In March 1190, the entire Jewish community of York – about 150 people – barricaded themselves inside the castle as antisemitic riots raged outside. The mob, encouraged by the crusader fervour of the new king, Richard I – and some of them motivated by an opportunity to wipe out their debts – bayed for blood.
Faced with death at the hands of the marauders or forced baptism, most of the Jews inside the castle chose suicide. In an echo of the first-century siege of Masada, the mountain-top fortress beside the Dead Sea in Israel, the men killed their wives and children before setting fire to the wooden keep. There were no survivors.
The massacre of the York Jews is among the most notorious of countless pogroms in the bloody history of the Jewish people and is commemorated in a kinah, or lamentation, recited on the fast day of Tisha B’Av. For eight centuries, the city of York has had dark connotations for Jews all over the world.
So last week’s lighting of a candle by three-year-old Tzofiya Stefanov-King in York’s magnificent Guildhall represented an extraordinary and symbolic moment for the fledgling Jewish community that is steadily putting down roots in the city.
“It’s a source of immense pride. It’s saying we’re here; we exist,” said Yasmin Stefanov-King, Tzofiya’s mother, as the community gathered to celebrate the third day of Hanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, in the presence of York’s lord mayor and other civic leaders.
Tzofiya is the daughter of a convert to Judaism and a non-Jew, and the granddaughter of a woman whose yearning to be a Catholic nun was thwarted by an unexpected pregnancy. But none of this complicated background matters to the new Jews of York, who are building their inclusive liberal community to reflect the global, social and family realities of the 21st century while upholding the tenets and rituals of their faith.
In contrast with orthodox Judaism, which insists on clear bloodlines to define Jewishness, “blood is not our starting point”, said Ben Rich, chair of the York Liberal Jewish Community. “We say to people: we’re interested in your story, your experiences and your values, rather than your biology.”
In the summer of 2013, Rich and his family moved to York from north London. “It was a lifestyle choice but we also wanted some kind of Jewish community around us,” he said.
There had been no synagogue in York since 1975, although 165 people living there identified themselves as Jewish in the 2011 census. Rich set out to find the city’s Jews and create a new community.
One of the first was Stefanov-King. She and her daughter were watching a busker in the city centre when Rich – noticing a Star of David on a chain around her neck – approached her to ask if she was Jewish. “There are Jews everywhere if only you make the effort to reach out and find them,” he said. “When you ‘out’ yourself as Jewish at work or in a social situation, it doesn’t take long for someone to say, ‘You know, I’m sort of Jewish too’.”
Being “sort of Jewish” was central to Rich’s vision of an inclusive, liberal community. The past half-century has seen the number of Jews in the UK fall by about a third. At the same time there has been a big proportional rise in both secular Judaism – people who identify culturally as Jews, but are not religiously observant – and in the insular, ultra-orthodox community.
What has been squeezed is the centre ground of British Jewry. Two years ago, in a speech to mark his retirement as chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks highlighted these trends. “The two fastest-growing elements in the Jewish world are those who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world,” he said.
But while Sacks spoke of the threat from “assimilation and outmarriage”, the Liberal Judaism movement sees a much greater risk in spurning those who have married non-Jews or whose Jewish identity is complicated by other factors.
After he moved to York, Rich was contacted by a Jewish woman in her late 70s who, decades earlier, had married a Catholic man. Her family had broken off contact and she had not been to a synagogue since.
“She told me that she had not wanted to leave Judaism, but Judaism had left her. She asked tentatively if she would be allowed to come to one of our services,” said Rich. “I said that not only was she allowed, she would be welcome – and that if she wanted to, she should bring her husband.”
It was hardly surprising that Jews made to feel like outcasts ceased to identify as Jewish, he added. “And the risk is that Judaism becomes more and more identified by its extremist wing, which in turn makes Judaism unattractive to anyone with British values of integration and diversity, creating a vicious circle.”
Danny Rich, the senior rabbi and chief executive of Liberal Judaism (and Ben’s cousin), agreed: “Of course any club has to have some rules, but we try to see those rules operated in the most compassionate and flexible way, in accordance with our principles.”
Liberal Judaism is a “symbiosis of the modern world and traditional Jewish values”, he said, with the key principles of inclusiveness, egalitarianism, social justice, a commitment to scholarship, inter-faith relationships and being a critical friend of Israel.
York’s new Jewish community now attracts about 60 people to monthly services held in the local Quaker hall. “It’s not a stereotypical Jewish community,” said Stefanov-King. “We’re all from different cultures and backgrounds”
Ben Rich no longer worries that he’ll be the only person who turns up to services and other events. “Everyone I found told me they were the only Jew in York, but it turned out there are quite a few of us. And every time we do something, more Jews come out of the woodwork. We’re going from strength to strength.”
THE CITY’S DARKEST DAY
Antisemitic sentiment, stirred up by the Christian crusades, was common across western Europe in the 12th century and the succession to the throne of Richard I in 1189 saw that tension rise.
Two of York’s most prominent Jews, Jocenus and Benedict, presented gifts at Richard’s coronation, despite being forbidden from attending. The men were attacked by a mob and, although Jocenus returned safely to York, Benedict died of his injuries at Northampton.
Rioting engulfed the towns of Norwich, Stamford and Lincoln, and eventually reached York on 16 March 1190. With a mob attempting to burn down Benedict’s house, Jocenus, along with the rest of the city’s Jewish community – about 150 Jews – sought protection in York Castle, where they were soon trapped.
With the county militia on the brink of forcing the Jews out, Rabbi Yomtob of Joigney called on his community to commit suicide rather than be murdered or baptised. Many did so, with fathers killing the women and children of their household before setting fire to themselves in a wooden keep.
Those who decided to brave the crowds were killed at the hands of the mob.