Why does this city have so few Jews?
‘Sheffield is probably one of the safest places I have felt being Jewish’
By Victoria Munro
If the minutes of their synagogue meetings are anything to go by, the Jews of Sheffield’s yesteryear were a hoot. During the 19th century, an internal schism split the small religious community into two even smaller congregations, who “were always trying to disrupt one another’s proceedings,” Professor Judy Simons tells me. On one occasion, a member of the breakaway congregation attended a meeting of the main synagogue in secret and surreptitiously turned off the building’s gas lamps. “The place was plunged into darkness and he crawled into the meeting and bit the chairman on the leg.”
I’m speaking to Simons — a former editor of Sheffield Jewish Journal, a community newspaper that published from 1946 until 1970 — in the hopes of answering a deceptively simple question. Namely, why are there so few Jews in Sheffield? While the Jewish people are a minority everywhere in the UK, it seems the city’s seven hills presented a particularly unappealing hurdle. According to the 2021 census, less than 650 Sheffield residents identify as Jewish, an even smaller group than the city’s Sikhs, who number more than 900.
I’m not, I feel the need to point out, the only person who is wondering about this. In 2007, a poster on Sheffield Forum questioned if the city even had a Jewish community at all. “In my dealings over the years in Manchester and Leeds, they seem to have sizable Jewish communities,” they write, “but I've never really come across Jewish people in Sheffield.” A dozen pages of lively debate followed, including a number of comments pointing out the successful Sheffield companies started by Jewish migrants. Viners cutlery, for example, and Blaskeys wallpaper shops. (“We could do with a few more,” came one ironic reply. “Nobody here makes a good suit anymore.”)
But, even if Jewish people have made more of an impact in Sheffield than I first assume, it’s undeniable that the waves of Jewish migrants arriving from Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries seem to have largely passed the city by. Simons tells me that, according to the most prominent theories from historians, this is partly down to a disadvantage that still plagues Sheffield to this day: its lack of connectivity compared to other northern cities.
Jewish migrants arriving from eastern Europe during the 19th century would often land at the ports in Hull and Grimsby, where they were greeted by direct trains to Manchester and Leeds. “It was not as straightforward to get to Sheffield,” Simons says, “it still isn’t.” Even some of those who eventually settled in Sheffield may have actually been trying to travel to Liverpool and simply given up halfway.
But the difficulty of reaching the Steel City was not the only factor. Simons explains that, under the Russian empire that many of these migrants were fleeing, Jewish people were forbidden from living in big cities. This excluded them from any industrial professions and most had made their living back home through tailoring, woodwork or other forms of small-scale crafts. Cities like Manchester, which had a huge garments industry, were therefore automatically appealing, allowing them to continue the trade they were most experienced in.
“Sheffield was a heavy industry city so it didn’t get the same sort of influx,” Simons explains. By 1900, the city’s Jewish community numbered just 800 people, compared to 20,000 in Leeds and 30,000 in Manchester. Those that did choose to move to Sheffield were often watchmakers or jewellers, such as Harris Leon Braun of H.L. Brown, which remains a family-run Sheffield jewellery business to this day.
It may have been a small community, Simons says, but it “punched above its weight,” producing two Lord Mayors and a number of other civic figures. As Steel City Jews, a 1976 report on Jewish social mobility in Sheffield notes, the community benefited from its small size, as it was “never so large as to precipitate general hostility and backlash as a result of the group’s success”. Simons is particularly charmed by the story of a kosher butcher, who became president of the Sheffield Pork Butchers Association.
This lack of ill will may have contributed to what the report describes as a pronounced desire among Sheffield Jews to embrace the culture of their new home. “They threw themselves into becoming British in every sense of the word,” it reads, “from learning to play cricket to wearing bowler hats”. This is likely a large part of why non-Jews like the Sheffield Forum poster believe the city has no Jewish community — they are so well-integrated that they seem to disappear.
This is certainly the impression I get from Tracy Viner, of the Viners cutlery family, who was born and raised in the city. “Sheffield is probably one of the safest places I have felt being Jewish,” she says. “It’s something about it being the City of Sanctuary, we do actually care about one another.” She points out that members of the city’s Jewish community were very involved in raising funds to help build The Crucible theatre but then almost seems to backtrack. “It was not that ‘we are Jewish and doing that’,” she insists, “It’s that they were part of Sheffield and doing that.”
