The Jewish Community of Bolsward
De Joden van Bolsward by W.M. Dooper
Between 1786 and 1911 Bolsward had a Jewish community. The community had a synagogue of their own in the Kerkstraat. In 1846 and 1847 this community had its largest membership: 132 Jews out of a total population of 4,500 people. Although it was very small, the Jewish community played a prominent part in town.
From the start of the 17th century Jews had been living in the Netherlands, the Republiek of the Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden. The first arrivals were Sephardic Jews, refugees from Spain and Portugal, followed by the Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Poland. Most Jews settled in Amsterdam, which became a Jewish center of international significance. In the Dutch republic there was a great measure of religious freedom and both kehillot were free to fulfill their religious duties and prayers. There was no persecution, but the local town council determined whether Jews were permitted to settle in their town. Therefore the number of Jews differed in different regions. In Utrecht for instance, Jews were not allowed to settle before 1796.
The Jews were treated as any religious minority, like Catholics for instance, or any other minority, which did not belong to the Calvinistic faith. They were not allowed to become guild members, nor could they fulfill official duties.
The first Jews in Friesland
The first Jews in the Northern part of the Netherlands hailed from East Friesland in the North-West of Germany. Eekhoff claims that already in 1645 Jews lived in Leeuwarden and that in Workum there was a Jewish cemetery since 1664.
Many Jews were cattle traders and slaughterers, and the cattle pest epidemic from the 18th century caused them heavy losses. During the same period no settlement permits were issued. In 1744 the Gedeputeerde Staten of Friesland (the Frisian authorities) issued orders regarding the cattle-pest, and prohibited the entry of Jews, who did not have a permanent residence permit.
During the 18th century the Jewish community of Bolsward was established, with a Jewish cemetery at the Hoog Bolwerk.
The establishment of a cemetery meant that contact with the local authorities had been made. There was a minyan, and prayers were held at a home synagogue. The community enjoyed a certain measure of independence and intern disputes were settled by the Jews themselves. In 1772 they were obliged to rapport their marriages to the authorities. Problems which could not be solved by the Jewish community were referred to the local authorities. Mutual trust was created. The parnassim thought that the existing tolerance was also influenced by the low number of poor Jews in the community.
The Jews in Bolsward before 1786
It is doubtful whether there were Jews in Bolsward already during the 17th century. The name of Isaac Abrahams is mentioned in 1610 and in 1688 a certain Jacob Ammans from Amsterdam paid his burgher duties. It is not sure whether these were Jews, since names like Jacob and Abraham were also Christian names. There is no convincing proof that Jews lived in Bolsward before 1750.
A source from 1724 mentions a complaint by traders from Bolsward, claiming that traders from other towns took part in the weekly markets.
Jews however, were not mentioned in this connection.
Between 1751 and 1756 one Jew lived in the town and moved afterwards to Leeuwarden. In 1759 several traders file a complaint with the town authorities about Jews selling their wares from door to door, although such a trade was strictly forbidden in Leeuwarden, Franeker, Sneek, Dokkum and Harlingen. This prohibition was obviously announced in these towns two years before.
The Jewish community between 1786-1815
In 1786 there were enough Jews in Bolsward in order to establish a kehilla, which enabled them to take better care of their interests, and to defend their religious position as opposed to other religious groups and denominations.
After serious deliberation regulations, consisting of twenty articles, were approved on 22 March 1786.
Jews were not allowed to settle in the town without any procedure. They had to pay bail and they had to provide proof of good behavior in their former place of residence. The establishment of the Jewish community coincided with a turbulent political period. Patriots and followers of Willem V fought with each other.
Towards the end of the 18th century Bolsward was a small but prosperous rural municipality, with about eight hundred houses.
A National Assembly was called and on 2 March 1796. The assembly issued the "Decreet over den Gelykstaat der Joodsche met alle andere burghers" giving the Jews similar rights and obligations. They had now become a religious denomination and had lost the status of Joodse Natie. Herewith came an end to the special legal position of the kehilla and the reign of the parnassim. The kehilla survived nevertheless as a social and religious unit. From the French period preference was given to the term Israeliet and the word Jood became an invective. In the course of the 19th century the Jews enjoyed equal rights, and they could now settle wherever they wanted.
The Upperconsistory from 1808
The Upperconsistory was founded during the reign of King Lodewijk Napoleon. One task of this administrative body was to stop the begging of the Jews.
The synagogues were divided into Hoofd and Ring synagogues. The Upperconsistory wanted the Jews to behave like Dutchmen. They were against the use of Jiddish and the Jewish religion teachers had to know the Dutch language and had to teach in that language. The Bible was translated into Dutch. In 1811 all Dutchmen, including the Jews, were obliged to adopt family names.
