Next week Ireland’s Jewish community will decide on the future of its synagogue in Terenure, south Dublin.
The distinctive building, with its five Star of David windows over 10 squared panels – designed by Irish architect Wilfred Cantwell and dedicated in 1953 – has been for sale since March with an asking price of €7.5 million. On Wednesday the community will consider offers to buy it. However, it is also possible that the sale may not go ahead, according to Maurice Cohen, chair of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland.
“There has been an upsurge in attendances, with more visitors and new immigrants,” he told The Irish Times, speaking ahead of Yom Kippur tomorrow, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
The decision to sell was “not a story of decline” so much as of changing patterns of practice among Jews in Ireland, he said. It arose because attendance at services was “not as great as it used to be”.
Regular attendances are more a feature of orthodox Judaism than of progressive or secular Judaism, he said, and many among the growing Jewish population in Ireland belong to the latter groups.
Nowadays in Ireland there are “Jews in every county, but most are around Dublin”, said Mr Cohen. The increase over more recent times has been “attributed mostly to newly arrived workers in the IT sector”.
Cork’s synagogue closed in 2016, but in recent weeks a new community of Reformed Jews has been established following a ceremony at the city’s civic offices. The same has happened in Galway, while there remains an established orthodox synagogue in Belfast.
In Dublin, new rabbi Yoni Weider, joined by his wife Olivia, was installed at Terenure last month. The former rabbi Zlaman Lent and his wife Rifky have opened Dublin’s first Chabad centre in Rathmines.
This will complement services offered to the community including a delicatessen serving kosher food. The opening also means Dublin is no longer an outlier among capital cities in not having a Chabad centre.
According to the 2016 census there were 2,557 Jews in Ireland, up almost 30 per cent on the 2011 figure.
Their number from last year’s census will not be available until October 26th, when more detailed figures on Ireland’s religious communities from Census 2022 are published, but the number understood by the community to be similar.
Two recent deaths were a reminder of the extraordinary contribution to Irish life made by the Jewish community, one of Ireland’s tiniest minorities – they number just 0.05 per cent of the population.
Over the past half-century the population of Jewish people in Ireland has rarely exceeded 2,500. Yet, as Dermot Keogh, UCC’s emeritus professor of history who died on September 5th last, noted in his 1998 book Jews In Twentieth Century Ireland: “A brief audit of the contribution of Jews to Irish life... reveals that the community has contributed disproportionately to its numbers.”
By way of example, he mentioned three Jewish members of the 27th Dáil, which sat from 1992 to 1997. It included late Fianna Fáil TD and former lord mayor of Dublin Ben Briscoe, who died on July 10th last; former Labour Party minister for equality and law reform Mervyn Taylor, who died two years ago today, and former Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter, who went on to become minister for justice and law reform in 2011.
Ben Briscoe had been a Fianna Fáil TD for 37 years, from 1965, and succeeded his father Robert, who had been a Fianna Fáil TD for 38 years, until 1965. Robert had become Dublin’s first Jewish lord mayor in 1956.
In 1977, Fianna Fáil politician Gerald Goldberg, a solicitor, became the first Jewish lord mayor of Cork in the 800-year existence of that office. Goldberg was a Cork city councillor from 1967 to 1985. Asked once whether he had ever encountered prejudice in his long public career, he replied: “Oh yes. Yes, indeed,” adding: “...in Dublin! They always have the knife out for a Corkman.”
This disproportionate contribution of Jewish people to Irish life has extended beyond politics to include the judiciary, the professions, medical and cultural life. Justice Henry Barron was a member of the Supreme Court until 2003, and Justice Hubert Wine a District Court judge in Dublin until 1992.
David Marcus was an inspirational literary editor at the Irish Press newspaper and helped launch many younger writers. His brother Louis was a distinguished filmmaker. So too was Louis Lentin, responsible for the 1996 Dear Daughter documentary which opened people’s eyes to the abuse of children in residential institutions. Ronit Lentin retired as associate professor of sociology at Trinity College in 2014.
Gerald Davis, who died in 2005, was one of Ireland’s leading abstract painters. The list goes on.
Among Ireland’s better-known people with a Jewish background are film director Lenny Abrahamson, actor Amy Huberman and Bob Geldof, whose paternal grandmother Amelia Falk was Jewish.
It upsets us, living very peacefully here, to see Ireland presented [in Israel] as the most hostile country— Maurice Cohen, Jewish Representative Council of Ireland
Remarking on this extraordinary phenomenon in 2016, President Michael D Higgins said it was “testament to the commitment and dynamism of Ireland’s small Jewish community, a community that has made, and continues to make, such a rich contribution to the life of this island – to Irish arts, professions and politics”.
Despite this, Ireland has not been without some anti-Semitism over the past five decades. However, it has not been a significant feature of Irish life, according to Irish Jews themselves.
“Ireland has been very good to the Jewish community,” said Mr Cohen.
He recalled how, when he interviewed elderly members of the community 10 years ago about experiencing anti-Semitism growing up in Ireland, “they said they didn’t – by and large they didn’t feel the pressures of anti-Semitism”, he said.
But it was also the case that Ireland’s admission of so few Jews from Nazi Germany prior to the second World War – and of just 100 Jewish children afterwards “for only a year” – was “not our crowning glory from an Irish perspective”, he said. Today, there is “very, very little anti-Semitism experienced by Irish people whose faith is Jewish”, he said, and that what there was involved “right-wingers” online.
This resulted, usually, from “rhetoric in both Houses of the Oireachtas by certain members, most of whom do not understand in any way the current situation in the Middle East”, Mr Cohen added.
This did cause “discomfort” among Jewish people in Ireland, he said.
“Of course, the government of Israel can be criticised. We, as Jews, are among its worst critics. But it is upsetting for us as a community when media and politicians often speak out of absolute ignorance of the facts.” A problem was that there were “no voices expressing countervailing views” in the Houses of the Oireachtas, he said.
“It upsets us, living very peacefully here, to see Ireland presented [in Israel] as the most hostile country,” he said. What those voices in the Oireachtas should be doing is “encouraging both sides to sit down and discuss the situation – sit down and start talking”. In his belief, the situation would be resolved when “Israel is guaranteed peaceful coexistence” with its neighbours.
He noted how “twice in the Dáil and on his recent visit to Israel and the West Bank”, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin referred to the Colum McCann novel Aperigon, which deals sympathetically with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I do believe the Tánaiste understands the huge complexity of the situation,” Mr Cohen said.
He also pointed out that the current president of Israel is the only head of state outside of Áras an Uachtaráin who could claim an Irish passport. President Isaac Herzog is grandson of Isaac Herzog, first Chief Rabbi of Ireland, from 1922 to 1936, who went on to become Chief Rabbi of Israel after independence there in 1948.
President Herzog is son of Chaim Herzog, who was born in Belfast and went to school at Wesley College at Ballinteer in south Dublin until he was 16. He was president of Israel for 10 years until 1993.
His grandfather, Chief Rabbi Herzog, who spoke Irish and was referred to as “the Sinn Féin Rabbi” in Ireland, had a close personal relationship with Éamon de Valera and it is claimed this was a reason why the 1937 Constitution bestowed formal recognition on “the Jewish Congregations”, even as Nazi anti-Semitism was on the ascendant in Germany.
Speaking just a few weeks after the Tánaiste’s visit to Israel, Mr Cohen raised the prospect of an Irish visit by Israel’s president.
“I know President Herzog very, very well and he would love to pay a State visit to Ireland,” he said, adding that the Israeli president has “a huge grá for Ireland”.