The Jews of Amsterdam

So, as you may have gathered from the First Ever Coffee Shop Rabbi Identification Contest, I just got home from Amsterdam. Linda and I promised each other 10 years ago that we’d return to the city “someday” and I am so glad that we did. The previous visit was rushed and we knew we’d missed a lot.

I have been about to burst with the new ideas and posts the trip inspired, because I’d promised (1) I would not sit at the computer on the trip and (2) I didn’t want social media to advertise that we were away from home. All the posts you’ve seen lately were prepared ahead of time and scheduled using the WordPress software, and I’d pre-scheduled my Twitter presence using Buffer.

So, the broad strokes: Amsterdam is a city that Linda and I had visited before and loved. Since that time I had learned a lot more about its Jewish history, and had that much more reason to love it, so I went armed with better information for a Jewish traveler. The only disappointment was that we were not able to attend services with the Liberal Jewish Congregation of Amsterdam. That was poor planning on my part: I misjudged my energy and ability (aka my Green Stamps) and had to spend most of Shabbat quietly resting. Still, there was lots to do and see.

First of all there is the city itself. Amsterdam is fairly young by European standards, founded in the 12th c. when someone had the bright idea of damming the Amstel River. Its Jewish history began at the end of the 15th c. with the arrival of the Jews fleeing oppression in Spain and Portugal. The Dutch were newly independent then and took a very dim view of anything Spanish or Catholic. If “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” then they were willing to see the exiled Jews of Spain as possible friends. The ruling House of Orange welcomed them cautiously and put the Jews under its protection. This was a profitable move, since these Jews were skilled in finance and trade and would play a significant role in the Dutch Golden Age of trade and commerce.

Ashkenazi Jews arrived in great numbers fleeing the pogroms of the Chmielnicki Uprising that began in 1648 in Ukraine. These Jews were distinct from the Sephardic population not only in ethnicity but also economically: they were nearly all quite poor upon arrival. By 1700 there were enough Jews in Amsterdam that there was a Jewish Quarter with an entire complex of synagogues appealing to various flavors of Jews. These communities flourished first as guests of the House of Orange and then later, with Emancipation, as citizens of the Netherlands.

At the time the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, there were 75,000 Jews in the city of Amsterdam. About 10,000 of those were Jews who followed the time-honored custom of seeking refuge in the city, including the German family of Anne Frank. Sadly, this was one time when the city offered no real protection to Jews. By the end of the war, 80% of the prewar Dutch Jewish population had been murdered.

Today Amsterdam is again home to vibrant communities of Jews, although they are much changed by the war and developments since. The Progressive Synagogue has 1700 Jewish households, the Portuguese Synagogue 270 families, and the Reconstructionist/Renewal synagogue (Beit HaChidush) 200 member families. Largest of all is the Ashkenazi Orthodox community, an aggregation of several Ashkenazi synagogues ranging from Modern Orthodox to Haredi under the name Nederlands-Israëlietische Hoofdsynagoge or NIHS, which boasts 1,700 affiliate households.

That’s an outline of the rich history of Jews in the city. Check back here over the next few weeks, when I’ll have more posts inspired by the Jews of Amsterdam.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

10 thoughts on “The Jews of Amsterdam”

  1. I loved Amsterdam; I’ve been twice, but quite different the second time around with my sons, then 12 and 15.
    The Anne Frank house changed very much. Of course, you know it’s now more of a museum.
    We’ love to return again someday; everyone there we found to be so friendly and welcoming.
    Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to any of the synagogues.

  2. I also love Amsterdam and have traveled there twice as a tourist and 3 times while working for the government. Each time was a wonderful experience. When Tom was a full-time jewelry designer, he’d make at least one trip a year to buy diamonds for the coming year. I’m pleased you had a great time and were able to see and experience so much of a great city.

  3. We were in Amsterdam two years ago and loved everything about the city. We visited all the major Jewish sites, so I will be looking forward to reading what you have to say.

      1. We toured the old Jewish quarter where the Portuguese synagogue is as well as the Jewish museum. We had a guide who showed is other sites in the area where there once were Jewish institutions and synagogues and where the Jews were rounded up before being deported. It was quite sad to see how little was left aside from “museums.”

        BTW, my great-great-great-grandfather Hart Levy Cohen was born in Amsterdam. 🙂

        1. The guided tour sounds excellent! I used maps and books to see what’s left of the Jewish Quarter and yes, there’s not a lot left.

          More about that “museum” aspect in a future post…

    1. There are chapters in most histories of the Jewish people, and books about the Nazi years in the Netherlands, and histories of Amsterdam. I am not aware of any books in English that are specifically a history of Jews in Amsterdam. There are also biographies: Baruch Spinoza, Anne Frank, etc – they are probably the two most famous Jews who ever lived in Amsterdam.

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