Already in 1786 there existed a synagogue in Bolsward in the Kerkstraat, just behind the city hall. In 1790 the synagogue was described as a "small storeroom where services were held."
In 1819 the kehilla planned to rebuild the dilapidated synagogue. It had become too small and plans were made for a new synagogue. The kehilla did however not succeed in collecting the necessary funds, so the plan was cancelled.
At the end of the 18th century European Jewry was divided into two groups: The so called "reform movement," as opposed to the traditional Jews. The split was also felt in Bolsward.
In 1836 they tried to improve the service. One member, who was not properly dressed for the service, was not called to the Torah and was even not allowed to enter the synagogue.
In 1838 the municipal architect declared the synagogue unsafe. In his opinion it made no sense to rebuild the building.
The building of a new synagogue would cost 3600 guilders. The kehilla possesed 1600 guilders. The St. Anthony Hospital donated 300 guilders and promised another 1000 guilders more without interest. The kehilla hoped to obtain more funds from donations, non-interest-bearing loans and subsidies.
In December 1838 the kehilla bought a parcel of land for 430 guilders and in 1840 the building permit was received.
Other denominations contributed 1,550 guilders.
The town inhabitants donated an amount of 269.95 guilders.
The Amsterdam Jews gave 231.40 guilders.
The Leeuwarden community gave 113 guilders.
There were different opinions regarding the seats for the parnassim.
The final decision was three seats, as in Gorredijk and Sneek.
In 1840 the new synagogue was inaugurated.
The building had a façade with a protruding decorated part. The main entrance with two classic pillars and pediments, was separated from the street by an iron fence.
The old building was used for a school room, for a house for the shamash and a mikve.
In 1889 the synagogue was renovated, and festively inaugurated.
The Torah roll was sent to the sofer in Leeuwarden, who found that the text was partly flawed. The Bolsward Jews claimed though that that was "impossible."
Through the drastic decline of membership, the Jewish community of Bolsward came to an end in 1911. The synagogue, the school room and the house of the "Shamash" were sold. The remaining Jews had to go to Sneek for their religious fulfillments.
In 1930 the building was added to the provisional monuments list. In 1941 the building was drastically changed. The façade was demolished. Two windows were sealed up. During the war several items disappeared. After the war the building was used as a store room and in 1993 the Bolsward municipality decided to demolish the building.
In 1786 the kehilla received authorization to buy a parcel of land for a cemetery. The plot was located opposite the former Nieuweburen at the town wall. The kehilla did not have enough funds to surround the place with a wall. This cemetery was in use between 1786 and 1829 , and it is recognizable as such even today. Obviously it was also used by the Jews from Sneek.
The cemetery at the Hoog Bolwerk, shaded by the Martini church has been surrounded by a low fence. All tombstones disappeared during the second world war.
In 1811 Napoleon forbade burials inside the built up area of the town. As a result, the municipality of Bolsward wanted to establish a general cemetery, where all denominations could be buried. The location of this cemetery was planned at a paved street along a canal. But with the downfall of Napoleon the plan was cancelled. Only fifteen years later a general cemetery was started, since burial in churches and in town had been forbidden by King Willem I.
An additional law stated that towns and villages with more than one thousand inhabitants had to establish a new cemetery outside their town or village. The first plan was that the Jewish community of Bolsward would receive a part of the new general cemetery, closed off with a wooden fence. The municipality however did not approve. Finally there was a ditch and a hedge around the part allotted originally to the Jews.
The kehilla nevertheless tried to keep possession of the old cemetery at the Hoog Bolwerk, but that turned out to be impossible. A parcel of land was bought near the general cemetery.
In 1909 the last burial at the Samuel van Haringhouckstraat took place. When two years later the community of Bolsward ceased to exist, the Jewish community of Sneek undertook the care of the cemetery.
A consultant of the Nederlands Israelitische Kerkgenootschap pays a yearly visit to the cemetery. In 1987 a few members of the liberal community of Bolsward initiated the repair of the cemetery. In 1990 a new access bridge was built and the tombstones were cleaned.
The Jewish school (the cheider)
According to the Torah teaching is considered a moral obligation. Since the kehilla of Bolsward was financially unable to pay the salary of a rabbi of their own, the Jewish teacher fulfilled all positions the kehilla needed. He was the teacher, the hazzan and shochet. Already before 1800 the Jewish children enjoyed religious teaching.
