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  • The Jewish Community of Leerdam.

    Leerdam is located on the river Linge, on the border between the Dutch provinces of Zuid-Holland and Gelderland. The first mention of a Jewish inhabitant in Leerdam dates from 1621. He had established himself as a moneylender, for which an annual fee to the local count was due. He had a brother, but both left the town that same year.

    It was not until 1671 that another Jewish inhabitant appeared. He had obtained a licence, valid for 20 years at an annual charge of 60 guilders, for setting up a pawnbroker’s shop. The licence was later transferred to his brother and taken over by a non-Jew in 1709.

    He asked for permission to celebrate the Jewish holidays in all privacy, as the Jews in nearby Buren and IJsselstein were allowed to do, but his request was turned down. This was probably because the attitude in Leerdam was less flexible, but it does at least prove the existence of a small Jewish community. Further proof is provided by the claim in a letter of 1846 that the community had been in existence for over two hundred years. His request to hold a Jewish wedding ceremony was also rejected, although he could of course get married in a civil ceremony. His was eventually married in 1699.

    Between 1704 and 1759 the Jewish inhabitants of Leerdam either rented parts of a house or owned their own home. One Jewish woman lived apparently in a limestone shed. During this period Leerdam counted very few Jewish inhabitants: about six in 1704, three in 1754, and only four between 1753 and 1754. Although no mention is made of Jewish residents between 1710 and 1749, it can be deduced from other sources that they were there.

    In a testimony from 1772 someone is accused of arson and theft, and is said to have stolen oxen which he took to a Jewish butcher in Leerdam. Thus we know that there was a Jewish butcher in Leerdam at that time, the first we have come across.

    Organisation of the Jewish community

    In the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, as elsewhere, Jews were organised locally, and each Jewish community was autonomous. After the upheaval of the Batavian Revolution their situation changed. Henceforth Jews became citizens with equal rights: they were now citizens, of the Israelite religion. Thus the Jewish communities lost their independence. In 1808 King Louis Napoleon established a Supreme Consistory of the High German Israelite communities in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. After the departure of the French this arrangement continued in revised form under King William I. The ‘Hoofdcommissie tot de zaken der Israelieten’ (Chief Commission for Israelite affairs) fulfilled herein an important role.

    The Chief Commission was made up of the most prominent Jews in the Netherlands and was established by the government to liaise between the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Jewish community. The Chief Commission’s task was to advise him on the various aspects of Jewish life, such as synagogue organisation, rabbinical training, school teaching and care of the poor. The Jewish community in the Netherlands was divided into different districts – each with a main synagogue, a “ring” synagogue and additional synagogues – overseen by the Chief Commission. The main synagogue was located in the community with the largest membership. The Leerdam synagogue was thus a ring synagogue with its own kerkbestuur (managing council), and was ranked under the main synagogue in Rotterdam. In 1821 it was decided that the kerkbestuur would consist of two members, one to act as supervisor and the other as treasurer, and would be appointed by the Chief Commission for a period of three years. The Chief Commission’s main task was however to promote a sense of national identity and encourage the use of Dutch instead of Yiddish in the Jewish community. The Dutch language was to be used for teaching purposes and in services, although this was not always adhered to.

    The election of kerkbestuur members was not a straightforward procedure, as candidates were sometimes too old or too poor, and would have to meet the approval of the entire congregation. In 1824 a kerkbestuur was installed which remained unchanged until 1844. It was not until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century that stable leadership was achieved.


    In 1797 the Leerdam district council discussed the fact that Jews were holding services in a rented apartment. This was probably a so-called home synagogue. In a letter from January 1816 it is stated that a room was rented for an annual fee of 42 guilders.

