How to escape from the ghetto

By Ben Rich, January 17, 2014
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It's four months since I moved out of the north-west London ghetto and headed to the fine and ancient city of York. There is "outside the ghetto" and "beyond the pale" and York is very much the latter.

I am not saying that York is wholly homogenous, but when a firework goes off round here, you can bet it's Bonfire Night, not Diwali. The Non-Conformists and even the Bahais seem to have a greater presence than the Muslims and the Hindus, which makes Jews very exotic indeed.

There is no hint of racism or antisemitism in any of this - anything but - but there is a lack of basic knowledge and understanding of different cultures which in London springs naturally from having Muslim, Hindu and Jewish friends, neighbours, colleagues and school-mates.

Take, for example, the Waitrose challot order - yes, even in York they now sell challah - but no one thinks it strange that it arrives on, er, Wednesdays and Saturdays. I fear some number cruncher in head office will soon conclude it will never sell and cancel, rather than maybe learn what it's for.

There is potential here in York; I believe it

Take, for example, the local schools from which I have had two invitations in as many months to explain "the Jewish religion". Of course they are covering the curriculum but the tone of the request feels more like being asked to present my trek to the South Pole.

York BBC Radio is similarly intrigued by the Jewish thing as it struggles to introduce diversity into its Sunday morning faith programme.

Yet I am increasingly aware that there are plenty of Jews lurking in the city shadows: over 60 people showed for the annual Chanucah party, including around a dozen kids. A further score helped out on Mitzvah Day and the University JSoc also has 20 members.

In the words of M&S these are not just Jews, these are committed, interested Jews, prepared to sit in cold church halls eating fried food in the name of Judaism.

The challenge is to make this ragtag assortment of Orthodox, Progressive and secular Jews and demi-Jews into a coherent community.

In 1975, York's most recent synagogue, housed, inevitably, in the upstairs room of an old tailor's shop, closed. A few years back the remaining elders gave the city's Torah scroll to the fledgling Lincoln community, rather than see it gather dust in someone's attic.

During my time as chief executive of the Movement for Reform Judaism, I spent perhaps too much time visiting similar ghost communities in places such as Blackpool, Bradford and Sheffield. In such places one or two families were keeping alive the Jewish tradition but with no expectation that it might outlast the current generation.

And yet today in York there is again more than the nucleus of a successful community, numbers of which many a provincial synagogue would feel proud, children, students and offers of help from a city always struggling to come to terms with its history.

So over the next year, I am confident we can again start hosting services in York, and maybe once again have need of a sefer Torah. I am struck by the two Chabadniks who turned up at the Chanucah party: in a city with no kosher food, no shul and only stale challah, I am not alone in seeing the potential.

So I'm excited by our forthcoming Chavurah supper and, beyond that, our communal seder. And beyond that… who knows? And if this is possible in York, then why not in Blackpool and Bradford and Sheffield and elsewhere?

We don't need a ghetto to survive - in fact we need the opposite - to escape from the ghetto, to start afresh. The Jews are out there if only we start looking…

    Last updated: 6:27pm, January 17 2014