Many people in Leeds tell the story of their forebears’ supposed exodus from eastern Europe to Yorkshire.
Fleeing Russian persecution, they boarded boats in the belief that they were bound for New York. But rather than seeing the Statue of Liberty, they alighted to the very different skyline of Hull, going on to Leeds to work in the clothing mills.
Whatever the veracity of the tale, Leeds became home to Britain’s third largest Jewish community, flourishing first in Chapeltown and latterly in the more affluent suburbs of Moortown and Alwoodley.
Today, the Jewish community is estimated at over 8,000 and has eight synagogues, a number of kosher shops, a community centre, youth club, a care home in Donisthorpe Hall and two Jewish primary schools, as well as a comprehensive welfare network. There is even a local Jewish radio station.
Yet this seemingly robust framework does not blind local leaders to the growing migration of youngsters to London, Manchester and Israel.
The warning signs are clear to Rabbi Ian Morris of Sinai Reform Synagogue, who has spent 13 years in the city, having moved from Australia. “We have to look at communities in the north like Darlington and Grimsby which had functioning, viable communities. Now they are hanging on by their fingernails,” he said. And in Bradford, “the once large community is teetering on the edge of tragedy”.
When he arrived, he was told Leeds “was becoming a great financial and legal centre where graduates would be seeking jobs. I expected an influx of young Jews, but I haven’t seen it. Maybe they are here and haven’t affiliated”.
Families with children of 11 and above who remain in Leeds face the dilemma of committing them to a 90-minute commute to a Jewish school in Manchester, or a secular local education.
Rabbi Jason Kleiman of Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Synagogue felt the community had resigned itself to life without a Jewish high school. He added: “The last time we realistically talked about a high school was 15 years ago. Tell me there’s no will, or no money and I’ll accept it. But don’t tell me there aren’t enough people to fill it — that’s nonsense.
“More and more Leeds children are going to school in Manchester now. We have got the demand. But there are people who believe we should just tread water and decline gracefully.”
Around 60 of the community’s 1,000 youngsters attend the Manchester King David High.
At the Zone youth club, which draws 250 regulars, chief executive Raina Sheaf saw the Manchester link as a significant long-term threat. “Once a child gets used to going to Manchester every day on the bus, they’ll go there for their social life. But we are trying to counter attack and we pay to bus kids over from Manchester to Leeds and hold parties here.”
But Rabbi Daniel Levy of the United Hebrew Congregation viewed the thirst for Jewish schooling as a positive sign. “Jewish education is so important, it is a good thing people are taking that step,” he said.
The main Jewish primary, Brodetsky, has around 300 pupils, if including its Deborah Taylor nursery. Former headteacher Simon Camby said it was crucial to the community’s future.
“Friendships made at Brodetsky are for life. They don’t disappear just because there’s no Jewish high school. There isn’t any formal system to keep the children in touch but there are places for them to mix. The Zone has been terrific for that. And you have to remember that it’s not such a massive community. People can’t lose one another.”
The aims of the new head, Jeremy Dunford, include a more creative curriculum and use of the site beyond the school day.
Shelley Ross has children of 13 and seven who attend the Zone. She said: “There is an awful lot on offer here for Jewish families. My children do go to a secular school, but I prefer that to be honest. I want them learning about other faiths. I wouldn’t send them to King David — the commute is too long. And I grew up in Reading, where I was the only Jewish girl in the class.”
She had made many friends “but it’s easier when you have children. I don’t think it would be appealing for young, single people. Whether we stay here forever really does depend on our children. We would probably move to London if our children were there..”
The consensus of Rabbi Levy, and other local ministers, is that the problem is not the elusive high school, but intermarriage and secularisation.
In a 2001 Board of Deputies’ survey, more than a quarter of Leeds Jews said their children had married out — and 47 per cent called themselves “secular”.
He said: “It is a close knit community here, apart from for people who are outside the ‘knit’.” He believed the true Jewish population to be considerably higher than generally believed. “We’re not just talking about people who have married out, but people who for whatever reason choose not to practice or identify themselves as Jewish.
“A Jewish high school for whatever reason isn’t going to happen right now and so we need to focus any vast investment on outreach.”
Leeds Jewish Representative Council president Sue Dorsey said efforts were being made to reach those outside the mainstream, but added: “There will always be people who don’t want to be associated. Not just those who have married out but students who are based in Headingley, rather than in the Jewish area of north Leeds, and young single professionals who move here for work.”
