Hineni: Made in Wales, shown in London

By Simon Rocker, February 24, 2014

There are probably more Welsh-born Jews living in London, Manchester and Israel than remain in the principality. But sometimes the traffic goes the other way.

When Londoner Colin Heyman was offered a job in Cardiff in 1980, he jumped at the chance.

“I’d never been to Cardiff but I loved Wales,” he recalls. He had fallen for the country when walking its hills as a student in Bristol.

Now 57, he has for many years been a stalwart of Cardiff Reform Synagogue (CRS), the only Progressive synagogue in Wales — indeed, barely a handful of functioning synagogues of any kind are left. Next week, he will be back in England for the launch of an exhibition on Welsh Jewry which begins a six-week run at the London Jewish Cultural Centre.

The exhibition is titled Hineni, meaning “Here I am”. Many communities have done local history projects but what distinguishes Hineni is its professional quality and multi-media reach.

It is based on 59 testimonies from CRS members and encompasses a book with photographs of each of the interviewees, a video and a website.

Produced jointly with a group specialising in local history — the Butetown History and Arts Centre — it was funded by a Heritage Lottery grant and took three years to complete.

Although the stories are of a group of people from one particular Welsh synagogue, it is also a microcosm of wider British Jewry.

Refugees from Nazi Europe who settled in Wales from the 1930s brought with them the influence of German Reform and CRS was founded in 1948.

The origins of Hineni had been “people saying we should capture the stories of some of our older members before they go”, says Heyman, its project manager. One Holocaust survivor revealed her story for the first time. And the idea spread.

“Everybody has a story to tell. We wanted to show the diversity of our community, of any community.”
As well as refugees from central and Eastern Europe, the exhibition features younger émigrés from Israel, South Africa and, like Heyman, from England.

Some of the native Welsh came to Cardiff from smaller towns whose Jewish communities are long gone.
While Hineni portrays geographical migrations, it also records inner journeys.

Heyman, who describes his background as “assimilationist”, was not involved with CRS at first.

By chance, a counselling group he attended had a Jewish sub-group. “One of the people was pretty observant and insisted we all went to synagogue for Yom Kippur,” he recounts. “I hadn’t been near a synagogue for probably 10 to 15 years.

“And when we went, what pulled me back was the music, the music of my childhood.”

After dithering over whether to go again for a Shabbat service, his Brazilian partner Loli encouraged him to take the plunge. The warmth of the welcome he received made him return and as he went more, his desire for knowledge grew.
“I remembered so little. I said to [the then rabbi] Elaina Rothman I would like to know more and she said: ‘Come to the conversion class.’ And a bit after that, I said I’d like to read Torah.

“[At] about the age of 45, I had a kind of barmitzvah. That was the first time I read Torah.”

He was chairman of the shul when Hineni was instigated and now teaches a class of eight, mostly unaffiliated, people who want to learn more about Judaism.

As for the future of Cardiff Jewry, he sees “a really good kernel of younger people. When I say younger, I suppose I mean around 50 — people who are going to be around for a good few years yet.

“My own feeling is it’s going to be a smaller community. But I do feel there is a future for us for the next few decades.”

Jewish communities, he believes, have to take the initiative to attract and retain members. Hineni itself — which has travelled to Limmud, to Barry (the seaside town made famous by the Gavin and Stacey sitcom) and is due to go to Manchester — has helped to spread the word.

“It has given us a public profile within the wider Cardiff community,” says Colin Heyman.

Hineini will be exhibited at LJCC, 94-96 North End Road, London NW11 7SX, from February 25-April 7. 020 8457 5000

Last updated: 1:22pm, February 24 2014