former Irish chief rabbi, and that is now indicated in the story. Additionally, the article referenced a "Herzog National Park" in Rathgar that is not actually a national park. The name has been corrected to "Herzog Park."