Sir Moses Haim Montefiore

Sir Moses Montefiore was born in 1784 and was one of the most famous British Jews in the 19th century.

In 1812, Moses Montefiore married Judith Cohen (1784-1862), daughter of Levi Barent Cohen. Her sister, Henriette (or Hannah) (1791-1866), married Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836).

Judith wrote extensive diaries and inserted that on Thursday 14th July 1825 they left London to Ireland. On the way, they travelled to Oxford.

As the the extension of the railway from London to Oxford was not yet built, their visit to Oxford must have been by steam-powered stagecoach, which were in regular service in Britain, from 1820 to 1840. These were later banned from public roads and Britain's railroad system developed as a result, thus the extension of the railway to Oxford in 1844, a major cause for the development of the modern Jewish community.

It is likely his visit to Oxford was out of curiosity about the historical colleges and landmarks of the city, rather than the local Jewish community. The modern established Oxford Jewish community dates back only to 1842.

It is however possible that he had Jewish acquaintances in Oxford. According to a questionnaire of 1845 by Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler there was already a paid shochet, 4 Jewish families and 20 individuals residing in Oxford (see 2nd article "Mikvaot of Oxford" by Rabbi Eli Brackman). Although this small community might have only moved to Oxford with the extension of the railway in 1844, this is unlikely, since by the time of the questionnaire in 1845, it had only transpired one year since the extension of the railway, in which it is improbable that in such a small amount of time there had been such an influx of Jewish residents. Hence, they likely had been a small Jewish community in 1825 whose members had acquaintance with Sir Moses, a known philanthropist and communal figure.

While in Oxford, Sir Moses stayed at the Kings Arms, which is on the junction of Broad Street, Holywell Street and Parks Road.

Today, Kings Arms is no longer a hotel. It is a pub and has been a favourite with tourists and students alike for years. However, inside it is spacious with several cosy rooms and photographs and paintings adorn the walls proclaiming the pub's historical links with the city and royal visits. Thus it is logical that Sir Moses would have chosen this place for his accommodation.

On Friday 15 July, they toured Oxford and visited the Radcliffe Camera and New College, which are both in very close proximity to the Kings Arms. However, it would be of interest to speculate the thoughts of Sir Moses while visiting New college, as it was only in 1856, 26 years later, that Jewish undergraduates were permitted to study in Oxford.

One might wonder whether Sir Moses raised this issue with the governors of the University during his visit to Oxford.

Judith does however mention that the reason that Sir Moses did not visit any of the other colleges is "due to intense heat" in the middle of July. This might indicate that his visit was for pleasure rather than for business.

However, in conclusion, it is most likely that Sir Moses came to Oxford with some sort of mission in mind on behalf of the Jews, as it is of interest to note that Montefiore retired from his business in 1824, months before his visit to Oxford. After retirement he used his time and fortune for philanthropy and communal and civic responsibilities. It is interesting that his trip to Oxford took place immediately after his retirement and his entrance into full time communal life.

Though Sir Moses only became strictly observant after his first visit to the Holy Land in 1827, one can assume that, as he was in Oxford on Friday, he and Judith stayed in Oxford also for the Shabbat.

Based on the above analysis of the state of the Oxford Jewish community in 1825, it is possible that although there was not yet an established synagogue in Oxford, there could have been a Shabbat minyan in a private room in someone's home. This might have indeed been the case, despite the fact that the first mention of such a facility was in the aforementioned questionnaire in 1845, 20 years later. This does not tell us with certainty that it did not exist beforehand.

It is indeed possible that he would have attended such a Shabbat service, if not out of strict observance, for support of the fledgling Oxford Jewish community.