“Is there an active Jewish presence in Scotland?” my daughter, Andrea, and I wondered while we were in the midst of finalizing the itinerary for our two-week driving trip through Scotland.
After a wee bit of research, we found the Garnethill Synagogue in Glasgow, which serves the largest Jewish community in Scotland. We both wanted to know more about the history of Scottish Jews and how they thrived over the centuries in a land of lochs, highlands, bagpipes and kilts, and exactly what their experience is now.
We reached out to the shul, to find out if it was possible for us to visit. We were invited to come for a tour of the shul and the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre, which is housed in the synagogue.
Named for its location at the corner of Garnet and Hill streets, the shul is a stately, elegant structure built in the Romanesque Revival style. It is nestled amongst mature trees in an old, yet sophisticated, neighbourhood.
We were warmly greeted by Deborah Haase, the director of the Scottish Jewish Archives, who showed us around the shul with its beautiful, rich, Byzantine interiors. The synagogue was built in 1879 and was the first purpose-built shul in Scotland (earlier shuls having been makeshift). It is, and always has been, Orthodox and, in modern times, is active on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
We learned that the first Jews, predominantly Dutch and German merchants, settled in Glasgow in the 1790s. A synagogue was set up at the back of a shop around 1823. In 1825, the Jewish community in Edinburgh was burgeoning, as well, and its members established their first synagogue with 67 seats.
From the early 1880s, a new wave of immigrant Jews fleeing poverty and persecution in eastern Europe settled in Glasgow, in an area called the Gorbals. By the First World War, the Jewish population in the Gorbals had grown to around 9,000.
The Second World War brought Jewish refugee children – the Jewish Kindertransport – to Scotland. About 700 unaccompanied refugee children – mainly from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia – were admitted as the Nazi menace grew. It was predominantly the Jewish communities of Edinburgh and Glasgow that absorbed them. If these children weren’t claimed by the end of the war, they remained in Scotland and grew up to become active members of their respective communities.
Now, the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre collects and catalogues documents, photographs, artifacts, artwork, oral histories, books, newspapers and textiles, to keep their stories alive. In the back of the archives is a small gift shop where, amongst many wonderful books, beautiful artwork and such, one can find kippot made in the official Jewish tartan (yes, there really is a Jewish tartan … and kosher haggis).
Today, in addition to Glasgow, there are Jewish communities in Aberdeen, Ayr, Dundee, Dunfermline, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Greenock and Inverness. Glasgow boasts six synagogues, a primary school, two nursing homes and supportive housing for the elderly, a welfare center, facilities for those with learning difficulties, a golf club, a sports centre, a community newspaper, youth groups and a delicatessen.
For years, Scotland was proud that it was the sole European nation never to have experienced violence against its Jewish community. But sadly, this security is eroding. As anti-Israel sentiment rises across Scotland, many Scottish Jews report rising levels of anti-Semitism. Consequently, the number of Jews in Scotland has declined, as many have moved to Israel.
So the challenges of the Garnethill Synagogue are even greater now. To meet these challenges, it needs funding and donations. The Scottish Jewish Archives Centre is also hoping to create a Scottish Holocaust Era Study Centre, to be able to provide resources for future generations and to conserve fragile historical documents. It recently held a very successful fundraiser, but more money is needed.
Nevertheless, the Jewish Scots live on. As a testament to this, while we were touring the synagogue and the archives, we met a lovely young lady named Tracy, who had just gotten married in the shul three days before, under the huppah that has been part of the synagogue for over 100 years. To quote a Scottish wedding toast, “May you be healthy all your days. May you be blessed with long life and peace. May you grow old with goodness and with riches.” Mazel tov, Tracy and Stephen!