Leaders take pride in the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Centre, opened four years ago. It has a kosher restaurant and is home to the rep council and Leeds Jewish Welfare Board, which helps around 2,000 people, just under half of them pensioners.
The centre is run by the welfare board, whose chief executive Rebecca Weinberg highlighted its unifying impact. “It has really provided a binding focus. There is a true sense of ownership about the centre and this is entirely appropriate. After all, it is community funded and led.”
With the departure of many younger Jews, elderly community members had been deprived of family care, increasing the burden on welfare providers.
“We have seen a significant increase in the number of older people who need our support,” Ms Weinberg said. “People are living longer but they are not necessarily healthier and these factors impact on the community.
“They are much feistier. Recently we conducted a survey of older people. One respondent asked for ‘a singles club for ancients with life still left in them’. We also had several requests for belly dancing classes so it just shows that age is only a number.”
Yet those who remained from the young generation were aware of the need for involvement. “The strengths of this community are perhaps driven by the very factors that threaten its survival.
“Small is beautiful, but there is an increased sense of responsibility for community sustainment. Lay leadership here is comparatively young. Proactive work has become almost a family tradition.”
At Donisthorpe Hall — where capacity has just been increased to 180, but there is still a waiting list of 68 — chief executive Carol Whitehead said: “Older people are staying in their homes for as long as they can..”
Leeds Jewish Housing Association administers nearly 500 properties, with a further 62 homes for the elderly being built this year. In partnership with the welfare board, it is offering to install call-out alarms in the homes of those who opt against or cannot receive residential help from the LJHA.
Chief executive Sheila Saunders said demand for housing had always been high among the elderly “but we are now seeing more and more families asking us for help. And we don’t have enough accommodation for them. All our housing is based in the heart of north Leeds, where the community is, which is obviously appealing.”
A major problem, particularly in recession “is that the community is based in very pricey suburbs like Alwoodley. And if people move out, they move out of the community.”
It was vital to change the provision for the next generation of older people. “They are educated and middle class. They don’t want to sit around and play bingo. These are the wild children of the ‘60s. They might want to listen to heavy metal. We have got to adapt to that.
“We want to celebrate that people are living longer, but as they do, there is a lot less left in the money pot from their savings. And with very old people there are higher chances of Alzheimer’s and mental infirmity.”
Ms Dorsey added: “This community has such assets. We have got our own radio station with an AM licence, a hugely popular theatre festival, a vibrant youth club with tons going on every day. And for the first time in years, Brodetsky Primary is fully subscribed.”
Rabbi Morris agreed that Leeds was an increasingly attractive proposition. “There are people eager to leave London, seeking something different. The stereotype that the grim north is backward just isn’t true. We have so much to offer.”
Why I will be leaving for London
Sophia Levine, 20, from Alwoodley, attended Leeds Girls’ High School and is in her third year reading history at Nottingham University. She and her family are members of Sinai, the city’s Reform congregation.
Ms Levine does not intend moving back to Leeds after university — “I’m planning to continue studying for a masters next year and then make the big move to London. Although I love Leeds, I think there will be more opportunities for me in London. The only reason for me to stay locally would be serious unemployment.”
Although describing Leeds as “a brilliant and vibrant community, full of opportunities”, she feels these “tend only to extend towards the very old and very young, with few available to my knowledge for my age group.
“Since I came to university, I’ve had little involvement with the Nottingham Jewish community. I went to the Jewish society once and hated it, although I did appreciate the latkes. Having said that, I do still have a lot of Jewish friends at uni and it is in some way comforting to be around those people while I’m away from home.”
Less people but more commitment
Alwoodley-based Colin Grazin, 63, is an employment tribunal chairman. He spent 20 years on the Leeds Jewish Welfare Board executive, some as joint vice-president, and also served on the rep council and as a Board of Deputies delegate.
“I think that my family is fairly typical here,” he says. “One of my daughters moved away to live in London, the other one went to Israel. Like many young people, they don’t feel the community in Leeds would offer them the kind of Jewish life they had at university, where they got to mix with a lot of Jews from London. And there are a lot of Leeds Jews now in north London.”
Such migration did cause problems. “When I was visiting my late mother in Donisthorpe Hall, there were a lot of people there who clearly didn’t have people visiting them because their families had moved away.
“But in a different kind of way, I also think the community is getting stronger. Those young people who stay here tend to be more involved.”
Mr Grazin cites the “huge advantages” of Leeds Jewry as its friendliness and loyalty. “It does have a lot to do with location, and how close people live to each other.”