Jewish refugees and the process of integration - Tim Mendelson


This year, 2017, is the 200th anniversary of the first ever Jewish community in Scotland, and my [family] history goes back to 1899, when my grandparents arrived here from Lithuania. They had one child by then, and had another 9 in Edinburgh. The logic of why they were in Scotland at all was simply because there was lots of trade between Scotland and the Baltic states gong way back to the seventeenth century. Many of the ships came into the East of Scotland, probably Dundee and Leith, and some would say “we thought we would land in America, but we got off the boat too soon!” but that’s a bit of a myth!


Many came to Scotland to get out of Russia, because of pogroms [massacre of a religious or ethnic group], and life generally [for Jewish people] was terribly difficult. They were migrants, economic migrants, plus also religious refugees, who were seeking a better life in Western Europe. And at that time there were no restrictions, I don’t think it was till the early twentieth century when they even kept a record of who was coming into the country. The other advantage that Jews had coming to Scotland was: Jews had never been expelled from Scotland. They were from England and many European Countries. Never Scotland. Whether that was known to them or not, I don’t know. Our parents or grandparents never talked about life back ‘home’. Either they just wanted to ignore it, or it wasn’t worth telling.


When my Grandfather arrived, the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation was in Graham street, which is now part of Edinburgh Art College. They moved up to the Buccleuch area [because] there already was Jewish people living there from about 200 years ago. Edinburgh was a lot smaller then- it didn’t go out much further than that area just outside of the Old Town. So obviously people would know people, [they would say] “if you’re going to Edinburgh, my mother knows someone who lives [there, be] sure to look them up when you get there”. The Jewish population were all within walking distance of the Synagogue because it was the custom to walk to the Synagogue, and all the kosher foodstores were in the neighbourhood.


The Jewish community have been very good at integrating- becoming part of the [wider] community. There was one Rabbi in 1906, Rabbi Furst, who allowed his son to go to a football match on a Saturday afternoon [a scandal at the time, as Shabbat is a time of rest]. Eventually he became chairman of Hearts FC. In Scotland there was no quota on Jewish students as there was in the United States and South Africa and by 1932 the Jewish population in Edinburgh was well over 2000. Education has always been most important to Jewish families and the immigrants took full advantage of the excellent traditional Scottish Schools and Universities: so we’ve integrated, we’ve become part of the community, there are [Jewish] lawyers, doctors, judges, politicians. The Jewish community has always been good at developing its own welfare organisations like Jewish Care; supporting charities is a big part of Jewish ethics probably due to the persecution and isolation that Jews suffered in many countries over the centuries.

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