Behind the Headlines Pride, Solidarity of Ireland’s Jews
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Behind the Headlines Pride, Solidarity of Ireland’s Jews

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There are fewer than 3000 Jews in the Irish Republic, equalling less than one percent of the community in neighboring Great Britain. But they have never felt so independent, secure and proud as they do today. A hive of religious, social, philanthropic and educational activity, Irish Jewry feels in harmony with the rest of the country and in step with the rest of the Jewish world.

That is the impression gained from a visit here and from lengthy talks with Dr. Isaac Cohen, who, when he reaches the retirement age of 65 next year, will have spent 20 years as Chief Rabbi. For Irish Jewry, it has been a period of gradual, but nonetheless significant change, much of it in response to a changing environment.

A major change has been in the relationship with the Jewish community of the United Kingdom. One of the strongest links used to be the close contacts between Dublin, capital of the Republic, and Belfast, the industrial hub of British-ruled northern Ireland. Because of the terrorism of the past nine years, many of Belfast’s Jews, formerly almost as numerous as those of Dublin, have fled to England, leaving the Jews in southern Ireland more isolated than before.


At the same time, Irish Jews, like their non-Jewish compatriots, have become more aware of their links with Europe, where Ireland is a fully fledged member of the European Economic Community. In matters of shechita, Irish Jewry seems more aware than Anglo-Jewry of the relevance of EEC regulations governing conditions of animal slaughter. In the Conference of European Rabbis, Cohen is the equal of his British counterpart, Dr. Immanuel Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi of Britain, who was Ireland’s second Chief Rabbi from 1949 to 1958.

Before Ireland gained its independence half a century ago, Irish congregations were represented on the Board of Deputies of British Jews. But there is now only one vestige of this old link–Irish synagogues which may register marriages are those whose marriage secretaries are recognized by the Board of Deputies in London. The Jewish Representative Council of Ireland has considered scrapping this link, but decided it was not necessary. The Irish Chief Rabbinate is otherwise independent, except in matters of would-be converts to Judaism, who are referred to the London Beth Din.

There are still secular links with political and fund-raising bodies in London. But even in this Zionist sphere, the relationship has changed. Two years ago, the Israeli Ambassador to Britain was also accredited to Ireland. Israeli envoys have been showered with hospitality by Dublin Jewry, bringing a new intimacy into its contacts with Israel.

Meanwhile, the Yom Kippur War, the rise of international terrorism, and the sending of Irish United Nations troops to Lebanon have made Irish public opinion as a whole more aware of Israel and the Middle East–and indirectly of Irish Jewry in its midst. Domestically, the community has moved steadily up the economic and social ladder in the past two decades with more people entering the professions and arts and even local politics.

It has moved geographically, too, out of the immigrant districts of the South Circular Road, with its two fine old synagogues, through the modern district of Terenure, southwards into the mountains and down the coast. Meanwhile, the Republic’s other main community in Cork, has dwindled to only 20 families, and only individual families remain in cities like Limerick and Galway.

The community’s decline is partly due to emigration to England, the U.S. and Israel. But families, too, are smaller than in the days when birth control, tabu in Catholic Ireland, was regarded almost as a criminal offense. Despite the shrinkage, though, the community’s heart seems as sound as ever. Even the emergence of a small Reform congregation has caused no major schism in the community which remains markedly traditional in its religious outlook.


According to Cohen, virtually all the Jewish children here have some Jewish education. Half attend the two Jewish day schools–Zion Primary School and Stratford College, the secondary school–which provide daily Hebrew and Judaism lessons. Of the other 50 percent, two-thirds attend afternoon Hebrew classes, while the remainder have private tutors. There are also active youth movements, the most popular being the religiously-inclined Bnei Akiva, with 100 members aged 10 to 17.

The community’s Zionism, too, does not appear to have been shaken by the doubts and anxieties which swept some other communities in the wake of Menachem Begin’s election as Premier of Israel. Cohen told me that he, like most of his community, totally disagreed with the recent criticism of Israeli policy by Jakobovits and Michael Sacher, president of the Joint Israel Appeal in Britain and a leading member of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization Executives.

On the national level, Cohen’s reputation is out of all proportion with the size of his community, totaling only one-thousandth of the entire population. In the absence of a resident Israeli Ambassador, the Chief Rabbi often speaks out about Middle East developments. But his views are also sought about issues unrelated to Judaism and Israel.

His standing was illustrated last year at the inauguration in Dublin Castle of the new Irish President. Cohen was seated alongside the Catholic and Protestant primates of Ireland, thus having pride of place over all the other bishops in this devoutly Catholic country.

Cohen would be the first to admit, though, that the Chief Rabbinate’s prestige owes much to its first incumbent, the late Isaac Herzog, who in 1937 became Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land. During his 19 years in Dublin, Herzog won enormous respect here, and was a close friend of Eamon de Valera, father of modern Ireland. It was de Valera, too, who drew up the 1937 Irish constitution, bestowing full minority rights on the Jewish community, and recognizing the Chief Rabbi as appointed by its Representative Council, to which all communal organizations belong.

Born in South Wales, Cohen has served as a rabbi in England and Scotland. But when he retires, it is in Israel rather than back in Britain that he and his wife hope to make their home: When he does so, he will be following in the steps of Herzog. It remains to be seen whether, like Herzog, Cohen will begin another career.

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