A plan to redevelop Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation’s New Church Road site has been described as the “catalyst to unify the community”.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis joined more than 200 people from across the local Jewish spectrum at a consultation event at the Ralli Hall centre, hosted by the Bloom Foundation and the Brighton and Hove congregation.
They were told the proposed redevelopment would include a new synagogue, kosher café, educational space and functions hall, plus housing with the aim of attracting young families.
Another potential feature is a “we work” facility to promote business and job opportunities, in collaboration with north London-based employment support service Work Avenue.
Project leaders envision a merger between New Church Road and the other local Orthodox shul, Holland Road (Hove Hebrew Congregation). But they intend to proceed even if this does not happen.
Funding for the redevelopment will be made available by the Bloom Foundation, headed by Tony Bloom, the Brighton and Hove Albion football club chairman, who grew up locally and whose parents still live in the city.
He told the meeting that the goal was to revitalise the community and provide economic stability. The shul had considered selling the New Church Road site to developers because of financial difficulties.
Mr Bloom stressed that the social facilities would be for local Jews of all shades of observance, or none, and that any profits would remain within the community. “This is one of the best places in England to live and this development will attract young Jews for years to come,” he said.
In common with many regional communities, numbers have declined in Brighton and the average age of members of the two Orthodox synagogues is over 70.
Bloom Foundation trustee Marc Sugarman argued that as membership of both was dwindling, it would make sense for them to join forces, ensuring not only a minyan in the short-term but a more prosperous future.
If Holland Road members agreed on the merger, “beautiful artefacts from Holland Road shul could be taken to the new synagogue and appreciated there, in the best site for the Jewish community”.
The proposed community centre had the potential to be a “JW3 for Brighton”, as well as offering a nursery and classrooms for a cheder and children’s services. In time, serious consideration might be given to a Jewish primary school in the area.
The JC reported recently that a group of Brighton residents are exploring the possibility of starting a cross-communal Jewish free school in the city.
A presentation was also made at the meeting by architects, who showed preliminary drawings and images.
Expressing his high regard for the Brighton community, Chief Rabbi Mirvis gave his support for the “courageous, wonderful plan”, including the merger aspect. He liked the idea that the project would benefit “the entire community while maintaining the Orthodox ethos”.
It was important for communities to embrace change to thrive, he added, citing examples from London, Dublin and Hong Kong to demonstrate the virtues of developing facilities around a core Orthodox shul in communities where numbers are dwindling and there is an ageing membership base.
He urged the retention of all Orthodox rabbis if the merger goes ahead, maintaining that, ultimately, “people are more important than buildings”.
Those at the meeting were given feedback forms for their views on the project. They were also invited to suggest additional facilities for the redevelopment.
Plans will be submitted to Brighton and Hove City Council after a public exhibition in October. If approved, the hope is that building work will start next year with completion in the summer of 2020.
Mr Sugarman said afterwards: “We hope the facilities we provide will allow Jews who might otherwise have left Brighton once they are close to starting a family to stay in the city.”
He also hoped a proper Jewish infrastructure would entice people from the capital, given Brighton’s “accessibility to London and high quality of living”.
Michael Harris, co-chair of Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, came away from the meeting impressed by the proposals, both in terms of the Orthodox community and for the non-Orthodox congregations and the unaffiliated.
“The words of Rabbi Mirvis were encouraging, persuasive and visionary,” he said.
“As the Reform synagogue, we will be only too happy to give any support.
“In my opinion, there is no better time for anyone who is not affiliated to join a shul in order to show support for what is coming. Of course, I prefer that you join our shul. But please join any shul. There is plenty of choice in Brighton.”
The Reform congregation is the largest in the city, numbering around 550. Brighton Progressive has 300 people and the two Orthodox shuls 200 apiece. Chabad also operates in the area.