The Oxford Jewish Congregation (OJC) is a rare community of Jews. For several decades, the wider UK synagogal community has become increasingly polarised between 'orthodox' and 'non-orthodox.' Meanwhile, the OJC has enjoyed and cultivated a sense of unity and common Jewish identity, based on mutual respect for, and collaboration between, the different strands of Judaism. How did this unusual organisational setup evolve?
Prior to the 1960s, despite Oxford's status as a major university centre, the size, strength and stability of the resident Jewish community waxed and waned as a result of external developments beyond its control. The reluctance of Oxford Colleges to employ Jews in senior academic positions, and the relative absence of economic and industrial development in the Oxford area, inhibited the growth of the resident Jewish population. This was reflected in the synagogue's normal seating capacity of 50 persons.
The late 1930s and the onset of the Second World War brought an influx of some 500 refugees from Germany, and at least a similar number of evacuees from London. However, most of the latter subsequently drifted back to London and some (though not all) of the former moved on to other destinations, thereby causing the community to shrink dramatically again. For much of the time, therefore, the undergraduate Jewish student community - present for only 24 weeks of each year - was the dominant group. Significantly, the rapid post-1945 growth in student numbers meant (in the words of the OJC's chronicler) that 'the undergraduate element was a far more substantial proportion of the Anglo-Jewish student body than the resident community was of Anglo-Jewry as a whole, both in size and resources' - a fact that reinforced the long-standing recognition that 'undergraduate needs were in some sense a national responsibility'.
A tradition of cross-denominational usage of the synagogue building was established early in the 20th Century. Whether because of lengthy periods without a rabbi or spiritual leader, the very small number of residents, the eclectic background of the Jewish undergraduate community, or the presence of particular individuals with strong Liberal leanings - perhaps all were relevant - the forms of service used in the synagogue were varied. Moreover, the synagogue building - originally leased by the OJC on part of the current site - appears to have been acquired subsequently by an independent trust, whose members comprised residents, dons and undergraduates representing both orthodox and non-orthodox traditions.
After the Second World War, despite its dwindling numbers, the resident community became involved in the provision of kosher meals for the expanding cohorts of students. A related, though subsequent, development - connected to the 'national responsibility' issue - was the purchase by the London-based B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation of a site next to the synagogue for the provision of kosher meals for students (although it was still the local residents who provided the service).
By the 1960s, the old synagogue building was in a state of serious disrepair. Although the 'permanent' resident population had now begun to grow, it was a London-based committee, including several prominent Oxford alumni, which took on primary responsibility for raising funds for a new Jewish Centre. Although not the original intention, it was eventually decided to build the Centre on the site of the existing building, augmented by several adjacent sites. However, the underlying properties were not owned by the Congregation: apart from the Hillel-owned site, some of the properties were registered in the names of individual OJC members, and the rest were vested in the aforementioned independent trust. An additional consideration was that, while the Congregation had become more orthodox in its orientation by the 1940s, some of (the successors to) the trustees of the original synagogue building were concerned to protect the interests of Progressive Jews.
The solution to the problems posed by this plethora of interests was found in the creation of a non-profit charitable 'Company Limited by Guarantee'. The Company's purpose was to hold the new building and all the underlying properties, and to give the OJC, the Oxford University Jewish Society (OUJS) and the kosher meals service assured use of the building in perpetuity. The OJC, the Hillel Foundation and the (successors to) the original trustees were all accorded rights of appointment to the directorate of the Company, with special provisions to protect student and Progressive interests.
In the years since the Centre was built (in 1974), the Congregation has become increasingly 'pluralistic' in outlook and character. The OJC itself is a complex institution, which is difficult to describe, mainly because of the relative 'informality' of its own structures. Although the OJC describes itself as an 'independent orthodox' congregation, its constitution merely lays down that its objects include the 'advancement of the Jewish religion' and the provision of religious and welfare services for the 'Jews of Oxford'. Membership of the Congregation is open to 'all persons of the Jewish faith', albeit with the crucial rider that any individual's access to religious rites (including bar/batmitzvah, marriage, burial etc) depends on his/her halachic status. Both men and women are counted as full members, with non-Jewish spouses/partners of members offered non-voting associate status. Significantly, the community does not have a rabbi or other formal spiritual leader. Except on the High Holydays, when outside assistance is obtained for the orthodox services, and for part of the summer when absences create the need for some assistance with lehening, all the services are run by lay volunteers.
The Jews of Oxford take great pride in the inclusiveness of their institutional structures - a pride that is reinforced by the favourable feedback received from the continuous streams of short- and long-term visitors that pass through the city. They are also proud of the fact that their Congregation is vibrant and growing (the Jewish Centre undergwent a major programme of extensions and refurbishment in 2003 to meet the needs of the next generation).
Authored by Jesmond Blumenfeld (Oxford, January 2003)
The author is a former President of the Oxford Jewish Congregation, and a former Chairman of the Management Committee of the Oxford Synagogue and Jewish Centre.