British city of York, site of a medieval pogrom, gets its first rabbi in 800 years

World News

(JR) — For the first time in 800 years, the British city of York, whose Jewish population was decimated in a medieval pogrom, will be home to a rabbi.

Rabbi Elisheva Salamo arrived in York from California last week after decades of pulpit work in the United States, Switzerland and South Africa. She will take a part-time pulpit at the York Liberal Jewish Community, which is affiliated with a denomination akin to the American Reform movement. The congregation was founded in 2014 and now has about 100 members.

Her hiring is a milestone for York, a city in northern England whose medieval Jewish community was wiped out in a pogrom in March 1190, on the Shabbat before Passover. Seeking protection from antisemitic rioters who intended to either forcibly convert the Jews to Christianity or kill them, York’s Jews sought refuge in a tower in the king’s castle. 

Realizing they would not make it out of the tower alive as troops amassed outside, they chose to kill themselves rather than convert — a choice also made by other European Jewish communities facing antisemitic armies during the Crusades. Approximately 150 people are estimated to have died in the York pogrom. A century later, the Jews were expelled from England entirely; they were permitted to return only in 1656.

“Helping to rebuild what was once one of England’s most vibrant Jewish communities is an honor and a privilege,” Salamo told The Guardian.

York is not the only British town with a history of medieval antisemitism where Jewish life is being reestablished. The British town of Norwich, where the first known instance of the antisemitic blood libel took place in 1144, and which was the site of another 1190 pogrom, may become home to a Jewish heritage center.

Salamo was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and attended Reed College and Yale University, where she studied biology and cellular and molecular biology. According to her website, she is also an experienced equestrian.

She will be joining a community that has been led by volunteers in the nearly 10 years since it was founded. Salamo’s first formal role will be to lead High Holiday services in September. The community hopes to fundraise in order to hire her full time, according to the Jewish Chronicle.

“With York’s unique history, this is a very significant moment not just for local Jews but nationally and internationally,” Ben Rich, co-founder of the York Liberal Jewish Community, told the Jewish Chronicle.

He added, “I hope that the whole Jewish community and its allies across the globe will want to help us on the next step of this incredible journey to bring Judaism back to this ancient and most beautiful of cities.”