I have just spent a week in Gateshead, a yeshivah town in the north of England, where my wife and I lived when we were first married and I was a student at the Gateshead Yeshivah. I remain eternally indebted to Gateshead for the outstanding Torah education I received there, and particularly for the encouragement I received to develop into an independent rabbi and halachist. Yet it was the first time since my departure for the rabbinate some 13 years ago that I'd spent more than the odd day there.
On the surface, very little has changed in Gateshead: the same spiritually-striving and hospitable Torah families hidden behind gloomy Coronation Street terraces; the same economic challenges. Yet the community has doubled in size since the early 90s, to 450 families, necessitating expansion into areas that were once exclusively Geordie; there is a greatly enhanced infrastructure including a community health centre (in our former home).
But the most significant news has been the appointment of Rabbi Shraga Faivel Zimmerman as town Rav, following the passing of the esteemed Rabbi Rakow. A brilliant, articulate and thoughtful American, he seems to have struck just the right balance between preserving Gateshead's conservative character and instigating changes vital for the community's development. These include modernising the education system by providing alternatives to long-term Torah study for adults and encouraging working families to settle and start businesses in Gateshead, fostering greater religious and social diversity and increasing local prosperity.
I was royally hosted by dear friends, sat in my former seat in the yeshivah for shacharit and enjoyed a visit to the colossal Lehmann's bookshop, where I picked up a couple of hard-to-come-by medieval commentaries on Rashi. I also had the privilege of private meetings with the Rav, the rosh yeshivah and the yeshivah's spiritual supervisor. Of course, much of this is nostalgia: it felt good to retrace familiar steps and to show the children where Daddy used to learn.
I was especially struck by the mature attitude of many of the people I met when confronted with someone (me) whose outlook and objectives differ considerably from theirs. I recall that this had always been my experience in Gateshead, especially at the yeshivah. When I joined in 1990, I was several years older than my classmates; they had strong backgrounds in Torah learning, I did not; whereas my wife and I had recently graduated from Oxford, most of them had no intention of attending university; they wore the sombre "yeshivah kit", and I was none too keen on the dress-code. But from the very first day, I was welcomed as a full member by staff and students alike.
Those contrasts of 20 years ago are now more manifest. I spent the entire week in Gateshead working on my doctoral dissertation. It is well-known that the yeshivah world tends to view academic Jewish studies with distrust, and the potential holder of a "Rabbi Dr" moniker with suspicion. Yet everyone, without exception, from the people I met casually to the Rav, was interested in what I am doing, and genuinely enthusiastic about my achievements.
My experience was repeated in conversations with old friends, some of whom have children of the same ages as ours. I was asked a number of times what our eldest daughter Michali, who is now in school-year 11, will be doing next. Here, the differences could not be more pronounced: it is the norm in Gateshead for children to leave school after GCSEs to go to yeshivah or seminary, whereas Michali is choosing her A-level subjects in preparation for university. Again, the people with whom I spoke were supportive and encouraging, even though Michali's plans diverge so greatly from what they would consider appropriate for their children.
I think that this phenomenon reflects the fact that the Gateshead community contains many people who are not just thoroughly decent, but happy and secure with their own life-choices. I have noticed that unhappy and insecure people within our religious world feel a need to run down others in order to validate their own positions; those who are secure can celebrate the choices of others, even when they strongly disagree with them, without feeling threatened.
And while I am sure that that there are those in Gateshead who do not behave like this, I have realised that this is why I have continued to feel comfortable with the people there, despite the considerable gulf between our aspirations.
Thinking more broadly, this is a good working model for cross-communal cohesion. Even those individuals and communities with radically different styles and understandings of the world can peacefully co-exist, but this is unlikely to happen unless their leaders are happy and secure with their own identities, and make this manifest in the message they preach.
Regrettably, this is uncommon; in many places, religious life thrives on delegitimisation. Much rests on our ability to convey a sense of contentment and joy to our children and students.
I was encouraged by my visit to Gateshead: for all its pious insularity, it is a community of people who appear to be secure in their choices, something that can only contribute to harmony in an otherwise fragmented religious world.