At its highest point, after World War II, Scotland’s Jewish community boasted close to 20,000 members, with 15,000 calling Glasgow home. Today’s numbers, however, reveal a steady decline, much like the trajectory we’re witnessing across the rest of Europe.
It’s estimated that approximately 4,500 Jews remain in Scotland, the majority living in vibrant Glasgow, the largest city in the country.
Despite its smaller size, though, the Jewish community of Glasgow is active, committed to looking to the future, and at the same time, preserving its unique history.
Its heritage is on display at the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre on the lower ground floor of Glasgow’s glorious Garnethill Synagogue at the top of Garnet Street in the tree-lined, well-heeled city centre. Founded in 1987, the Archives Centre houses a wide collection of material documenting the religious, socioeconomic, political and cultural life of Jews in Scotland since the 18th century. Part research facility, part educational resource, its mission is to heighten awareness of Scottish Jewish heritage and encourage further studies by academics, researchers and families alike, says director Harvey Kaplan.
There were no signs of an organized Jewish community in the country until approximately 1816 in the city of Edinburgh, the site of Scotland’s first synagogue, although there are records of Jews in the country earlier.
Glasgow’s first wave of Jewish immigrants came from western Europe in the 1700s, followed by a second wave from eastern Europe in the 1880s, most arriving as a consequence of the collapsing Russian Empire. They were professionals, traders, who, along with their luggage, brought strong commercial values into the city. Glasgow, after all, was a city built on trade, and these were auspicious times.
The second-most important economic city (after London) in the British Empire, the city was developing a formidable reputation as the centre for industry, shipping and engineering. And the Jewish community was playing its part.
The community settled in the city centre, building its first synagogue there sometime around 1823. “That’s where Glasgow grew up,” says the Archives Centre’s Deborah Haase. In fact, by 1901 approximately 5,000 Jews lived in the area on the south bank of the Clyde River known as the Gorbals, establishing Jewish bakeries, tailor and butcher shops and grocery stores.
The number would double by World War II.
“There still is great nostalgia and love for the vibrant Jewish life in the Gorbals,” reminisces Haase, whose family grew up there. “At the archives we hear a lot about that.”
As the community prospered, however, some of its members started to move westward – in the footsteps of the city’s emerging bourgeoisie – away from the hustle and bustle of industrial sector.
“That move was significant,” Haase says of a migration that would fundamentally alter the city’s Jewish landscape. In 1879, the transposed community decided to set up new foundational roots, building the first synagogue in Scotland to be built for that purpose, Garnethill.
That they decided to build at the top of a hill in this prosperous neighbourhood was a bold move for such a small community, Kaplan says, adding that one of the main founders of Garnet-hill, Michael Simons, played a significant role in Glasgow’s civic life too.
With that one step, Glasgow Jewry was effectively making a statement about its value to the city and its unabashed belief in its right to be there.
“It says we’re a proud part of Glasgow,” Kaplan says. “It has a level of prominence. It says, ‘We are here to stay.’”
Step into the synagogue and the statement reverberates even today. Considered the only high Victorian synagogue architecture north of Liverpool, the building’s imposing Romanesque revival exterior easily sets itself apart from other structures in the hilly enclave. Its basilica-style interior, designed with Byzantine detail, is complemented by spectacularly ornate stained glass windows.
The centre Ark is surrounded by marble steps. And, like many westernized synagogues of its time, its architecture is reminiscent of a cathedral. Recently named one of the top 10 historic synagogues in the United Kingdom, this veritable work of art speaks volumes about the community that built it – its members were aspirational, bold, proud and forward-thinking.
Those aspirations would see the synagogue and its congregants step up when necessary. During World War II, for example, members of the congregation were actively dedicated to raising money to support refugees coming into Glasgow, says Haase, whose grandmother was an active fundraiser.
They also converted another building they owned adjacent to the synagogue into a hostel for boys. From 1938 onward, starting with the Kindertransports, hundreds of these young refugees from eastern Europe called the hostel their temporary home.
“There was a lot going on the area,” Haase says. “The congregation was very active and supportive.”
They remained active in various ways for a number of years. Until the 1960s, in fact, Garnethill attracted a packed house for its services. But many have since moved to the suburbs or left the country, leaving just 80 active members today. It’s a common narrative for Jewish Glasgow, with four Orthodox synagogues having to shut their doors since 1986 (there has only ever been one non-Orthodox congregation in Glasgow – now called Glasgow Reform Synagogue).
But Garnethill’s doors remain open to congregants and visitors alike. Haase says that during the annual Doors Open day in September, the synagogue sees close to 700 people coming through in search of this “hidden gem.”
“And then they come down into the Archives Centre and they’re surprised at how rich and diverse the history is,” she says.
Researchers studying topics like migration, women, the Holocaust and architecture find valuable material here. And school groups have added the spot to their must-see lists. “Some kids may not have met Jews before,” Haase says.
There’s also a growing trend to having people want to share their stories. “Not one week goes by when there isn’t someone bringing in material,” Kaplan says, pointing to the stacks of archived material he’s sorting through. The community may be smaller than before, but, he says, “the Archives has been growing by leaps and bounds.”