The university at Leiden has been a center of the study of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac since approximately 1575. A rabbi, who may have been involved in the teaching of Hebrew and Judaism at the university, resided in Leiden around 1660. During the seventeenth century, a number of Jews were registered as students in Leiden. Most of them studied medicine and practically all were of Sephardic origin. In later centuries, the faculty of the university included a number of well-known Jewish professors. Joel Emanuel Goudsmit (1813-1882) is an example. He was the first Jew to become a professor at the law faculty in Leiden and also served on Leiden's city council as well as holding many other public positions.
The origins of the Jewish community at Leiden can be traced to the beginning of the eighteenth century and the granting of municipal citizenship to Jewish merchants who moved to Leiden from Amsterdam and The Hague. In 1719, the community was granted a cemetery, located at the bulwark named Blauwe Bolwerk. The cemetery was vandalized during the 1750s and, as a result, in 1758 the community leased ground for a new cemetery on the Rijnstraat in the town of Katwijk. The Katwijk cemetery remains in use today. From 1869 on, a section of the non-confessional cemetery, located behind the "De Valk" windmill near the Nieuwe Beestenmarkt in Leiden, was used by the community for the interment of children and the poor.
During the first years of the Leiden community, religious services were held in a private home on the Vismarkt. In 1723, the municipal council of Leiden approved the statutes of the Jewish community. In the same year, the Leiden community established a synagogue in a building on the Levendaal. During the 1730s, the community received permission to modify the façade of the building to reflect its function.
During the early eighteenth century, the majority of the Jews in Leiden worked as retail traders and buyers and sellers of old clothes. The growth of Leiden's Jewish population during the 1720s and 1730s, together with pressure from local guilds, led the municipal council to tighten residency requirements. Initially, restrictions applied only to poor and itinerant Jews. Despite such restrictions, and despite a decline in the local economy during the second half of the eighteenth century, the number of Jews in Leiden continued to rise throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. This trend accelerated following the granting of full civil rights to the Jews of the Netherlands in 1796.
The explosion of a munitions ship in Leiden in 1809 damaged the synagogue and destroyed the community's archives and its Jewish school. Several attempts were made to repair the synagogue but by mid-century a complete renovation was required. In 1858, the Levendaal synagogue was consecrated anew and a new school building was completed and opened. At the time, the majority of Jews in Leiden lived near the synagogue.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the central consistory of Dutch Jewry established a nationwide framework of administrative districts for the governance of Jewish life. Under this structure, the Jewish community at Leiden was assigned the rank of the regional community (ringsynagoge) serving as the center for Jewish life in smaller surrounding locales. In turn, the Leiden community fell under the aegis of the regional community district (hoofdsynagoge) at The Hague.
Official bodies of the Leiden community included an administrative board and a community council. From its outset, the Leiden community provided Jewish education for its children. Communal voluntary organizations included a burial society, societies for charity and for visiting the sick, a synagogue choir, and an organization for the maintenance of the synagogue and the upkeep of its interior. Members of the Leiden community also maintained an association for providing shelter and assistance to immigrants. The community's orphanage originally was located in the Nieuwsteeg. It was later relocated to the Stille Rijn and, finally, to the corner of the Roodenbergerstraat and the Cronesteinkade.
The Jewish population of Leiden declined during the first decades of the twentieth century. In terms of community membership, this was partly compensated for by an increase in the number of Jews living in the nearby suburban town of Wassenaar which, until 1927, was included within the administrative boundaries of the Leiden community. Nevertheless, the Leiden community restored the synagogue on the Levendaal anew in 1931. During the early twentieth century, Zionist organizations - including Zionist youth and student organizations - also came to flourish in Leiden.
Soon after the outset of the German occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War, Jewish professors were expelled from Leiden University. Following a formal protest speech delivered by Professor R.P. Cleveringa, a student strike erupted in November, 1940 whereupon the university was closed. Cleveringa's speech remains famous to this day. As part of German anti-Jewish measures, all Jewish children were expelled from public education. An elementary school for Jewish children was established in a building on the Pieterskerkhof. Older children were forced to attend the Jewish middle school in The Hague.
All Jews in Leiden, with the exception of those few who had managed to go into hiding, were apprehended and deported between June, 1942 and March, 1943 and later murdered in Nazi death camps. The last to be deported were the approximately fifty children who still remained at the Jewish orphanage.
After the war, Jewish life was reestablished in Leiden by Jews who returned from hiding. The synagogue, which, during the war, had been damaged and plundered by members of the Dutch collaborationist NSB party, was repaired and reopened in 1947. Restoration work continued over the years and was completed in 1978. Today, religious services are held at the synagogue regularly. A house for Jewish students, and a center for the study of Judaism are located on the Levendaal near the synagogue. The building that once housed the community's orphanage still stands but has long since been put to other uses. A memorial plaque on its façade and a Star of David over its door are the only traces of the tragic end of the Jewish orphans who once lived there.
The Jewish cemetery in Katwijk is now on the Dutch national list of protected monuments. The cemetery was restored in 1981 and again in 2006. Remains of the dead interred at the former Jewish cemetery near the "De Valk' windmill in Leiden were moved to the Katwijk cemetery in 1961. The Katwijk cemetery also contains a memorial stone commemorating the Jews of Leiden and the surroundings murdered by the Germans during the Second World War. In 2001, the Jewish community of Leiden donated a glass-in-lead window from the Levendaal synagogue to the town hall of Katwijk in gratitude for the Katwijk municipality's cooperation in the care and preservation of the cemetery.
From 1660-1663, the philosopher Spinoza lived and worked in the village Rijnsburg, just outside of Leiden, where had many friends amongst the Anabaptist Collegiant Christians whose sect was centered in the village. The house in which he had lived is now a museum, the Spinoza House (Het Spinozahuis).
The Jewish population of Leiden and surroundings:
The size of the Jewish community over time