Saving our lost Jewish communities in the UK

Aliyah and marrying-out are shrinking once-thriving populations. Some now face a struggle to survive.

By Leon Symons, January 14, 2010
Portree: only three known jews — but 25 came to a kosher ceilidh

Portree: only three known jews — but 25 came to a kosher ceilidh

National communal organisations are facing a desperate plea to do more for small communities.

Ephraim Borowski, chairman of the Board of Deputies’ Regional Council, called on the Board, the Jewish Leadership Council and other bodies to provide more tangible support to the many small outposts of Jewish life around the country.

“The smaller the communities are, the more vulnerable they are likely to be,” he said.

“By definition, they don’t have experts on whom to call with the relevant kind of experience. My view is that the whole of the UK community has got to put disproportionate resources into supporting small communities.

“If communities of a couple of thousand have difficulty making a minyan, then 500 will find it more difficult and when you get to 50 you’re asking 20 per cent of the community to turn up. Mainstream communities don’t give enough thought to things like that.”


He said that anything small communities do is seldom recognised, adding: “The feedback I get from inside the M25 is that there is no achievement at all because there might be only a dozen people.

“We held a kosher ceilidh on the Isle of Skye where there were three known Jews, yet 25 turned up. That’s not just 25 turning up, it’s an increase of approaching 1,000 per cent.

“As chair of the regional council, I am looking to the Board, the JLC and other national communal organisations to recognise that they have got to put much more into small communities because Jewish people, Jewish life and Jewish identity are vulnerable — and the sooner they do it, the better.”

Elkan Levy, UJIA director of small communities, said it was difficult to predict who might or might not survive beyond the next decade.

“The obvious problem is membership. Cornwall, for example, is undoubtedly growing, partly because of a huge EU investment.

Other communities may well undergo a huge and unexpected revival. The problem is no-one can tell.”

He estimated that Anglo-Jewry peaked in 1945, “and now we’re getting smaller”. The reasons for the shrinkage were partly aliyah, and partly marrying out.

“On the other hand, if it weren’t for the people who married out but nonetheless opted to remain ‘in’, many small communities would not exist,” said Mr Levy. “One of the strengths of small communities is that they are non-judgmental. Quite often, it’s the non-Jewish partner who takes the Jewish partner back into the community.

“This is very important because quite often the small community might be the only Jewish representation in an area.” In some cases, there was a decreasing membership to run sometimes expensive facilities. For example, four out of the five oldest synagogues in the country were small communities: Plymouth (1762), Exeter (1763), Cheltenham (1839) and Chatham (1864).

The only example of that period that was not in a small community is Singers Hill in Birmingham (built in 1856). “These old congregations have old buildings and someone has to pay for them,” he said.

“Plymouth sold some of its silver recently amid great hype and some people got very upset, but the money has to come from somewhere.”

Last updated: 11:22am, January 15 2010