The Modern Oxford Mikvah: From 1845 to 2005

By Rabbi Eli Brackman

Final planning approval has been given for the building of the first Mikveh in Oxford on the site of the Oxford Chabad House. On the brink of this exciting venture, it is interesting to reflect on the history of the idea of a Mikveh in Oxford. The modern established Oxford Jewish community dates back to 1842. In 1845, an Anglo-Jewish provincial questionnaire by Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler documents for Oxford a paid shochet, 4 Jewish families and 20 individuals. The synagogue was in a private room. It is most interesting that in this questionnaire, to the question regarding a Mikveh, it states, there is ‘not yet’ a Mikveh. Professor David Lewis notes in his book, Jews of Oxford, that other similar provincial Jewish communities responded to the Mikveh question with a simple ‘no’. He gives this credit to the founders of the modern Oxford Jewish community for having the vision, desire, hope and trust that one day a Mikveh in Oxford would be built.

This wishful comment might have been due to the extension of the railway to Oxford in 1844, and the subsequent sudden expansion of the Jewish community, consisting of mainly merchants. Indeed, in 1849 a synagogue was opened at Paradise Square off Castle Street. In 1893 the synagogue had fallen into an irrelevant old age and a community of fifty congregants acquired a new place for a synagogue, which was originally built as a lecture room, in Worcester Terrace. However, the need for a Mikveh was not evident as the community at this time was dominated by Jewish undergraduate students.

During the Second World War, the community went through a drastic change when refugees arrived from Europe - including London - to escape the bombing and settled in Oxford. The community increased in size to 1000 members, the largest since the 13th century. Three other synagogues were also established during that time, two in Headington and one in Cowley, ‘the Cowley and Iffley minyan’. However, after the war there was steep numerical decline and Mr. Weinberg, the last serving minister of the synagogue, left for South Africa. Many Jewish institutions, which had opened to help with the influx of Jewish refugees also closed. Thus, the possibility of building a Mikveh in Oxford might have slipped away. In 1972 the synagogue became run-down, and the area slummy, thus, the decision was made to buy a new property on Richmond Road/Nelson Street where the Oxford synagogue still stands today.

More recently, since 1988, Lubavitch Foundation opened a Chabad Centre at 75 Cowley Road, which is within walking distance of the City Centre and all the Oxford colleges. Rabbi Eli Brackman serves as the rabbi and runs the Chabad House together with his wife Freidy. The Oxford Chabad House works in tandem with the local synagogue and is at the heart of Jewish life in Oxford, providing hospitality for community and students with open Shabbos dinner every week for up to 50-60 people, regular classes, explanatory services and a kosher shop. Apart from serving the students during the six-month university year, the Chabad House is active all year round as a Jewish Centre for tourists, academics attending conferences and the local community.

A hundred and sixty three years on from the establishment of the modern Oxford Jewish community, it has grown to three hundred and fifty families. Furthermore, due to the development of the M40 and fast train line to London, Oxford has become almost a London suburb!

At this point in the history of the Oxford Jewish community, one can confidently say that the community is ready to build its first Mikveh. It might have taken a century and a half to actualise the fervent wish of the founders of our community, but in the words of the great Jewish sages, ’a hopeful wish can be unknown prophecy.‘ Surely the founders of the modern Oxford Jewish community would be delighted at this new development. According to plan, the Mikveh, designed by Thom Fehler Architects of London, will be built before the end of the year. The support of the community can help make this a reality.