Glasgow: Community where less is more

We report on a passionate but shrinking community facing some difficult decisions on its future.

By Stephanie Brickman, February 4, 2010
Social climbers: Calderwood Lodge pupils enjoying a fun day

Social climbers: Calderwood Lodge pupils enjoying a fun day

Ask any Scot to complete the sentence “I belong…” and the immediate answer will be: “I belong to Glasgow, and Glasgow belongs to me”. What is true of the general population equally applies to Scottish Jewry. There is pride and passion about being a Jew and a Glaswegian.

However, two-thirds of what was once a 15,000 population now reminisce from a distance — usually London, Manchester or Tel Aviv.

The remaining 5,000, clustered mostly in the leafy suburbs of East Renfrewshire, are catered for by six synagogues, a primary school and some active welfare, cultural and social organisations, notably Jewish Care Scotland, Cosgrove Care, UJIA and Maccabi. It is certainly an enviable infrastructure, but the question being raised increasingly is the long-term viability.

There has been a steep decline in numbers over the past 15 years with a steady stream of departures among the younger community. Empty nests have led to empty shuls as younger retireds, traditionally the pillars of community life, leave to be close to children who have long since high-tailed it and grandchildren born elsewhere.

Glasgow Jewish Representative Council, the oldest in the UK, is now taking the first steps to address future planning. However, its convening of an initial meeting next week with 17 delegates from a cross-section of organisations prompted a furore on the Glasgow Jewish Educational Forum (GJEF) blog, seen by many as a barometer of community opinion.

“This is only a talking shop to try and find the best way forward,” stressed rep council chair Philip Mendelsohn. “That group is not going to come up with the solution. They will agree on the methods for finding the solution. If people can’t agree to work together, then there won’t be a plan but I hope that people will recognise that there is a need and an opportunity.

“The big thing is community buildings and as the community reduces we have to review that. There should be some kind of strategic plan for dealing with the buildings. Over time some will have to go, but which and when?”

As the father of two young children, GJEF chair Tony Tankel has a vested interest in the community’s future — and no confidence in the rep council.

“I don’t see the need for a rep body,” he said. “The reality is they’re irrelevant to the vast majority of the community, who don’t know what they do and aren’t interested.”

Why I will be leaving

When Daniel Stern’s parents were growing up in Glasgow in the 1970s, they did not know each other, a fact he finds staggering.

The 22-year-old history student at the University of Glasgow cannot imagine there now being a Jew of his own age in Glasgow he does not know.

“I think a theme has emerged among my peers,” he said. “The ones who are interested in their Judaism and want to maintain it go to Manchester and Leeds. The ones who aren’t interested stay and wind up marrying out.

“I did a year exchange in Toronto last year and I’ve travelled in Israel. I’ve seen there’s so much more to Jewish life than you can get in Glasgow.” He would miss his family and “the caring side of the community. But I feel quite passionate about having to go and hope to be leaving soon.”

Nonetheless, he is one of the more optimistic voices, observing: “There’s been too much emphasis on being a community in decline. You can never control the demographics but there’s still an active community with a structure and there are numerous organisations. For those who want to participate, it has a lot to offer.”

Involvement is certainly a key issue for Rabbi Moshe Rubin, who has been in Glasgow for 20 years and minister of the 850-member Giffnock and Newlands Synagogue for 11 of them.

“There are far fewer people now who have the shul as the main focus of their lives,” he said. “Before you always knew there’d be an audience at events. Now it’s not guaranteed.

“It’s a different type of community. In Giffnock we had observant families who were very active. Many of them have left. Now the top tier of the community is made up of people who were in the background before, who we perhaps ignored for many years. The challenge as a rabbi has changed. We’re looking for ways of making people aware of what the shul can be for them. Shul is not only for davening, it’s a part of everyday life. The shul is the only communal body that people sign up to and we owe them value for money.”

He can see a time when there will be just a single shul — “we won’t have the people for six”.

Giffnock and Newlands administrator Michael Conn agreed, predicting: “In years to come the community will still exist but everything will be much smaller. Our shul building is 40 years old and it’s too big. It costs a lot to heat. Income is reduced and the shul survives on the fact that people pay for a seat and then only come three times a year.”

In a personal capacity, he felt the rep council was approaching things in the wrong way and should instead be facilitating meetings of groups with common interests. “Each grouping needs to find consensus and then bring it all together. Planning for the future is a good idea but not like this.”

A more positive note was sounded at the 145-pupil Calderwood Lodge Jewish Primary, which has a firm commitment from East Renfrewshire Council on its continued aided status.

Businessman Neville Barmack, who has two children at Calderwood Lodge — Gabrielle, 10, and Greg, seven — said it was “a vital part of the community. The children are the future. And you often hear of people who say how much the school helped them forge their Jewish identity.”

Without the school, more people would leave Glasgow. “If you couldn’t keep young families in Glasgow, the community would be in trouble.”

Twenty per cent of Calderwood pupils are non-Jewish and outside support has been crucial in keeping other communal institutions afloat.

For example, Sue Faber of Glasgow Maccabi reported that hiring out its impressive May Terrace premises to non-Jews helped to keep the facility operational.

However, of the 250 people of all ages using the facilities every week, 200 are Jewish and the proportion is growing. “The numbers in the community will never get bigger but the use of our facilities can grow,” she said. “I’m showing people who Maccabi are.”

And at Jewish Care Scotland, chief executive Ethne Woldman spoke proudly of its special, and she claimed, unique partnership with the East Renfrewshire authority. “We have a team of staff seconded by the local authority to work within the charity,” she said. “The resources in Glasgow and the quality of the services are better than anywhere else in the UK. This is a good place to be old at the moment.”

Yet in common with many Glasgow Jewish organisations, there were problems finding younger people to take up the baton. Ms Woldman has been trying to retire for a number of years, but there have been “difficulties” finding a replacement. “There just aren’t the younger people with the right skills.”

Another Glasgow stalwart is Harvey Kaplan, a civil servant by day, who administers the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre in the refurbished basement of the Garnethill Synagogue, a stunningly beautiful Victorian building on top of a hill in the West End of the city. The tartan kipot and posters in Yiddish recall a community that was once served by 14 kosher butchers and a kosher hotel.

“There are similarities between being Scottish and Jewish,” Mr Kaplan said. “Scots feel dominated by the English and Jews are also a minority. Being Scottish is a strong brand. Jewish is also a strong brand. Within Scotland Glasgow has a strong identity so when you’re a Glaswegian Jew that means something. There’s a good story to tell in Glasgow about tolerance.”

Last updated: 11:24am, February 9 2010