Difficult decisions lie ahead for Manchester’s Jewish community at a time of enormous demographic change. Yet green shoots of renewal and reinvention are evident in the UK’s second-largest Jewish centre.
Manchester City Council chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein, a key figure in the 25,000-strong Jewish community, says a crucial educational issue is sustaining two mainstream primaries, given the declining applications to the King David and Bury and Whitefield schools.
The former is rebuilding as part of a £25 million state-funded investment, the latter was refused planning consent to relocate as a state-of-the-art school in the heart of Jewish Whitefield.
And the looming educational storm clouds are a foretaste of much fiercer winds of change, Sir Howard explains. “The next census in 2011 will show that the community is not stabilising in certain areas — we will see reducing numbers across the mainstream Jewish community.”
Meanwhile, Manchester’s Charedi community is experiencing huge growth and is now said to account for one-third of the Jewish population. The biggest concentration of Jewish children is in the predominantly strictly Orthodox areas of Salford.
If the mainstream community is shrinking, it is not an issue being widely discussed, says Manchester Jewish Representative Council president Barbara Goldstone.
“We should have a debate about the numbers in the community and intermarriage. Sir Howard’s Jewish Community Project was meant to encourage young people to stay in Manchester. There were a few meetings but it’s petered out. With the closure of The Project for youth last month, we are very concerned.”
Five years ago, Sir Howard was behind a £45,000 demographic study by the Aston Business School to establish authoritatively the number of Jews in the city. It identified a massive loss of younger people — proportionally there were one-quarter less Jews aged 20-44 compared to the general Greater Manchester population.
By contrast, the last census showed that the 75-plus accounted for 12 per cent of the local Jewish population. The figure among the general Greater Manchester community is seven per cent.
Jewish welfare charities say their current structures cannot cope with the mounting demand for residential care.The hope is that next month’s merger of Manchester’s two largest welfare organisations, The Fed and Heathlands Care Village, will bring a concerted approach to the problem. The merger will create the Federation of Jewish Services, a Manchester equivalent of Jewish Care.
“It is more about being able to raise the standard of care,” said The Fed’s director of services, Mark Cunningham. “There are people who come to us because we are Jewish, but there are lots of people who are putting quality first. Will the community buy from a Jewish provider or will they spend their money elsewhere?”
Those guaranteed to buy into Jewish welfare services are Manchester’s Charedim, albeit at the other end of the age spectrum, given the influx of young families from London and elsewhere who are attracted mainly by the cheaper cost of living. One strictly Orthodox enclave in Salford has double the number of children aged up to 15 than other Jewish areas of Greater Manchester.
Local authority strategy reports indicate that welfare policy-makers in Bury and Salford are developing culturally sensitive services for the community. And at Charedi charity Interlink, north-west director Nava Kestenbaum is keen to see partnerships within Manchester Jewry as well. “Heathlands is an example of a mainstream Jewish organisation working to meet the needs of the more observant. It’s a positive model that can work.”
Mr Cunningham agrees, pointing out: “Local authorities are much more likely to provide funding if we have a cohesive approach. The community can undermine itself if groups do not work with each other.”
Chair of the King David schools’ governors Joshua Rowe is among those dealing with the fall-out from the drop in the mainstream community. “You see it in numbers applying to our primary school — they have halved,” he reported. “A small number can be explained by aliyah, some have migrated to London, but we’ve lost the largest proportion through assimilation and apathy. Everyone has a story about someone they know leaving the faith.”
He claims that recovery can be achieved by radical changes to schools and shuls. For example, an academic overhaul of the King David High has transformed it into one of the city’s top performing schools and quadrupling its roll from 200 to 820 within 20 years.
“There is no shortage of youngsters in Manchester. The problem is apathy. If we do our job well and leave a sweet taste of community, Judaism and pride, you will have 120 per year in the primary school too.”
Mr Rowe’s sentiments resonate with 31-year-old mother-of-one Esther Seymour who lives on the outskirts of Prestwich. Despite having opted to live beyond the main Jewish areas, she will be sending her two-year-old son to King David because of its good reputation.
She knows “a lot of people who’ve moved to London. I can think right now of 10. That’s a fifth of my school year at King David. I can also think of five people who’ve married out. It’s more normal to have a non-Jewish partner than it has ever been. But to make someone feel bad about who they get married to — my brain doesn’t comprehend that.”