This is not to say, of course, that Sheffield’s Jews abandoned their culture out of a desire to assimilate. The city’s Jewish population peaked in the 1950s and, flicking through back issues of Sheffield Jewish Journal, it’s obvious that there was a strong community identity around this time. Between ads for Fox Furs and a “fabulous Slimtronic clinic” on Glossop Road, you can find a gossip column titled “Overheard at Gotlib’s,” the city’s oldest kosher grocers, and reviews of plays staged by the Maccabi Players, a Jewish amateur drama group.
However, by the time Viner was growing up in the 1980s, the community was in sharp decline. Gotlib’s was gone, as was the kosher butcher, and rising unemployment was driving young people of all demographics away from the north of England. For young Jewish people, especially those who wanted to marry and raise children within a thriving religious community, the desire to leave was even more pronounced. Estimates suggest the population may have halved between 1950 and 1980 and it has only continued to dwindle in the decades since.
No one is more keenly aware of this trend than Rabbi Yonosan Golomb, the leader of Sheffield’s sole remaining synagogue. He tells me that, as the city’s only Hasidic Jew and one who grew up in an orthodox neighbourhood in London, he does sometimes miss being surrounded by his religious community. “But my aim is to try and improve the Jewish community,” he tells me, which in his view entails encouraging Jews to embrace their faith. “If I stay in Stamford Hill, who am I going to impact? They don’t need me there.”
It’s apparent he’s very worried about how many young Jews are moving away from Sheffield — and taking unborn future generations with them. It seems like, at every wedding he officiates, the happy couple are preparing to move to London, although a handful head to cities like Manchester and Leeds. “It’s almost economic in essence, people will go where they can make their living. Whether I like it or not, London has a buzz about it.”
The only group that seems to be growing is the number of Jewish students studying at the city’s universities and Rabbi Golomb clearly exerts a lot of energy into making them feel at home. Every week, he invites young people to join his family for Friday night dinner to celebrate the Sabbath and the group around his table has grown from 7 or 8 people to 15 or 16 in recent years. If he doesn’t see someone for a couple of weeks, he’ll make sure to check on them and, with Hanukkah fast approaching, he has a small stash of spare menorahs he can hand out.
He’s keen to emphasise the advantages that can come with being a part of a small religious community. “If you go to a synagogue in Edgware, there’s 250 people on a regular Saturday; if you disappeared, they wouldn’t notice.” In a tiny congregation, every person makes a difference and the ties are a lot tighter. “The young people who move to London often stay friends with each other, even though they’ve got hundreds of other people they could be friends with, because the bonds they have created in Sheffield are stronger.”
It’s not all been downhill in recent decades. In 1989, as the more orthodox community was being depleted, a group of reform Jews founded the Sheffield and District Reform Congregation, since renamed Seven Hills Shul. In contrast to orthodox Judaism, bent on keeping ancient traditions alive, reform Judaism aims to adapt the faith to contemporary life. As the shul’s 68-year-old chair Jane Ginsborg points out, there are more than 600 commandments in the Torah, almost half of which relate to a temple in Jerusalem that no longer exists.
The shul’s founders included two interfaith couples — Jewish men with non-Jewish wives who found they were not welcome in the more traditional community — and it still prides itself on its diversity and inclusivity. Their services are “extremely informal” and their congregation boasts members of different races and many levels of observance. “It goes without saying that we’re very welcoming to people who are gay, trans and non-binary,” Ginsborg adds. The shul’s modern bent makes it attractive even to people who have not embraced their faith for a long time. She’s been contacted recently by Jews who have never attended a service or haven’t been to a synagogue since their childhood.
But some, like Viner, feel this may just be postponing the inevitable. While Sheffield Jews will obviously continue to exist as individuals, the prognosis for the religious community does not look good. “The cost of running a synagogue and keeping a community going is expensive,” she says. “I’m not sure it’s going to survive another generation.” Of the 13 children who were present at her bat mitzah, only she and one other still live in Sheffield. “I keep making a joke that I’m going to be one of the ones turning the lights off.”