The history of the Jews in Regensburg, Germany, reaches back over 1,000 years. The Jews of Regensburg are part of Bavarian Jewry; Regensburg was the capital of the Upper Palatinate and formerly a free city of the German empire. The great age of the Jewish community in this city is indicated by the tradition that a Jewish colony existed there before the common era; it is undoubtedly the oldest Jewish settlement in Bavaria of which any records exist.
The earliest historical reference to Jews in Ratisbon (Regensburg) is in a document of 981, where it is stated that the monastery of St. Emmeram bought a piece of property from the Jew Samuel (Aronius, „Regesten,“ No. 135). The Jewish quarter, „Judæorum habitacula,“ is mentioned as early as the beginning of the 11th century (1006–28), and is the oldest German ghetto to which there is any reference in historical sources (Aronius, l.c. No. 150). The Jews were granted their first privileges there in a charter of 1182. Therein Emperor Frederick I. confirmed the rights they had received by the favor of his predecessors, and assigned to them, as to their coreligionists throughout the empire, the status of chamber servants (see Kammer knechtschaft). But their political position became complicated later by the circumstance that the emperor transferred them to the dukes of Lower Bavaria without releasing them from their obligations as chamber servants. To these overlords the Jews of Ratisbon were pawned in 1322 for the yearly sum of 200 pounds of Ratisbon pfennigs; but they were also subject to taxation by the municipal council of the city, though they received some compensation in the fact that thereby they secured the protection of the city council against the excessive demands of the emperor and the dukes.
During the first Crusade (1096) the community suffered like many others in Germany. An old chronicle says with reference to the persecutions that took place in Franconia and Swabia in 1298 (See Rindfleisch): „The citizens of Ratisbon desired to honor their city by forbidding the persecution of the Jews or the slaying of them without legal sentence.“ The wave of fanaticism which swept over Germany in 1349 was checked at Ratisbon, in a similar spirit, by the declaration of the magistrates and the citizens that they would protect and defend their Jews. The municipal council again shielded them by punishing only the guilty when, in 1384, a riot occurred because some Jews had been convicted of giving false returns of their property to the tax-assessor. The protestations of the magistrates, however, could not protect their wards against the exactions of the emperor Wenzel when (1385–90) he replenished his purse by contributions levied upon the German Jews. In the following years they were again heavily taxed by both emperor and dukes, and in 1410 the magistrates, tired of ineffectual protest, took part in the game of spoliation by making an agreement with the duke that the Jews should pay 200 florins a year to him and 60 pounds a year to the city, extraordinary taxes to be divided between the two.. This marks the turning-point in the history of the Jews of Ratisbon, who were henceforth abandoned to their fate; religious intolerance and social prejudice threatened their very existence.
After the Jews had been expelled from the various Bavarian territories Duke Ludwig the Wealthy, Palsgrave of the Rhine, demanded in 1452 that the Jews should be driven from Ratisbon as well. Though the city council did not at first accede to this demand, it ordered the Jews henceforth to wear the badge. A chronic persecution now began, aided especially by the clergy; and a number of sensational accusations of ritual murder were brought against the community and its rabbi, presaging its approaching destruction despite the repeated and energetic intervention of the emperor. In 1486 the duke placed their taxation entirely in the hands of the city council, „that the expulsion might be effected the sooner.“ The preacher of the cathedral, Dr. Balthazar Hubmaier, incited the people from the pulpit, and the more prudent counselors who still dared to take the part of the Jews were mockingly called „Jew kings.“ The ghetto was threatened with boycott, although imperial influence shielded it until the interregnum following the death of Emperor Maximilian in 1519. Then 500 Jews had to leave the city, after they themselves had demolished the interior of their venerable synagogue, on the site of which a chapel was built in honor of the Virgin. According to a chronicle the exiles settled, under the protection of the Duke of Bavaria, on the opposite bank of the Danube, in Stadt-am-Hof, and in villages in the vicinity; from these they were expelled in the course of the same century.
The first cemetery of the community of Ratisbon was situated on a hillock, still called the „Judenau.“ In 1210 the congregation bought from the monastery of St Emmeram a plot of ground, outside the present Peterthor, for a new cemetery, which was destroyed in the course of excavations made in the city in 1877. It served as a burial-ground for all the Jews of Upper and Lower Bavaria, and, in consequence of the catastrophe of February 21, 1519, mentioned above, more than 4,000 of its gravestones are said to have been either demolished or used in the building of churches. The synagogue that was destroyed was an edifice in Old Romanesque style, erected between 1210 and 1227 on the site of the former Jewish hospital, in the center of the ghetto, where the present Neue Pfarre stands. The ghetto was separated from the city itself by walls and closed by gates.
Jewish cemetery in Schillerstraße
The entrance hall of the Regensburg Synagogue, 1519
The double-naved interior with bimah between columns, 1519
The „ḥakme Regensburg“ of the 12th century were regarded far and wide as authorities, and a number of tosafists flourished in this ancient community. Especially noteworthy were Rabbi Ephraim ben Isaac (d. about 1175), one of the most prominent teachers of the Law and a liturgical poet, and Rabbi Baruch ben Isaac, author of the „Sefer ha-Terumah“ and of tosafot to the treatise Zebaḥim; but the best known of all was Rabbi Judah ben Samuel he-Ḥasid (died 1217), the author of the „Sefer Ḥasidim“ and of various halakic and liturgical works. The Talmudic school of Ratisbon became famous in the 15th century; a chronicle of 1478 says, „This academy has furnished ‚doctores et patres‘ for all parts of Germany.“ Rabbi Israel Bruna (15th century) narrowly escaped falling a victim to an accusation of ritual murder. The chronicler Anselmus de Parengar gives an interesting description of the magnificent apartments of the grand master Samuel Belassar. Shortly before the dispersion of the community Rabbi Jacob Margolioth, the father of the convert and anti-Jewish writer Antonius Margarita, was living at Ratisbon; he is referred to in the „Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum“ as the „Primus Judæorum Ratisbonensis“. Finally, the learned Litte (Liwe) of Ratisbon may be mentioned, the author of the „Samuelbuch“, which paraphrased the history of King David in the meter of the „Nibelungenlied“.
In 1669 Jews were again permitted to reside in Ratisbon; but it was not until April 2, 1841, that the community was able to dedicate its new synagogue. Rabbi Isaac Alexander (born Ratisbon August 22, 1722) was probably the first rabbi to write in German. His successor appears to have been Rabbi Weil, who was succeeded by Sonnentheil and the teacher Dr. Schlenker. From 1860 to 1882 the rabbinate was occupied by Dr. Löwenmeyer of Sulzburg, who was followed in January, 1882, by Dr. Seligmann Meyer, the editor of the „Deutsche Israelitische Zeitung“. The present (1905) total population of Ratisbon is 45,426, of whom about 600 are Jews.