Esther and husband Robin had Orthodox upbringings, but opted for a Reform wedding through the Menorah congregation. But they did not remain Menorah members, saying that paying large membership fees to a shul they never attended was just illogical.
Menorah minister Rabbi Brian Fox reports that while a recent influx of enthusiastic young couples has boosted his shul, the number of children below barmitzvah age in Greater Manchester’s three Reform synagogues is a “tiny fraction” of former times. “All three have had problems filling their Sunday chedarim. Sha’arei Shalom in Whitefield closed its cheder two months ago.”
Rabbi Fox believes synagogues across the board need to take a non-judgmental stance on members. “People are tired of being condemned. I’m a theist, but I don’t expect my wife, my children or my congregation to accept that theology. If they come to play chess or bridge, or to gamble or meet someone, who cares? It’s important that they are here. All of those things are involvement in community life.”
Mainstream synagogue membership across Greater Manchester is dropping 15 per cent every 10 years. The only exceptions are synagogues in south Manchester. In September Bowdon shul celebrated the recruitment of over 50 members since 2007.
Former minister of nearby Sale and District Synagogue, Rabbi Motty Broder, attributes growth in south Manchester — where one-quarter of the city’s Jews now reside — to the migration of Jews to more affluent suburbs. Yet good programmes for children are also a strong selling point, persuading Rabbi Broder — who combined his spiritual role with a barrister’s job — to give up both to teach Jewish studies at King David High. He also co-ordinates a regeneration project focusing on young parents for north Manchester’s Prestwich Hebrew Congregation.
“Ten to 15 years ago, people would come to shul out of a sense that it’s the right thing to do. The new generation aren’t putting up with that, especially when there’s a lot of sophisticated entertainment out there. They are not going to sit there without connecting with the service.”
There were many families who “don’t want to come to shul but are saddened by the realisation that there is nothing for their children”.
Prestwich Hebrew Congregation has attracted 100 new young families by running parallel children’s and educational activities alongside the traditional service. Parents can opt to leave the main synagogue to join the toddler story corners, children’s services with competitions, a discussion group or explanatory lecture. “The programme is still in its infancy, but we’ve tried to put Shabbat morning back on the Jewish map. Shul has to be engaging and thought provoking. The evidence is it’s working, but it’s not an overnight process.”
Revamping synagogue services may prove an effective means of bringing back the disaffected. Research carried out last year by Jonny Wineberg, who heads the New Leadership Project for the local representative council, showed that young adults were more likely to affiliate to a synagogue than any other Jewish facility.
Yet Mr Wineberg feels there are bigger fish to fry, not least the lack of a social network, which is driving young singles to London. “We have to change the perception that there is very little for them in Manchester. We need lots of well publicised small events so people feel there is more going on.”
IBM project manager Gabrielle Baigel moved from her native Prestwich to London to pursue career opportunities after university and says that half of her Manchester friends are now living in the capital.
“In London as a young single person there are events and things open for you to go to. When you turn up in Manchester, you really have to search to find them.”
Why I left for London
Working in marketing and advertising sales, Matthew Mickler, 25, is originally from Prestwich but moved to Cricklewood three years ago. He says that after university, he was employed as a senior supervisor in a Manchester clothes shop, but came to London “because I was offered a much better job with a much better salary. I went to a non-Jewish school in Whitefield. Not many of my school friends have moved to London, but at least 15 to 20 of my Jewish friends from Manchester have moved here in the last few years. I’ve had problems with money, and some of the worst experiences of my life, but I love London. There’s more to do, more places to go and hang out. I’ve got as many friends in London in three years of being here than I had in 20 years of living in Manchester. But my heart is really in Manchester and I hope to move back one day.”
Why we want to stay here
Kelly Bentley, 31, intends to stay in Whitefield with husband Lee, 27, and their two young sons, explaining: “I’ve lived in London and America but there’s nothing like being around the people you’ve grown up with. In Whitefield we all used to hang out in the parks — there were big groups of Jewish kids.
“My husband and I have talked about living somewhere like Walmersley, past Bury, where the views are fabulous and house prices are so much cheaper. It sounds so perfect, but it means my children wouldn’t go to a Jewish school and I wouldn’t be nodding to people I know in the street all the time. But maybe it is changing. There aren’t as many kids hanging out. A lot of Jewish couples don’t want to live in what we call ‘the hood’. A lot of my friends try to live more on the outskirts, like Radcliffe.”