    In 1817 the community could afford its own synagogue, thanks apparently to the personal contribution of a member of the Jewish community. When the mayor heard of a conflict between this person and the Jewish community, he summoned them all. It then transpired that the building had been paid for by the Jewish community, which had adversely affected their finances. The apparently dilapidated house on the Nieuwstraat backed onto an open city sewer. The Jewish community found itself in dire financial straits and asked King William I in 1823 for 700 guilders from the State’s Coffers to combat their debts, but to no effect. In the budget of 1824 a settlement of accounts had been rejected by the treasurer and elder. Although twenty guilders had been put aside, actual costs amounted to 111 guilders. These had been paid by the aforementioned member of the community without consulting the treasurer or the elder. Another request to the King in 1825 had also been fruitless. A renewed attempt in 1826 had also been met with a refusal. In 1826 the mayor wrote a letter to the Chief Commission demanding the demolition of the old building.

    When the kerkbestuur turned to the mayor in 1827, he stepped into the breach. This ultimately led to a contract in 1828 for the construction of a new synagogue. The old building and the nearby bath house (mikveh) were demolished. The dismantled roof tiles, bricks, metal and wood were used as much as possible for the construction of the new building to keep costs down. It had to be finished that November, and the contractor had to pay a penalty of 3 guilders for every day overdue. No work could be carried out on Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, and the workmen had to down tools one hour before the commencement of Shabbat. Infringement of these rules incurred a penalty of 25 guilders.

    The old building had stood in the north-south direction and the Torah scrolls had been stored in a cupboard (Ark) against the south wall, because the Jewish community had been forced to use an existing building. In the new building this was changed however, and the Torah scrolls were placed against the east wall, in the direction of Jerusalem, as tradition requires. The new building had eight windows, and its tiled roof was crowned with a small slate spire. Inside blue floor tiles from the city of Woerden (a city famous for tile production) were used, as blue was the dominant colour. The women’s gallery was located on the west side, above the entrance. A fence was erected around the building to preserve the freedom of the property. The contract had been awarded to the local carpenter who submitted the lowest tender: 850 guilders. The benches had belonged to the old shul, but it is not known who the maker of the Ark was. The synagogue was completed in 1828 but did not have a long life, as the upkeep of the building had been neglected because of lack of funds. In 1852 it became clear that the building was in a very bad state and irreparably damaged. A new building was needed at an estimated cost of 3193.53 guilders. The Jewish community could only contribute half and turned to the Provincial Executive for the rest. This body decided however that the community should pay the subsidy of 3000 guilders, mainly because the amount requested was thought to be disproportionate for a community of 50 members. When in September the Leerdam kerkbestuur circularised all Jewish communities in the Netherlands to ask for money to build a new shul, this ended in bitter disappointment. They approached the Chief Commission again and were turned down again with the advice to approach the King. When it turned out that the Chief Commission had 3500 guilders at its disposal, a renewed approach was made, resulting in a promise of 1350 guilders in 1853, followed by an extra 379.53 guilders which had somehow become available. A request was sent to the King in April 1853 for the remaining 1464 guilders from the State’s coffers. After a busy exchange of letters between the Jewish community of Leerdam and the Provincial Executive, this body decided that a community of 47 members had no need for such a large building and an amount of 2200 guilders should suffice. It would be some time before the required funds were amassed and the construction of the synagogue could start. The result was a simple, small building which was inaugurated on 21 August 1854.

    When the various subsidies were granted, the shul’s upkeep was always a topic of discussion. The celebration of the shul’s twenty-five years’ existence in October 1879 was however a lustrous event. Among the 80 people present were the mayor and the first alderman. In 1885 the shul was presented with a crown which was placed at its entrance.

    In August 1904 the shul celebrated its 50 years of existence. Many donations were received, such as covers for the bimah (desk from which the Torah is read) and a copper enclosure for the Ark. There was also a new Torah scroll.

    It is not clear whether the shul had been heated before, but in 1907 a handsome stove was donated. In 1909 the synagogue was given a facelift: the inside and outside received a fresh coat of paint which made it looked like new again. To the two existing Torah scrolls a third scroll, on loan from the Utrecht community, was added. The synagogue was to receive many more gifts, such as runners, covers and a handsomely hand wrought silver shield for the Torah scrolls.

