Belfast members Elliot, Sammy and Alan Matthews (Photo: BBC)
Belfast is a city which has been defined down the years by religious fervour and sectarianism. But amid the Troubles, another smaller community has existed quietly for more than a century.
However, the 80 remaining members of the Belfast Jewish community have an average age of over 70 and if numbers dwindle further, the community will die. So Aaron Black, a freelance filmmaker and son of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation chair, Michael Black, decided that now might be a good time to film his community’s struggle for survival.
Mr Black spent six months shooting the documentary The Last Minyan — A Belfast Jewish Story, which will be shown on BBC Northern Ireland next week. He filmed both in his home city and when visiting expats in London, Manchester and Israel. Having drifted away from the community as an adult, Mr Black was touched by what he discovered. “The community was great. They come across as a very open, welcoming and proud group of people. Humour is also very important to them. I didn’t want them to appear worthy or sad because they are neither of those things. I wanted to make a film less about faith but more about the culture and how they survive.”
Michael Black said that keeping the congregation going had been a struggle. “With the arrival of a new rabbi and a couple of new faces we’ve had a boost. Usually a minyan is not a problem on Shabbat but we can struggle to get 10 on a Thursday. But on the upside, we’re a very tight-knit community. One chap does a 90-mile round trip to collect an elderly man so that he can attend the shul. We grew up together so everyone knows everyone else, but we’re not getting any younger. Unless we have a few more new faces we won’t last much longer.”
His son added that the community, which numbered 2,000 at its peak in the 1940s, had suffered during the Troubles. “Young people would leave to go to university and because of the political situation they would not return, so numbers dwindled.”
Despite not being religious, making the film had got him more involved. “Despite the problems they have, I never felt any pressure to attend services. But at the end of the film I went to shul for the yahrzeit of my grandfather with my dad. These days I tend to go to the Thursday minyan. Making the film helped my understanding of the community and made me feel a bit more responsible as well.”
True North: The Last Minyan — A Belfast Jewish Story is on BBC1 Northern Ireland (Sky channel 953) at 10.35pm on Monday