Preserving Welsh history as the only Jew in the village

While the study of the Jewish past in the principality is vibrant, its Jewish presence is not


When I moved to the University of Wales, Bangor in 2006, the study of the small Jewish communities across the north Wales coast was non-existent.

This was despite a Jewish presence dating back to the 13th century as part of Edward I’s castle-building programme, as noted by that great chronicler of British Jewry, Cecil Roth.

Jews were even expelled from north Wales before they were driven out of England in 1290.

And this neglect was despite the establishment of synagogues in Bangor, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno, Rhyl and Wrexham in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as part of the mass migration that saw the influx of hundreds of thousands of Jews into the United Kingdom.

The northern part of the principality had been ignored and instead, attention had been focused on the south, where the first Jewish community emerged in Swansea in the 1730s, and was followed by important centres in Cardiff, Llanelli and dozens of coal-mining valleys and villages.

In the 1970s, Geoffrey Alderman began exploring Welsh Jewish history, researching the Tredegar Riots in 1911, one of the last antisemitic pogroms on British soil.

Since then, Welsh-Jewish scholarship has begun to flourish, and in 2019, Cardiff University set up its first permanent post in Jewish Studies. It is now planning a second.

But while the study of the Jewish past is vibrant, its Jewish presence is not. In context of a declining population, activities engaging the public, alongside academic work, have developed an understanding of Welsh-Jewish heritage.

Back in 2008, funded by the Clore-Duffield Foundation “Sparks” grant, I held a study day on north Wales’ Jewish history, culminating in an exhibition held at the Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery. Since then, I have overseen exhibitions and organised guided walks.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Historical Association of South Wales, set up in 2017, led by a team of Jewish community leaders and heritage professionals, has been recording and mapping the history of communities in the south and depositing archives at the Glamorgan Archives.

This built on the earlier project, Hineni, that took the form of oral history interviews and photographic portraits of south Wales Jews, followed by an exhibition and book published in 2012.

Today, the Foundation for Jewish Heritage is creating a national “Welsh Jewish Heritage Centre” in the Grade II listed former Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue, the most important extant Jewish heritage building in Wales.

The centre will supply a new and innovative national cultural and educational venue, which presents the centuries-old history and traditions of the Jewish community of Wales.

It will also promote inter-cultural dialogue and ensure the preservation of an extraordinary Victorian former synagogue that is currently at risk.

We at Bangor University are working with the centre to find, capture and digitise Welsh Jewish heritage before it is lost and disappears. We hope to produce a database of Jewish archival resources of the Welsh-Jewish experience.

We want to draw out the granularity of these histories to better understand the complex negotiations Jews faced as they navigated through ideas of national and ethnic belonging as minorities within often tense political and social climates.

In the absence of a vibrant practising community, we hope to connect surviving Jewish communities, local heritage efforts and Jewish Studies scholarship within and beyond Wales.

Moreover, as Jewish communities in Wales continue to shrink, historic synagogues close and material culture is lost, these activities will contribute to preserving these histories.

There has never been a better time to study Jewish history in Wales.

Nathan Abrams is Professor of Film at Bangor University

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