The town on the front line of the battle for survival

Reading is typical of the struggle small communities have across the country

By Naomi Firsht, May 22, 2014
Twenty-five of Britain’s smallest Jewish communities, plus Reading with its population of 355 Jews. (Figures from the 2011 Census)

Twenty-five of Britain’s smallest Jewish communities, plus Reading with its population of 355 Jews. (Figures from the 2011 Census)

Jack Album gives Reading Jewish community a decade before it disappears off the map, and he should know.

The 74-year-old has lived in the Berkshire town all his life. His family were founding members of the Orthodox Reading Hebrew Congregation in 1887, four generations back. He remembers when the synagogue had 400 members and the town supported a kosher butcher and a greengrocer.

That was in the 1970s. Now it is a very different story. “Will there be much of a community left in 10 years time?,” wondered Mr Album. “I don’t think so, not much at all. It’s natural evolution. We have done quite well to get to 127 years.”

By natural evolution, Mr Album means the problems that afflict small Jewish communities all over the country — an ageing population, with young people departing to find jobs and a more varied Jewish life in London or Manchester, or even Israel, and no one replacing them.

“It’s the grim reaper at one end and youngsters leaving for pastures green at the other,” said Mr Album.

Chanucah in Reading: the Orthodox congregation is down to 200 members

Chanucah in Reading: the Orthodox congregation is down to 200 members

On paper Reading Hebrew Congregation (RHC) membership is around 200, but it can be a struggle to get a minyan on Shabbat.

When Mr Album’s children were in the cheder there were about 80 children attending — today there are 10.

Since 1997 the synagogue has lost 162 members, while only 18 have joined. The average age is now 66. In just 40 years the community has gone from thriving to surviving.

To cap it all, the community was left leaderless after no one stood for the position of president at the recent AGM.

Michael and Helene Silverstone were members of RHC for 10 years before moving to Borehamwood in 2013. Why did they leave? “For the benefit of the kids,” Mr Silverstone said. “To get them immersed in a community with a lot of young children.”

Former members also gravitate towards London for the kosher facilities. While RHC provides an on-site kosher shop, the community cannot compete with the selection of stores in the capital, not to mention the kosher restaurants — Reading has none.

But RHC’s rabbi Zvi Solomons believes the decline in numbers goes deeper than kosher facilities and Jewish schools.

“The problem isn’t people going away but that they don’t identify with the existing structure of a community. It isn’t set up for people who define Judaism in their own manner. People make their own structure and identities today,” he said.

The rabbi has fought against this decline by targeting shul-phobic potential members with events such as a “late-late” Purim megillah, which attracted three new families.

Reading Liberal Jewish Community has experienced similar membership problems. Gill Switler, a committee member for over 20 years said sthe community numbered only around 20 people and could not afford a rabbi or their own building.

RHC member Marilyn Sarano is a veteran of small communities. Prior to Reading she was a member of the Newport community in Wales.

“I saw Newport in its dying throes. Definitely a ‘last Jews in the village’ scenario,” she said. “It’s a general trend. The smaller they are, the quicker it’s going to happen.”

Reverend Malcolm Weisman has ministered to small communities for 50 years and says he visits “hundreds” across the UK every year.

“The prognosis is far from optimistic in many of these places,” he said.

He points out that, like Leicester, Southport and Newcastle, Reading is still a viable community because it has a full-time rabbi and a strong core of members. “The real question is for how much longer?”

Stoke-on-Trent, Portsmouth and Plymouth had full-time rabbis 30 or 40 years ago but their ageing communities meant they could no longer afford one.

But, said Rev Weisman, small communities qre extremely valuable, particulary in catering for those looking for something different to traditional services in packed synagogues.

“Some people feel more at ease in smaller communities. The paradox is that some people have fled from larger communities to small ones because they feel more spirituality there — it’s more intimate. A person could drop dead in Hendon in the pew and no one would notice. ”

Provincial communities often have a sense of history too. “Take Norwich,” said Rev Weisman. “Many families have been in the community for four or five generations..”

But the lack of kosher facilities and Jewish schools can prevent a viable Jewish life. “As a general rule if young people value Judaism they move to London or Manchester, and if they don’t they marry out or assimilate.”

Tori Joseph runs Jewish Connection, a Board of Deputies project which aids communities with tailor-made support such as providing access to rabbinical services or cultural activities.

Communities reluctant to collaborate with other outposts “struggle more than others”, she said.

“Widening the accessibility to communal services and making people in the regions aware of the support that’s available to them is very important. Helping smaller Jewish communities engage with others in the same region is also key.”

In Reading they talk about the easy access to London — just 24 minutes by train — cheaper house prices and a more relaxed lifestyle as reasons why young families may be persuaded to flee the capital and settle there.

But it is community spirit that members recognise as their greatest asset.

As Rabbi Solomons says, quoting former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks when he visited the shul for its 125th anniversary: “The thing about a small community is that everyone has a place here.”

Down the road, they’re thriving

A mere 14 miles down the A4 from Reading quite a different tale is being told at Maidenhead Synagogue.

Established in 1953 and a part of the Reform movement since 1960, the community is thriving, having grown from 80 to over 800 families in the past 34 years.

The community’s rabbi, Jonathan Romain, says the key is flexibility. “You have to cater for what Jews today most need, not what synagogues want to offer,” he said.

A flourishing outreach programme involves looking for new members and visiting them in their homes once contact has been made.

“We reach out to people who do not fit the traditional model, for example mixed-faith marriages,” Rabbi Romain said.

At Maidenhead there is a Sunday cheder, a book service, a poetry club, adult education classes and even zumba sessions.

“I don’t mind if they come on Wednesday or Saturday, as long as they come,” said Rabbi Romain.
He points out there is a significant difference between the big London communities and the smaller provincial ones.

“Home Counties Judaism is much more integrated and flexible. Synagogues who want to survive have to recognise these new social realities.”

Yifat Castle joined Maidenhead Synagogue, along with her husband and three sons, a year ago.
The family live in Petersfield, an hour’s drive away, but are happy to commute.

Mrs Castle said: “You can’t do festivals like Purim and Lag b’Omer at home, you need a community that gives a wholesome experience.”

Mrs Castle, who is originally from Israel, comes from a secular background, so an Orthodox community was out of the question. The warm welcome the family received at Maidenhead won her over.

“I did get in touch with a north-west London shul but it wasn’t for us. Maidenhead is very relaxed, very accepting and very informal,” she said.

Last updated: 3:45pm, May 22 2014