    In the second half of the 19th century the general migration in the Netherlands of citizens to the big cities also affected the smaller Jewish communities. The preferred destination for the Jews from Leerdam was Amsterdam, mostly for economic reasons. With the community becoming smaller, its financial position deteriorated further. For the synagogue the situation came to the point when only a few services could be held every year. In 1935 there was even talk of closing it down. The chief rabbi was also involved. The last service was held on 1 December 1935. The Jewish community in Leerdam ceased to exist in July 1937, and the remaining members were incorporated into the Jewish community in Gorichem.

    The Mikveh and the school building

    The first time we hear of a mikveh (bath house) was when the Rotterdam area was divided into rings. It may have been situated near the house behind the synagogue. In January 1824 the mikveh is discussed in a letter. Rainwater was led to the bath via a waste pipe from the shul. Use of the bath was free, although a charge was being considered. The mikveh was in poor condition, even dangerous, so there were plans to build a new one which would be connected to the cantor’s house. Although construction was started in February 1850, it was not until 1907 that there was a mikveh and a schoolroom. The building turned out to be in bad condition, very likely because there was no money for adequate upkeep, and the school room was too small. That same year part of the building was renovated and the school was enlarged. The community celebrated the opening. Over the years a kitchen and a second floor were added.

    A house for the teacher

    In the grounds in front of the synagogue stood another building (now Nieuwstraat 15). Between this house and the school ran the street which led to the synagogue. The house was probably built around 1878 and was intended for the teacher. Although it had been used as such, it was also let out to non-Jews. It was a fairly small dwelling with a living room, kitchen and clog shed downstairs, and a bedroom and attic upstairs. In 1932 the kerkbestuur of the Jewish community obtained permission to make structural alterations. The kitchen was enlarged and the stairs were relocated. The building took on the shape that it has today.

    The Jewish cemeteries

    Already in 1672 mention is made of a Jewish cemetery in Leerdam. Jewish cemeteries are not constructed in built-up areas, as they are considered “impure” by Jewish religious law and may not be located near Jewish neighbourhoods and buildings. The first Jewish cemetery in Leerdam was probably established in 1521 according to the laws of local count Floris van Egmond. It was very likely located along the Meentvliet, as the stream is called today.

    In later periods references are made to a “Joedenkerckhoff” (Jews’ cemetery) in various places, but they probably all concern the same plot. It is not clear whether this cemetery was in use in the 16th century, as the Jewish community was very small at that time. There appear to be no records. In the first half of the 18th century Jews from Leerdam and Vianen were evidently buried there. It is possible that around the sixties permission was granted to use a separate part of the general cemetery for burials, but nothing further is known about that. In 1767 the Jews were however assigned a cemetery near the Hoogpoort, one of the entrance gates to Leerdam. When this cemetery was full in 1804, permission was given to use another piece of land opposite, which involved extra costs. Jews from other places (e.g. Gorinchem and Meerkerk) were buried in this new plot as well. At the start of the 19th century a decree was issued in the French empire which forbade burials in and around churches. A new general cemetery was then established near Hoog- of Klein-Oosterwijk in the Leerdam district. A new Jewish cemetery was established behind it in 1832 which over the years spread out over three locations.

    When the oldest location, containing stones 33 and 34, became too full, the Jewish community asked for a bigger plot, which was declined several times. This led to a discussion between the Jewish community and the Provincial Executive, and caused a commotion among the entire Dutch Jewry. The suggestion that the corpses should be buried on top of each other was the cause of it. When this discussion flared up again in 1854, the Jews got their way a year later, but responsibility for preparing the plot of land would be theirs. After further problems the Jewish community of Leerdam was given another piece of land, provided Jews from other places would not be buried there.

    The second location was consecrated in 1860 and had its first burial in 1861. It contains all the other stones, with the exception of stone 32 which had belonged to the old cemetery near the Hoogpoort. When that cemetery was cleared in 1964, the stone was put in a separate section where the remains of the deceased were also reburied.

