History of the Jews in Northern Ireland

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Northern Irish Jews
יהודים של צפון אירלנד
Sir Otto Jaffe
Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog
Harold Goldblatt
Helen Lewis
Phil Solomon
Baron Steinberg
Total population
335 (2011)
Regions with significant populations
English, Hebrew
Related ethnic groups
Lithuanian Jews, Ashkenazi Jews

The Jews of Northern Ireland have lived primarily in Belfast, where the Belfast Hebrew Congregation, an Ashkenazi Orthodox community, was established in 1870.[1] Former communities were located in Derry and Lurgan.[2][3][4]


Belfast rabbinic lineage[edit]

The first minister of the congregation was Reverend Joseph Chotzner, who served at the synagogue which was located at Great Victoria Street from 1870–1880 and 1892–1897. Later spiritual leaders at the synagogue included Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (1916–1919), who later become Chief Rabbi of Israel. His son Chaim Herzog, who became the 6th President of Israel, was born in Belfast. Rabbi John Ross, Rabbi Jacob Schachter and Rabbi Alexander Carlebach followed in this rabbinic lineage.

The Belfast Hebrew Congregation[edit]

In the 17th century, Jews reportedly lived in Ulster, the northern province of Ireland, most of which is now in Northern Ireland. A few records also note a Jewish presence during the 18th and early 19th century. In the 19th century as the pogroms in Russia and Poland increased, the Belfast Jewish population increased from 52 in the 1861 census, to 78 in 1881 and 273 in 1891.[1][2] There was very little religious conversion but an interesting noble exception was the Countess of Charlemont. The Hon. Elizabeth Jane Somerville, born on 21 June 1834, was the daughter of William Somerville, 1st Baron Athlumney and Lady Maria Harriet Conyngham. She married James Molyneux Caulfeild, 3rd Earl of Charlemont, son of Hon. Henry Caulfeild and Elizabeth Margaret Browne, on 18 December 1856. Her mother-in-law was a favourite in Queen Victoria's court. As a result of her marriage, Hon. Elizabeth Jane Somerville was styled as Countess of Charlemont on 26 December 1863. Soon thereafter she attended synagogue services in Belfast and converted to Judaism. She died on 31 May 1882 aged 47, at Roxborough Castle, Moy, County Tyrone without issue. There were no Jews in Moy, so her initial exposure to Judaism is worthy of research.

Due to the influx of Russian and Polish Jews near the turn of the century, the Jewish community set up "a board of guardians (1893), a Hebrew ladies' foreign benevolent society (1896), and a "Hebrew National school" (1898). For a short time, there was a second Jewish synagogue, the Regent Street Congregation.[5]

Sir Otto Jaffe and Lady Jaffe

Otto Jaffe, Lord Mayor of Belfast, was life-president of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation and he helped build the city's second synagogue in 1904, paying most of the £4,000 cost. He was a German linen importer who visited Belfast several times a year to buy linen. He prospered and decided to live in Belfast. The synagogue he founded was located at Annesley Street, off Carlisle Circus in the north of the city where most Jews then lived.[6] Subsequently, Barney Hurwitz, a prominent businessman in Belfast, was the president of the congregation for at least two decades. He was also a Justice of the Peace for many years, and married Ceina Clein, of the well known Clein family of Cork City.

During World War II, a number of Jewish children escaping from the Nazis, via the Kindertransport, reached and were housed in Millisle. The Millisle Refugee Farm (Magill's farm, on the Woburn Road) and was founded by teenage pioneers from the Bachad movement. It took refugees from May 1938 until its closure in 1948.[7]

In 1901 the Jewish population was reported to be 763 people.[2] In 1929, records show that 519 Jews had emigrated from Northern Ireland to the United States.[8] In 1967, the population was estimated at 1,350; by 2004 this number had fallen to 130. It is now estimated to be around 500, but could be as low as 100. The current membership of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation is believed to be as low as 80.[9]

Gustav Wilhelm Wolff, a partner in Harland and Wolff (H&W) in Belfast came from a Jewish family that had converted to Protestantism. Harland and Wolff was the largest single shipyard in the British Isles. Edward Harland bought the shipyard for $5,000 from Hickson and Co in 1860/61 with funds from a Liverpool Jewish investor, G.C. Schwabe. Schwabe sent his nephew Gustave Wilhelm Wolff to Belfast to oversee the investment and the company assumed the name Harland and Wolff the following year, 1862. H&W built many large ships including the Titanic and the Queen Mary.

Well known Belfast Jews include: Ronald Appleton QC, Crown Prosecutor during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, who was elected President of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation and served in that post until he retired in 2008; Belfast actors Harold Goldblatt and Harry Towb; pioneer of modern dance in Northern Ireland Helen Lewis; and jazz commentator Solly Lipschitz.

Recent Census results[edit]

Jews in Northern Ireland since 2001
Year Total Percent Change
2001 365 0.02% -
2011 335 0.01% -0.01%

See also[edit]


  • Funke, Phyllis Ellen (2003) "The Jewish Traveller: Belfast." Hadassah Magazine, November 2003.
  • Hyman, Louis (1972) Jews of Ireland: From Earliest Times to the Year 1910
  • Nelson, James & Richardson, Norman (2005) Local People Global Faiths: Sikhs, Jews and Hindus in Northern Ireland. Newtownards: Colourpoint Books
  • Newman, Aubrey (1975) "Belfast" from Provincial Jewry in Victorian Britain Conference papers, University College, London. Jewish Historical Society of Great Britain. Documents prepared 6 July 1975.[10]
  • Ó Gráda, Cormac (2006) Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: a Socioeconomic History
  • Rivlin, Ray (2003) Shalom Ireland: a Social History of Jews in Modern Ireland
  • Warm, David D. (1998) "The Jews of Northern Ireland" in P. Hainsworth, ed., Divided Society: Ethnic Minorities and Racism in Northern Ireland. London: Pluto Press, 1998. ISBN 0-7171-3634-5


  1. ^ a b Belfast article, Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901–1906.
  2. ^ a b c Belfast Jewish Community on the JewishGen website
  3. ^ "Lurgan Hebrew Congregation". JCR-UK. 28 December 2011. Retrieved 3 December 2012. 
  4. ^ "Londonderry Synagogue, Londonderry". JCR-UK. 27 December 2011. Retrieved 3 December 2012. 
  5. ^ Belfast's Regent St. Congregation from the JewishGen website
  6. ^ EJ etc.
  7. ^ Lynagh, Catherine (25 November 2005). "Kindertransport to Millisle". Culture Northern Ireland. Retrieved 5 October 2007. 
  8. ^ Linfield, H.S. "Statistics of Jews – 1929" in American Jewish Yearbook"[1]
  9. ^ http://www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/Community/belfast.htm
  10. ^ Belfast Hebrew Congregation hosted on the JewishGen.org website.