In 1835 the Head Commission was informed about the difficult situation of the Jewish education in Bolsward. There was no classroom and the teacher gave lessons at home. The same year a temporary classroom was founded and in 1842 a new classroom was ready.
In 1860 the kehilla requested a national grant, which was not always yearly paid. Financing was obtained from local and national authorities, and not only from those parents who were able to pay their teachers.
In 1860 there were twelve pupils. Seven of them did not pay any school fees. In 1870 the school fees were ten cents for one child and fifteen cents for two. There also was not enough money to buy school books, which were instead provided by the Permanente Commissie.
In 1882 there were ten girls and four boys, divided into two classes. They studied nine hours per week. The teacher was not an accomplished one and the community was not satisfied, because there was little discipline and order in the classes. The equipment and the school room were in a bad situation. The school room also served as the store room of the shamash.
Religious subjects were taught on Sundays from half past eight till ten and from two till four in the afternoon. Also on weekdays Jewish lessons were given. On Friday lessons were given only from twelve till one. The age of the pupils was between five and fifteen years.
They also went to the public school and there was no time left for playing. Therefore the children studied at the Jewish school with reluctance. The subjects moreover were difficult, complicating matters.
The boys did usually better than the girls, who stopped their lessons at the cheider at an earlier age. The boys had to prepare themselves for their Bar Mizwa. In 1886 the chief rabbi expressed his approval regarding the situation of the cheider. But the decline of the kehilla was also felt in the cheider. The results were not very good. Hebrew spelling and reading were insufficient, as was the reading of the Torah. The knowledge of Jewish history was moderate, but the translation of the Berachoth was found to be sufficient.
In 1886 the school management reported that the kehilla had become very small. There were only fourteen families left, ten of which were religious. At the end of the 19th century the Jewish school was closed, and the lessons of the three remaining children were given at the home of the shochet.
Support and prosperity
The Israelitisch Armbestuur (the commission for the poor) in Bolsward was maintained by the president-treasurer of the kehilla. The finances of the Commission were dependent on the prosperity of the community. The income was composed of donations, collections and fines.
Support was also given in the form of matses, peat and clothing. Taking care of the poor was an important and holy obligation.
Between 1828 and 1848 there existed in Bolsward the Chewre Magzeekei Tsedoko, extending support in case of decease and supporting the poor.
However in 1869 there were no poor Jews anymore in Bolsward and the social situation of the Jews was very good.
Therefore, at the end of the 19th century there was no need for such a Chewre anymore.At the time however the kehilla donated money to poor Jews passing through.
Standard of living
There were Jews in Bolsward of very good financial standing, although from time to time some became poor. Sometimes, when the kehilla had no money to support the poor, the town authorities offered support, but only to those who had been born in Bolsward, or had been living there for at least four years. Around 1817 the richest Jews of Friesland lived in Bolsward. Some of them held functions in the Jewish community.
There were of course Jews who went bankrupt and some were accused of swindle!
Means of living
Most Jews were traders by profession, but this was a wide definition. Many had shops, but there were also peddlers. They walked from village to village to sell their wares. During the second half of the 19th century these traders made use of the newly invented steamboat.
After the revolution of 1795 the Jews were allowed to hold higher functions socially, but usually they preferred to follow their traditional occupations like trading in second hand clothing. According to the census of 1796 ten out of twelve Jews were traders. The peddlers were at home for Shabbat and Sundays. The other professions were shochet and cattle trader. Both were profitable professions. Others held sheep, which were exported to England. There also were securities agents and one was a civil servant.
Some sold lottery tickets. The prices were paid in gold or silver, after receiving permission from the town authorities. There also was a town musician and a dancing teacher.
Rise and fall
Till the middle of the 19th century the Jewish community of Bolsward kept growing. In 1846 and 1847 the kehilla reached its height with 132 members. In 1890 there were only 70 community members left.
The decline during the second half of the 19th century was a known phenomenon in most of the small mediene communities.
The decline was caused by economic reasons, decease and migration. Jews who left usually moved to Amsterdam.
In 1873 the farmers of Bolsward were very prosperous, but after several years an agrarian crisis caused depression and unemployment. Bolsward became a quiet village. The Jews, who were mostly traders, could not maintain themselves anymore. There was no train station in Bolsward and the steam tram from 1881, was not of much use.
After 1912 there remained only 12 Jews in Bolsward.
The year before the remnant of the Jewish community of Bolsward had been added to the Jewish community of Sneek.
Jews in Bolsward and surroundings
Extracted from sources:Yael Benlev-de Jong
Translated from Dutch:Mechel Jamenfeld
Final editing:Hanneke Noach