    In 1852 the planned demolition of the Hoogpoort had led to a discussion with the Jewish community, as it was feared that the adjoining Jewish cemetery would be damaged. Eventually an agreement was reached, and it was decided it should be converted to a park and that the ground would not be turned over. A lockable gate was installed, to which the Jewish community had the key, and the fenced off areas were the property of the Israelite community. This agreement was observed.

    When Rotterdam’s chief rabbi visited the cemetery, he noticed that parts of the wooden signs were no longer usable and advised that they should be replaced. He also noticed a pear tree in the cemetery, which he ordered to be cut down and buried. The fruits should not be eaten, “for one should not enjoy or profit from the things that grow on a Jewish cemetery”. The two remaining locations eventually became the property of the Jewish community in Leerdam.


    In a decree from 1784 the appointment of a schoolteacher, cantor and ritual butcher is mentioned. All members of the Jewish community had to pay for this. It is not clear whether such a person was indeed appointed. It would not be unusual in small communities for one person to fulfil all these functions. Not until the beginning of the 19th century do we hear about Jewish religious teaching in Leerdam. It was apparently closely related to the number of children in the community. The school was to be supervised by the religious Israelite school board and the rabbinic inspector. The subject caused many problems around 1820. The first schoolteacher to be appointed in 1821 was also a merchant, as it was not easy to find someone to fill the post. In 1837 another attempt was made to obtain a subsidy for someone to give religious education, and again in 1843 when the sum of 300 guilders was requested. In 1844 a renewed attempt was made to find a teacher, but no-one was found to fill this vacancy. In 1848 a teacher was appointed, and in another appointment was made in 1852, but in 1853 the position was vacant again. It is not clear how the teaching fared after that, but the frequent comings and goings of teachers was problematic. From 1887 there was a government allowance for teaching religious subjects at Israelite schools for the poor, but this was withdrawn after a few years. Its pupils were also supposed to make a contribution, but most were unable to do so: in 1905 ten of the thirteen were non-paying.

    Around 1905 there was an inspection by the chief rabbinate. According to the report the six pupils in the lowest grade had received lessons for only a few months. Their reading and translation skills were good, but their knowledge of history was poor. Yet they knew a lot about the festivals. The six pupils in the second grade had made a start with Torah translations. Their knowledge of biblical history was scant, with some having reached the story of Joseph and others the book of Judges. They did however know the names of the Jewish months, festivals and fast days. An older pupil, who had attended the school longer, knew the history up to the division of the Jewish kingdom. Since 1897 there had been one teacher, but this person left after eight years for Uithoorn, a town not far from Amsterdam. The community was again looking for a new teacher, but this time for someone who would also function as cantor, rabbi and ritual butcher. In 1906 a new teacher arrived who would be in charge of religious education in nearby Vianen as well, as that was a very small community. In 1906 and 1913 the teaching was inspected by the district’s chief rabbi, who expressed himself satisfied. A new teacher was however required again in 1913, and this would continue every few years. It was getting harder all the time, as the community was shrinking because many of its members moved elsewhere. In 1913 – 1914 there were only six boys and four girls left at the school.

    Adopting a name

    On 20 July 1808 Napoleon ordered by imperial decree that all citizens in his empire, his Jewish subjects as well, had to adopt a family name. After the incorporation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands into the French empire a new decree was issued in 1811 for the adoption of a family name. This decree met with great resistance from the Jews and even led to disturbances in several synagogues. This was also the case in Leerdam, but apart from two families who already had a family name, everyone complied. Thus the names of De Vries, De Jong, Van Hechten, Haagman, Pakkerd, De Haas, Walg were registered with their children and their addresses. A count could now be held which established that in 1811 the Jewish community in Leerdam consisted of 62 members.


    Jews were not initially allowed to occupy government positions, own land or become members of guilds. This meant that they were confined to money dealing and trade.

