Bradford makes most of Yorkshire's oldest shul

By Jessica Elgot, August 13, 2010
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Bradford Reform can boast an architecturally extravagant synagogue, but there is nothing outlandish about its expenditure.

Saved from closure by a £5,000 heritage grant last year, the small community leads a hand-to-mouth existence, reliant on the support of outside donors.

"Every day there are tiny little miracles," says fundraising manager Rachel Yosef. "We have people who come to us out of the blue with donations. But it's never easy. This place has been on the point of shutting down since it was built."

Council member Ken Fabian, who runs tours of the synagogue, notes that the 2001 Census "found 350 Jewish people in Bradford. Where are they? We have 35 members."

Chink of light: Rachel Yosef and Rabbi Walter Rothschild in the impressive interior of the Moorish shul,  which has been reprieved from closure by a donation from a heritage group

Chink of light: Rachel Yosef and Rabbi Walter Rothschild in the impressive interior of the Moorish shul, which has been reprieved from closure by a donation from a heritage group

The Grade II listed Moorish building dates back to 1881, making it Yorkshire's oldest synagogue. It is located on an industrial street between the Yorkshire Tandoori, Al-Hijaab Islamic Clothing and the Jamia Shan-E-Islam Educational Centre.

Founder Jacob Moser was a mayor of the city and many German-born Jews flourished in Bradford's wool trade. But after years of poor membership and financial hardship, the majority of the congregation voted in June 2009 to disband and sell the building.

"When I heard the news, I was panic-stricken," Ms Yosef recalled. "A lot of the older members said they'd been trying for 40 years [to keep the synagogue going] and were ready to give in. But I wasn't."

Then came the £5,000 lifeline from regional development agency Yorkshire Forward.

Thus "we are still here, even if we're clinging on by our fingernails". Annual running costs are around £6,000 and the congregation holds monthly Shabbat services with visiting rabbi Douglas Charing - the only paid employee.

On Shabbat, it celebrated the first anniversary of its reinvigoration with a special service led by its former rabbi Walter Rothschild.

A Friends of Bradford Synagogue scheme has attracted a dozen supporters, who make a £5 monthly donation towards upkeep. And without other backing, particularly from the Muslim community, "we would be dead in the water. Nasar Fiaz of the Bradford Interfaith Centre told me he wouldn't sleep soundly until he knew the synagogue was safe and he helped us apply for grants."

But despite generally good relations with their neighbours, the synagogue has periodically been a target for antisemitic vandalism. Mr Fabian prefers not to disclose details, for fear of encouraging copycat attacks. "I don't shout about it when I see it. I just call the police and they deal with it." However, there have been no incidents for 18 months.

Rabbi Charing said that with an ageing community, activities were limited. "We do our best in the cirumstances and Shabbat attendances are quite reasonable. But we haven't had a wedding for about 20 years."

He is not optimistic about the future: "I'm not a prophet but provincial communities are dwindling and many are dying out."

Yet Ms Yosef paints a positive picture. "The average age used to be about 90, but I'm 43. We've got some younger members now. And my son and some other children will be having bar- and batmitzvahs in the next few years.

"We are taking baby steps. One more member, one more donation, one more volunteer can make a massive difference to the dynamic of the place."

On his bike to save Synagogue scroll

Non-Jewish Friend of Bradford Synagogue Dave Langfield will embark on a 1,000-mile motorcycle trip around the perimeter of England next month to raise money for the restoration of the shul's Sefer Torah - believed to be more than 100 years old.

Mr Langfield, 52, from Huddersfield, said his interest in the synagogue was sparked a decade ago when he read about a suspected arson attack.

"I sent a donation to the synagogue because I wanted them to know this is not how we are in Yorkshire. They invited me to their Chanucah celebrations. All the faith leaders in Bradford were there, and the Lord Mayor. It is better than the UN the way they all get on."

He began visiting the synagogue regularly and is keen to help the struggling community. "I had read all about the Torah and I know it's the most important thing for a synagogue. The wooden handles on one of the three scrolls are broken."

The scroll is thought to have been brought to England by some of the first Jewish immigrants to arrive in Bradford in the late 19th century.

"We estimate the scroll will cost around £350 to be repaired but I'd like to raise more than that" from the three-day cycle. "This won't be the last thing I do for them. I'll dream up lots more ideas."

Mr Langford has read widely about Judaism and has visited Israel. "I have a great deal of respect for the things Jewish people have achieved in Bradford and in Yorkshire."

Last updated: 1:38pm, August 13 2010