During the seventeenth century, Culemborg was a Vrijplaats, a locale in which new arrivals of whatever faith were permitted to settle. The first report of the presence of Jews in Culemborg dates to 1665. The names of more than thirty Jews appear in surviving eighteenth century registration books of the guilds of Culemborg. In 1744, a meat merchant became the first Jew to become a fully vested citizen of Culemborg. Soon after, a number Jewish merchants who had come to Culemborg from various places in Europe were awarded citizenship. Over the course of time, poor Jews also settled in Culemborg, despite the efforts of the city's leaders and of local Jews to exclude them.
By the 1760's the Jews of Culemborg had organized themselves into a community. It is unkown where Culemborg's first Jews prayed prior but a synagogue definitely existed in the town sometime prior to the 1780's. In 1791, a building on the Jodenkerkstraat in the new part of Culemborg was converted into a synagogue. During the first half of the nineteenth century the Jewish population of Culemborg rose rapidly. This led the community to construct a new synagogue next to the one on the Jodenkerkstraat. The synagogue, built in neo-gothic style, was consecrated in 1868. The old synagogue was renovated in 1883.
The first Jewish residents of Culemborg probably buried their dead at the Jewish cemetery in the nearby town of Buren. In 1764, the Culemborg community established its own cemetery on Culemborg's Westerborgwal. Beginning in 1869, Culemborg Jews were buried in a separate section of the town's public cemetery, located on the Achterweg, as well as in a private Jewish cemetery on the Parkweg in the nearby village of Beesd, which also boasted its own synagogue. In the early years of the twentieth century, the cemetery and synagogue at Beesd were also used by the three Jewish families who resided in the nearby village of Rumpt.
During the eighteenth century, most of the Jews of Culemborg worked as shopkeepers, tailor, market vendors, merchants, or goldsmiths. Later, Culemborg became a center of textile and cigar manufacturing, with many Jews active in both fields. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the Jewish Wijzenbeek family opened a meat processing and sausage factory on the Marktveld in Culemborg.
The Jews of Culemborg were active in the social and political life of the town. They also maintained communal institutions of their own. These included a burial society as well as societies for the study of Talmud, the care of the poor, and the furnishing and caretaking of the synagogue. The Culemborg community also boasted a theater and debating club, a social and recrecreational club, and, beginning in the nineteenth century, a chapter of the Alliance Israélite Universelle.
During the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries the Jews of Culemborg community also employed a religious teacher of its own, who invariably also served as the community's ritual slaughterer and synagogue cantor. In 1858, Culemborg community's Jewish school was certified by the government as a school for the poor and thus instituted instruction in secular subjects. Originally, the Jewish school was located on the second story of the building housing the community's ritual bath, but its quarters were expanded following the restoration of the synagogue in 1883.
Social and economic change during the 1880's led to the gradual decline of the Culemborg community. This process accelerated during the twentieth century. Eventually, most community activities were curtailed, although a number of societies and clubs did remain active until the eve of the Second World War.
During the German occupation the majority of the Jews of Culemborg were deported and murdered in Nazi death camps. Roughly a dozen local Jews managed to hide in safety until the liberation. Throughout the war, the Germans used the synagogue as a stable. The contents of synagogue disappeared and were never recovered.
In 1947, the Jewish community of Culemborg was dissolved and administratively incorporated into that of Utrecht. The synagogue building was fully restored in 1982 and now houses a Dutch Reformed church. The cemetery on the Westerborgwal was cleared away in 1959. The cemetery on the Achterweg contains a memorial stone dedicated to the murdered Jews of Culemborg and has been maintained by the Culemborg municipality since 1954.
The Jewish population of Culemborg and surroundings:
The size of the Jewish community over time