    In Leerdam, as in many other places in the Netherlands, we regularly come across Jews as moneylenders or pawnbrokers. After the French Revolution this changed, when many Jews made livings as market vendors, pedlars, hawkers and lottery sellers. For Jewish families who needed to eat kosher meat, a Jewish butcher was required, so there was a relatively large number of Jewish slaughterers and butchers. In fact most of the butchers were Jewish and counted many non-Jews among their customers.

    Jews also sold textiles, gold and silver, clocks, rags, junk and were in the printing business. As many were self-employed, they could shut their shop on Shabbat.

    The rag trade was also well represented. Advertisements featured men’s wear, overcoats, mattresses filled with feathers, kapok or sea grass, dress material, flannelette, furniture, prams, lace curtains, drapes, carpets and table cloths. Goods were also sold to farms by horse and cart. Later on colonial ware was introduced. There were many Jewish shopkeepers.

    In 1879 a pork butcher announced that he would start selling beef in the Nieuwstraat. This would mean competition and force prices down, which caused much commotion.

    Discord in the Jewish community

    Over the years there were all sorts of quarrels and conflicts in the community. There were complaints about its management, usually voiced by one of the members and supported by others. Sometimes financial policies or teaching methods were questioned. There were also members who caused disturbances during services. Some members complained that there were no night services on the High Holidays. Many of these complaints were submitted to the chief rabbinate of the district, but a solution was not always found.

    Religious life

    The Jews in Leerdam generally followed the customs of their religion concerning births, circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, marriages, deaths and burials. They were very strict about fulfilling their duties concerning Shabbat. The festivals were also celebrated as they should be.


    In Leerdam, as in other Jewish communities, there were several organisations. In 1903 the women’s organisation ‘Ateret Nashim’ (Women’s Crown) was established. Its main aim was buying ornaments for the synagogue, sitting with the ill and the dying, helping needy expectant and new mothers, and socialising. In 1907 a women’s organisation ‘Tiferet Nashim’ (Righteous Women) was established which was mainly concerned with social welfare. Another women’s organisation, ‘To’elet Nashim’ (Benefit of Women), appeared in 1909. It is not clear how long these organisations lasted, but from 1928 only ‘women’s chevre’ and ‘ladies’ chevre’ are mentioned.

    The society ‘Bigdei Kodesh’ (Holy Garments) maintained the Torah covers, the Ark curtain etc.

    In 1907 there was also a male organisation, called Chevra Kadisha Menorat Hama’or, a funeral society which was concerned with preparing the bodies of deceased Jewish men for burial and with burials in general.

    Care for the poor

    As in most Jewish communities Leerdam also had poor relief. In 1807 the Jewish community in Leerdam consisted of 90 members, of whom 25 could be considered poor. Of those 13 were able to work. The Jewish community could not help these people due to their scant monetary means. For the annual care of the poor an amount of 50 to 60 guilders was spent. The poor did receive peat in winter and matzot for Pesach. Local money collections brought in about 30 guilders.

    In 1840 the Chief Commission advised the kerkbestuur of the Jewish community to apply to the local council for a subsidy, as Amsterdam and Utrecht had done. In 1898 there were no poor in the Jewish community of Leerdam, but in 1899 nine members were classed as needy.

    From the Second World War

    During the Second World War there were only two Jewish women in Leerdam, who had not wanted to leave. They were rounded up and murdered. After the war no Jews remained in Leerdam.

    The number of Jews from 1809 (including the villages Asperen and Heukelum)

    1809             69

    1840             50

    1869             56

    1899             58

    1930             16

    Sources: Joods Leerdam, vier eeuwen joodse geschiedenis

    Teunis A.Blom

    Historische Vereniging Leerdam, 2017

    ISBN 9081967649, 9789081967648



    Extracted from source: Yael (Lotje) Ben Lev-de Jong
    Translated from Dutch: Sara Kirby-Nieweg
    Review: Ben Noach
    End editing: Sara Kirby-Nieweg & Anthony (Tony) Kirby

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