History of our Community
Although Jewish travellers and journeymen visited Sheffield from the 1650s to buy silverware and cutlery, it was not until 1786 that there is evidence that Jews lived in the town. Isaac and Philip Bright from Biarritz (1786). Jacob Gehrwin (1787) and Abraham Gershon (1797) were the first to live in the town. The Bright family in particular were very important. They were connected by marriage to many of the leading Jewish families of the day and their offspring formed the bulk of Sheffield Jewry for the next 20 years or more.
By 1831, leases had been signed on two Jewish cemeteries; one for a small communal cemetery and the other for a private family plot for the Bright family. Eleven years later a room for prayer was being rented but Solomon Myer had his own Shochet and held a minyan in his home. He also supplied meat to the few Jews in Leeds! Finally, in 1851, the first Synagogue was established in Figtree Lane in the City Centre.
By this time, there were enough Jews in Sheffield for the inevitable to happen: members argued on various issues and a breakaway community was formed, although it would be many years before they could afford a synagogue.
Many of Sheffield’s Jews had prospered enough to be involved in local politics and the affairs of the secular community. Many were prominent in the local industries of cutlery and silverware manufacturing. The most recent immigrants lived in the Scotland Street and West Bar districts, an area of cheap housing and tended to work as glaziers, travelling drapers and small shopkeepers.
By 1914, the religious needs of local Jews were met by two congregations, each with its own place of worship. Sheffield was also developing: the city was awarded its charter and the University, whose foundation stone had been laid by Sir Marcus Samuel, began to accommodate its first Jewish students.
In the inter-war years Sheffield Jewry created a strong framework of communal organisations, many of which still exist today. A new synagogue was opened in Wilson Road in the Ecclesall suburb to accommodate the large numbers who had moved away from the declining inner city areas.
Sadly as a result of the hostilities of World War II, the city centre based Central Synagogue was destroyed early in the war and its members inevitably gravitated to Wilson Road. After prolonged discussions, a new communal centre and synagogue, for members of the former Central Synagogue, were opened in 1956. This formed the basis of the current Kingfield Hall complex.
The 1950s found the community at its zenith with a membership of around 1,500. The young men who returned from the war had established themselves in the city and many refugees had also settled in Sheffield. Enterprising businessmen expanded their business into national chains and the demand for new homes helped local Jewish-owned furniture, glass and plumbing and general household goods businesses. All these factors added to the prosperity of the local economy.
However, within a decade the picture had changed dramatically. Traditional trades and businesses were on the decline due to foreign competition; intermarriage was on the increase and attitudes were changing. Young people were leaving the city and membership started falling.
Eventually, in the 1960s, the two shrinking communities were forced to amalgamate as the United Sheffield Hebrew Congregation, later renamed the Sheffield Jewish Congregation and Centre. Although an independent congregation, the SJCC accepts the authority of the Chief Rabbi and his Beth Din in matters of Halacha (Jewish law). A second strand was created when a Reform community started in 1989.
Precise figures are hard to obtain but it is probable that the community halved in size between 1950 and 1980. With an ageing membership profile, this decline has continued. Membership of the Orthodox community (SJCC) now stands at around 300 and the Reform Community has around 50-60 members.
In the late 1990s, the 970-seater WiIson Road Synagogue was no longer practical. A new modern synagogue was built at Psalter Lane next to Kingfield Hall and opened in January 2000. The Chief Rabbi consecrated it on 19 March of the same year. Despite the small numbers, this beautiful new building and the leadership of Rabbi Golomb, encourages us to have the enthusiasm and confidence to carry Sheffield Jewry into the future.
This brief account is an edited and updated version of an article written by community member, Neville Ballin. His illustrated booklet, “The Early Days of Sheffield Jewry 1760-1900” is likely to remain the prime source of information for those researching the topic.