1. Jews in Leiden

The Jewish presence in Leiden began in the seventeenth century with several Sephardic Jewish students at the university, most of whom were studying medicine. About 1660 a rabbi, probably a lecturer in Hebrew and Judaistics, was living in the city. At the beginning of the 18th. century Jewish merchants achieved the status of burgher. Thus was established an Ashkenazi Jewish congregation, which at first held services in a private house. In 1723 a property on the ‘Levendaal’ canal was bought and used as a house of worship. It was replaced by a new synagogue in 1762.

During the second half of the 18th. century the number of Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe increased, in spite of measures taken to limit immigration. In 1796 the Jews were given equal civil rights. From 1737 to 1809 the Jewish community in Leiden grew from 125 to 288 people, most of whom were tradesmen, second-hand dealers and retailers of old clothes and hats. The gunpowder ship explosion in 1807 also demolished the small Jewish school and killed 19 children. The synagogue was badly damaged and a makeshift restoration was carried out. As the centre of the surrounding congregations the Leiden shul became a ring synagogue, in the ‘ressort’ (jurisdiction) of The Hague. Each ‘ressort’, which might be compared to a province, has its own chief rabbi. The ‘Nederlands Israelitisch Kerkgenootschap’ is the national umbrella organisation.

Since the great renovation in 1857 there has been a plaque above the entrance, bearing the Hebrew inscription: ‘The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former, saith the LORD of hosts’ (Haggai 2:9). The fragment shown here of the largest ever map of Leiden shows the ‘Israelite church’ on the ‘Levendaal’ canal, and the ‘Jewish church alley’. The 427 Jews in Leiden in 1899 lived mainly in the immediate surroundings of their shul. As well as the church governors and the church council there were other associations which were concerned with burials, sick-visiting and charitable works. There was also an association for the support of migrants, and a Jewish orphanage.

Because of secularisation and departures to Amsterdam the number of congregants in the city dwindled to 341 by 1930, but their loss was compensated by a growth in the numbers of Jews in Wassenaar, a town which belonged to the area of the Leiden congregation until 1927. The Zionist movement was also active in Leiden, in particular among young people and students. In the 1930s the Jewish congregation in Leiden looked after about 260 German refugees. This was not an easy task, especially as since 1937 the Dutch government viewed all new refugees as ‘undesirable elements’.

When the German occupying forces dismissed the Jewish professors at the end of 1940, Professor Cleveringa held a speech of protest. Students went on strike and the university was closed. Between June 1942 and March 1943 all those Jews in Leiden who had not been able to go into hiding were deported. Finally Leiden police officers and the ‘Grüne Polizei’ deported 51 children and nine members of staff from the Jewish orphanage to German concentration camps, where all but four died. In 1942 the ‘Nederlands-Israëlitische Gemeente’ (Dutch Israelite Congregation) of Leiden (including the thirteen outlying districts) had almost five hundred members, of whom 271 were murdered. After the last prayer service in September 1942 the synagogue in Leiden was severely damaged and looted by members of the NSB (the Dutch national socialist movement). A number of objects could be saved in the Lakenhal museum, the city archive and private houses. After the war only 113 Jews returned to Leiden from concentration camps or from their places of hiding.

The congregation recovered only slowly and with difficulty from this unprecedented blow. After the war the number of its members was reduced even further by emigration to Israel or America. From 1947 the synagogue on the Levendaal was in use again, but was structurally deteriorating. In 1977 to 1978 the synagogue was restored and its interior was embellished with furniture and chandeliers from a synagogue in The Hague. It is now a state heritage site. The congregation is especially proud of its seven parochot, the beautifully-embroidered curtains which separate the Ark ( the cupboard containing the Thora scrolls) from the prayer area. Three of these are originally from Leiden and four come from the former synagogues of Heenvliet, Middelharnis, Ommen and Hoorn (see the following four maps). They have undergone careful conservation.

From 1983 onwards the Jewish Study Centre, next to the synagogue, has met the needs of Jewish students for deeper insight into Judaism. Its courses are also open to the general public. The orthodox congregation in Leiden now has about 60 members and forms a small, but flourishing Jewish centre in the city.


Campen, H.L.A. van, Map of Leiden, (part of sheet 14) Leiden 1899