In 1645, the city fathers of Leeuwarden ordered all Jews residing in the town to register. It is likely that the Jews who lived in Leeuwarden at that time originally came from Emden in German East Friesland.
In 1670, the Jews of Leeuwarden purchased ground for a cemetery near the Oldenhoof church tower near the bastion surrounding the city. The cemetery was enlarged in 1739 and 1760, and again in 1771. The Jews of Leeuwarden held religious services from 1700 on. At first, they prayed in a building near the Amelandspijp that was also used by the Leeuwarden's Catholics, the other officially unrecognized minority religion in this overwhelmingly Protestant city.
Local authorities tolerated the presence of Jews in Leeuwarden but, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, took measures to prevent poor Jews from settling in the city. In 1754, the city council of Leeuwarden approved a draft charter submitted by the Jewish community. In 1755, the community consecrated an official synagogue of its own, located on the Sacramentsstraat. During the second half of the eighteenth century, the community's offices, ritual bath, and school were located on the Nieuweburen. In 1786, due to the growth of the local Jewish population, the Leeuwarden community opened a new cemetery on the Groeneweg.
During the eighteenth century, the majority of the Jews in Leeuwarden worked as butchers, shopkeepers, and market vendors. A number of Leeuwarden Jews achieved admission to guilds. However, a large percentage of the community lived in poverty.
The emancipation of Jews in 1796 and the attendant social changes led to conflicts within the Jewish community. Nevertheless, in 1805, the community replaced the synagogue on the Sacramentsstraat with a new building on the same site. Over the course of the nineteenth century a tightly-knit Jewish neighborhood arose in the streets around the synagogue. The synagogue building was expanded in 1865, just as the Jewish population of Leeuwarden was approaching its apogee.
The economic conditions in which Leeuwarden Jews lived during the first half of the nineteenth century were quite poor. In 1842, the community opened a school for the city's Jewish poor, located on the Nieuweburen. The school later was converted into a religious school and in 1886 was relocated to a new building on the Jacobijner Kerkhof. To keep up with the needs of Leeuwarden's growing Jewish population, the community inaugurated a cemetery, located on the Spanjaardslaan, in 1833.
During the nineteenth century, Leeuwarden had the largest Jewish population of any city in the north of the Netherlands and emerged both as an important center of Jewish culture and as the seat of the regional chief rabbinate. Influential rabbis including Samuel Berisch Berenstein, Saul Levi Löwenstamm en Baruch Bendit Dusnus served as regional chief rabbis at Leeuwarden.
Official organizations and positions within the Leeuwarden community included the synagogue council, a council for assistance to the poor, and a number of treasurers of funds for aiding Jewish settlement and presence in the Holy Land. Voluntary organizations included societies for burials, charity, care of the sick, and the study of Torah and Talmud. Several women's societies were also active. The Alliance Israélite Universelle also maintained a branch in Leeuwarden. A Jewish old age home was opened in Leeuwarden in 1859 and operated until 1930, when it closed due to having an insufficient number of Jewish residents.
Although the Jewish population of Leeuwarden and membership in the local Jewish community declined between 1900 and 1940 (due to both out-migration to the industrialized cities of the west of the Netherlands and a trend toward secularization), Jewish life in Leeuwarden continued unabated. The period saw the founding of several Zionist organizations and a number of sports and recreational clubs. A fellowship of Jewish academicians living in the Province of Friesland was founded in Leeuwarden during the 1930s. During the first three decades of the twentieth century many Jews in Leeuwarden worked as shopkeepers, market vendors, or traveling salesmen. Other Leeuwarden Jews were professors, physicians, civil servants, and skilled craftsmen. Local Jewish entrepreneurs manufactured shoes, fats, and metal products.
During the German invasion of the Netherlands in May, 1940, an unsuccessful attempt was made to find hiding places in Leeuwarden for 800 German Jewish refugees detained at the internment camp at Westerbork. The refugees were apprehended and returned to the camp at the end of the month. A Jewish elementary and middle school was opened in Leeuwarden following the expulsion of Jewish pupils from the city's public schools in
October, 1941. One month later, the German-controlled Jewish Council (Joodse Raad) opened an office in the city. The first round-up of Jews for deportation took place in Leeuwarden on April 13, 1942. Mass deportations commenced on August, 1942 and continued through February 1943. The majority of Jews deported from Leeuwarden were murdered in Nazi death camps. Only a small number survived the war in hiding. The resistance organization 'Utrechts Kindercomité' (Utrecht Children's Committee) was particularly active in finding hiding places in Leeuwarden for Jewish children from Amsterdam and other large cities. The synagogue came through the war with some damage to its interior but otherwise intact. The libraries of the synagogue's study house and the Jewish school, however, were plundered by the Germans.
Jewish life in Leeuwarden resumed on a limited scale after the war. The synagogue was consecrated anew in 1948 but soon was found to be too large for the surviving community. As a result, a large part of its interior was donated to the youth village at Kfar Batya in Israel. A portion of the synagogue's ceremonial objects was donated to the Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam in 1986. A memorial monument to the pre-war Jewish community on the Jacobijnenkerkhof, across from the Jewish school was restored in 2001. An adjacent street is named after regional chief rabbi A.S. Levisson, who was deported and murdered during the war. The World War II Resistance Museum of the province of Friesland (Verzetsmuseum Friesland) in Leeuwarden devotes a number of exhibits to the persecution and murder of Jews during the war.
Today, there is only a small Jewish community in Leeuwarden. The community holds High Holiday services in a synagogue in the Slotmakerstraat. The community's former synagogue is now home to a school and occasionally is used by the community as a gathering place on religious holidays. The Jewish cemetery was restored in 1998 by the Dutch Foundation for Penance and Reconciliation (Stichting Boete en Verzoening).
The Jewish community of Leeuwarden also included the Jews of nearby Dokkum, Kollum, and Zwaagwesteinde.
The Jewish population of Leeuwarden and surroundings:
The size of the Jewish community over time