Leeds' glittering young Jewish social scene

A popular boxing event is evidence of a growing social scene.

By Jonathan Kalmus, May 27, 2010
Ring of confidence: Leeds community members turned out in force for a profitable fight night

Ring of confidence: Leeds community members turned out in force for a profitable fight night

A buzzing Leeds Jewish singles and young families scene is gathering momentum and could help secure the future of the community.

A few weeks ago, a glitzy charity boxing night arranged by a committee of young professionals pulled in 600 people, a significant proportion of the city's Jewish population. Such demand shows that the community can still pack a punch on a social level. And most of the £44,000 raised will be invested in the local youth centre, The Zone.

"I think this is the single largest fundraising event that's happened for many years," says Daniel Lee, who chaired the event's organising committee. "It's given a vibrancy to the community that hasn't been there for a while.

"The money will be used towards a new multi-purpose sports pitch, but in the future we are hoping to relocate The Zone to the Brodetsky school campus to rejuvenate it and form a stronger core base for the community."

The bold plans for Brodetsky, the Jewish primary to which Mr Lee sends his two children, is a sign of communal optimism. The school is enjoying something of a renaissance with September's reception class fully subscribed for the first time in years.

This partly reflects home-grown Jews increasingly seeing the city as a place to bring partners back to. It is a trend noted by Hannah Daly, a 29-year-old dietician from Manchester, who settled in Leeds after marriage two years ago.

I’m happy. I’ve got a good job, nice friends

"Quite a few of my husband's friends have 'imported' girls from Liverpool, Manchester and London," she said. "I'm very happy here. I've a got a good job, nice friends. There's a lot of Jewish events, even though the community is not as big as others."

Her husband James is an optometrist who grew up in Leeds. He says the ability to buy a sizeable house in Alwoodley, the suburban focal point of the Jewish population, is attracting professional people back from an more expensive London lifestyle.

"A lot of my friends have got top level jobs in banking and medicine down in London and are doing okay. But a lot of people are well into their thirties and living like students. They want to come back when they see the other side."

There is sufficient Jewish activity to support a local glossy monthly magazine Jlife, reflecting the upmarket image of the Alwoodley and Moortown Jewish houses whose doors it is pushed through. Editor Elliot Landy says that "because its content is generic and you can pick it up from stands in the local Sainsbury's and the David Lloyd, we have a lot of non-Jewish readers. Eighty per cent of our advertising revenues are from non-Jewish companies. I'd like to think it has had some effect on the community in giving a platform to promote themselves."

And among a cluster of new groups promoting its activities is the Limmud-inspired Chaverim, which organises informal Friday night dinners for up to 40 guests. Organiser Simon Phillips reports that "each week I see young professionals or young parents forming this or that charity committee. There's a sense of moving away from more traditional organisations and trying to identify Jewish or other charities. I think there's now a nice body of young people committed to the future of the community."

But will these younger activists take on key roles within local shuls and charities? Mr Phillips says that involvement in UJIA lay leadership courses in Leeds had been a motivating factor.

"Organisations in any community are usually run by formidable old men and women who've been involved for years and years and who no one wants to stand up to. The UJIA programme got us to parachute in and join these established organisations."

Such enthusiasm pleases Rabbi Jason Kleiman of Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Synagogue, where new members have joined the shul council. A fledgling young shul committee's sushi social also generated significant interest. Rabbi Kleiman says involving the young generation is long overdue.

"There's this myth that, God forbid, you do something in a shul and young people will be turned off. But we are seeing incredible potential. We need partnerships and collaboration - the 'one size fits all approach' doesn't work.

"Some people want Chaverim, that's brilliant. Some people want big socials. The boxing event captured the mood of a lot of people. It tells you the scope. The difficulty is there are different groups but no one's looking at the whole strategy."

Until six months ago, Natalie Goldstone worked as one of two development workers for the communally-funded Leeds Jewish Initiative. A brainchild of a strategic group of the Leeds Jewish Representative Council, its brief was to unify Jewish activities through a one-stop community website. It also tried to market Leeds to Jewish students as a viable alternative to London.

Ms Goldstone, 29, seemed a perfect salesperson. She settled in Leeds with her Liverpool-born husband after they met at Leeds University and she found work as a designer on ITV's Emmerdale.

But just as LJI got going, the recession hit and its professional staff were laid off. She feels the future of Leeds Jewry hinges on someone picking up the reins. "At the moment, LJI is just ticking over as a volunteer group. It is really necessary for a place like Leeds."

Leeds Jewish Representative Council has set a £36 annual levy on synagogue fees across the city's three Orthodox and one Reform shul to fund a community strategist on a £40,000 salary.

Council president Hilton Lorie believes "people will be more attached to the idea since they've got a share in it".

The successful applicant's brief will be to galvanise organisations and fast-track young leaders to create a work, social and communal environment to not only encourage people to stay in Leeds, but to get them involved in Jewish life. It will be difficult to reverse a drop of almost one-quarter in Leeds synagogue membership over the past 20 years. But the recent flurry of younger activity has sewn the seeds of optimism.

Last updated: 3:11pm, May 27 2010