Oxford, Cambridge work together to preserve Jewish texts

Oxford and Cambridge universities are putting aside an historic rivalry in a bid to acquire thousands of rare texts that give insight into Jewish life and culture from the medieval era until the 19th century.

This week the two institutions launched a fundraising drive to acquire the "Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection", which consists of more than 1,700 fragments of historic Hebrew documents, of both religious and secular importance, including a 12th century engagement deed, a witness account of the Crusades and a fragment of the Rambam's Commentary on the Mishnah written by the scholar himself.

The collection is part of the Cairo Genizah, a haul of some 350,000 fragments of manuscripts unearthed in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Egypt in the late 19th century.

The Genizah has since been dispersed in libraries around the world, from Philadelphia to Frankfurt, with a proportion of the fragments brought to England by sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson in 1896 and placed in the care of the United Reformed Church's Westminster College.

In the aftermath of the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, Oxford's Bodleian Libraries and Cambridge University Library competed to acquire the rare documents, which are of immense scholarly value. Until now, Cambridge has been home to the more impressive haul – around 200,000 fragments – with Oxford holding some 25,000 folios.

But now the two old rivals are working together to save Lewis-Gibson collection "from division and dispersal" and buy them from Westminster College.

"Today we are taking a different stance, seeking to build on our collections while recognising that there would be a greater benefit to scholarship if we joined together," said Anne Jarvis, Cambridge University librarian.

"We will share the work of curating, conserving, digitising and presenting the manuscripts, making the best use of the strengths of each institution," said Bodley's librarian Dr Sarah Thomas.

In 2010 the Polonsky Foundation pledged £500,000 to the project but the universities are now hoping to secure the remainder of the £1.2 million funding needed to acquire the collection.

"The Cairo Genizah documents are like a searchlight, illuminating dark corners of the history of the Mediterranean and shedding a bright light on the social, economic and religious life of the Jews not just of medieval Egypt but of lands far away," said Professor David Abulafia, an expert on the texts. "There is nothing to compare with them."

Last updated: 11:14am, February 11 2013