Hale is just bats about Sephardi congregation

By Jonathan Kalmus, September 1, 2011
An artist's impression of the new synagogue development for the Manchester Sephardi congregation

An artist's impression of the new synagogue development for the Manchester Sephardi congregation

They say lightning never strikes twice in the same place, but bats have been quite another matter for the burgeoning south Manchester Shaare Hayim Sephardi community.

The bat issue has been among problems delaying an ambitious building project. But on Sunday, a ground-breaking ceremony will be held marking the beginning of construction of a £2.5 million synagogue complex in Hale Barns, the greener side of affluent Hale.

A 200-seat synagogue will also feature accommodation for its young rabbi, Amir Ellituv, and his family, a guest house, offices, social hall and meeting rooms. Near neighbours include Hale's existing Ashkenazi synagogue and a golf course.

Shaare Zedek, as the new shul will be named, will replace one of two 1920s' buildings in Didsbury, providing modern amenities for a merged community which has grown to 600 families.

At its outset, the community comprised mainly aspiring cotton merchants of Spanish and Middle Eastern origins who were moving away from north Manchester's immigrant landing pad of Cheetham Hill. In more well-to-do Didsbury, they built two synagogues to serve their distinct backgrounds.

The shuls have since joined forces as the Shaare Hayim community and around 40 per cent of the membership moved on to Hale. Now the satellite synagogue will serve its new generation. The larger of the Didsbury synagogues is being retained. The smaller was sold for a development of town houses to help pay for the move.

Work on the new premises was meant to have begun two years ago, but bats were discovered roosting in the barn of the farmland site. Then more bats were found in the old synagogue, delaying its sale. Under UK conservation laws, it is illegal to intentionally injure or kill a wild bat or disturb its lodgings.

"They turned out to be batty locations and dealing with these things caused immense delays," said Shaare Hayim's council chairman Anthony Sultan, whose great-grandfather founded the community. "You need bat surety and reports - it's costly." Shul treasurer Stephen Elias took responsibility and became known as Batman.

After the bats came an unwelcome surprise from Trafford Council. It was suspected the synagogue's new grounds could be hiding archaeological relics from the 15th-century original barns from which the area takes its name. The local authority forced the community to conduct a painstaking dig.

"We found a fork. It was a fairly contemporary but very expensive fork, as it cost a few thousand pounds to find," Mr Sultan added.

In total, the move will cost £5 million, with the shortfall after the sale of the old building being raised by members. But Mr Sultan sees it as money well spent. "We have to show there is a future for Sephardim in Manchester."

Work to the new development's rabbi's residence is to be completed within six months. There is some urgency as Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley wants to purchase the Hale property the rabbi is currently renting. The hope is to stage Rosh Hashanah services in 2012, although full construction is expected to take 18 months.

Rabbi Ellituv, 33, is following in the footsteps of his father, Shlomo, who continues to lead the original Didsbury community after more than three decades. The younger Ellituv is making his own mark, and is already an invited speaker to Hale Hebrew Congregation. The future neighbours have also held joint educational events.

"It's a big opportunity," the rabbi observed. "The Jewish community does not remain static. Shuls need to move with the people. You can't expect communities to be so dedicated to a building if they live 10 miles away."

Last updated: 1:46pm, September 1 2011