When Baruch Levin arrived at Brondesbury Park Synagogue, the young rabbi found a community mired in apparently terminal decline.
Shabbat services attracted less than 30 people, none under the age of 60. The community had downsized, selling its old, decrepit shul and moving into the hall next door as a step towards “winding down”.
Eight years later, the north-west London community is thriving once again, with plans to expand the premises to accommodate the hundreds of new members.
Brondesbury boasts a five-day-a-week nursery for around 20 children, weekly cheder sessions and Shabbat services which attract a turnout of more than 150. The path pursued by Rabbi Levin, his wife Kezi and the shul’s honorary officers could become a blueprint for regenerating struggling communities.
Some of the success can be attributed to good fortune. Many families moved to Brondesbury Park after being priced out of the nearby Swiss Cottage, West Hampstead and Belsize Park areas. Like the Levins, many wanted more spacious homes for growing families.
In consequence, the community’s age profile has altered dramatically — half its members are now aged between 21 and 50. Next year, Brondesbury expects to celebrate a bar- or batmitzvah every two-to-three weeks.
“We put together a three-year business plan,” Rabbi Levin, 39, explained. “There was a real sense that it was an opportunity to be capitalised on — and excitement for recreating a great community.
“As people joined, we had a sudden surge in births. There have been 20 babies born in the community in each of the past five years and 15 already this year. More than 220 [in the community] are under-18.” The total membership is around 540.
With two Jewish primary schools nearby and plans for an eruv being drawn up, the upward trend seems set to continue.
Rabbi Levin feels that “for too long, children and young people have had a draconian kind of Jewish experience, dry in its passion.
“Previous generations of children have been ‘shushed’ out of shul and out of Judaism altogether. There’s a real need to re-engage with a new generation. We want to give people as many reasons as we can to move to this area.
“There is not always a ‘can do’ attitude in Anglo-Jewry. If the community is to prosper, it needs to adopt a more positive approach that is confident and has the right people leading it. Building communities is about every-one sharing in the responsibility of being part of something. You have to empower people.”
Brondesbury’s redevelopment plan is designed to provide around 150 extra seats and more floor space.
In the upstairs classrooms, flexible partitioning will allow the area to be used not only for nursery and cheder sessions, but also for meetings and other events.
Half the £1 million cost has already been raised through pledges. The shul will also buy a new sefer Torah and it is hoped that members, as well as families with past links to Brondesbury, will sponsor words, verses and entire columns of the scroll. Once its £20,000 cost is covered, additional contributions will go towards the rebuilding.It is hoped the work will be finished in time for the shul’s 80th anniversary in 2014.
Brondesbury chairman Dan Turner said the rebuilding was essential.“There have been distinct phases in our development over the past eight years. We have had to make sure we had the tools to grow. It has been evolution, not revolution. Thankfully the issues we’ve come across have been nice problems to deal with.”