York's first rabbi since 1290 expulsion heralds new era for Jewish community

Elisheva Salamo, the first rabbi to live within York's city walls in over eight centuries, has ambitious plans


There will be a very special event taking place this Erev Rosh Hashanah in York, when the city’s first permanent rabbi to live within the city walls in over 800 years leads the Yom Tov and Shabbat services.

Rabbi Elisheva Salamo was appointed to head York Liberal Jewish Community this summer, holding her first service in August.

“It was so moving,” Rabbi Salamo says when we meet. “To see everybody there and to be singing together, and the building we use is just beautiful. The sun was shining, and the flowers were out. It was very special.”

One of the first things Rabbi Salamo did when she arrived in York was to take the Torah scrolls to Clifford’s Tower, the site of one of the worst antisemitic massacres of the Middle Ages, when an estimated 150 Jewish people were killed.

In 1190, the city’s entire Jewish community was trapped by a violent mob inside the tower of York Castle. Many members of the community took their own life rather than be murdered or forcibly baptised by the attackers.

Recent research has uncovered that a thriving Jewish community reemerged in the early 1200s, but the city hasn’t had a rabbi living within its walls since Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by King Edward I.

The building the current Jewish community uses is the York Quaker House, but Rabbi Salamo has ambitious plans, outlining a number of initiatives that she has either already established or wants to, including a summer camp for children next year.

Currently there are approximately 100 members of the community, but up to 1000 across North Yorkshire who identify as Jewish. “We want to reach out to those outside of York to get them involved,” she says.

York Liberal Jewish Community is the only active Jewish congregation in York aside from at York University, where there is a Jewish Society and a Chabad.

The Orthodox York Hebrew Congregation, which was founded in 1893, closed in 1975, and the York Liberal Jewish Community began in 2014.

Rabbi Salamo grew up in a traditonal Jewish home in San Francisco, which, she says, has informed her rabbinical career. “My rich Jewish upbringing gave me a firm foundation that I draw from to share with my congregants.”

She was preparing to become a cellular biologist, when her heart led her to the rabbinate. “I was planning to teach at university because I really loved teaching. There were seven positions, but only one of them was in a Jewish community.”

Already very active in her synagogue, she felt that she “couldn’t move to a place where there were only ten Jews who got together on Chanukah. I wanted to have a family and raise a child in a Jewish community.”

“So, I thought: ‘Okay, what else could I do? And, really, who needs another PhD? One is enough,’” she jokes.

Her now 19-year-old daughter, Amalya, is a student at the University of St Andrews, where she is studying international relations and Arabic.

Rabbi Salamo has served as a rabbi, teacher and youth leader in the US, South Africa and, most recently, Switzerland, at the Liberal Jewish Community of Geneva.

She is passionate about children’s education. The York community already has a cheder for younger children, but the rabbi plans to establish one for older children too. “We have two bar mitzvahs coming up. I want to make sure that those kids really have a transitional experience.”

She sums up her aspirations for the York community by saying: “I think we’re poised to be dynamic and experimental. I think that we believe in meaningful experiences.

“Engagement means that there’s something in your heart that is touched, that is moved, that brings you to put a mezuzah on your door, to worship with friends or to go to a Jewish gathering. If we create spiritual meaning for people, then what we are doing is feeding that future.”

For more information on the York community, go to:

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