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Rift widens in seaside synagogue over Chasidic influx

Accusations fly at Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation in advance of a potentially acrimonious AGM

    Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation (Picture: Facebook)
    Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation (Picture: Facebook)

    Acrimony between members of Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation has intensified in the lead-up to its AGM on Sunday.

    Kevin Leigh, who is standing for vice-president, is claiming that a letter sent to members of the community “falls into the category of both race hate and religious hate”.

    The letter was distributed in the name of seven candidates seeking to replace the current board and relates to the Chasidic families who have moved to the area from Stamford Hill.

    Candidates expressed concern “that the influx of the Belz community could alienate our members, children and grandchildren attending our services and simcha[h]s.

    “The Belz are totally against the way of life that the majority of our community follow.

    “We believe that the Belz see our community as a target to be consumed within their organisation and this could happen within the next five years, should their membership of our community be expanded.”

    Although the writers describe the newcomers as being part of the Belz sect, the Chasidim have described themselves as hailing from a number of different groups.

    Some congregants have welcomed the arrivals, believing they are breathing fresh life into the community. Others suggest their intention is to take over the congregation in order to benefit from its religious facilities.

    Disagreement has focused on the shul board’s plan to do a deal with the Chasidim, who would fund the refurbishment of the community’s Talmud Torah building in return for the right to lease the building for its school.

    In January, police launched a child protection investigation after a BBC news report showed a teacher at the school appearing to strike a child. In March, the shul informed members that the investigation had been completed and no action would be taken against the teacher.

    Mr Leigh — who describes himself as the honorary legal adviser to SWHC — alleged that those behind the letter wanted “to keep out Chasidim from SWHC and treat them differently because of their Judaism... It stirs up racial disharmony in our community.”

    On April 30, SWHC member Sheldon Collins posted the letter from the candidates on the communal email group, stating he had been asked to do so.

    “By so doing, it should not be inferred that I endorse every point raised,” he said.

    But he felt that “as many people as possible in the community should have the chance to read it and formulate their own views on a point by point basis”.

    In an email response, Mr Leigh described Mr Collins as “the puppet for those who do not hold the best interests of SWHC at heart.

    “Meanwhile, the police have been notified… Sheldon I will pass your name to the police if they take up the investigation since you can help them identify the authors and supporters.”

    In his reply, Mr Collins told Mr Leigh: “As long as I’m better than you, which I am, I have nothing to worry about.

    “I think the whole community, regardless of their views, know who the real puppets are.”

    The Chasidic newcomers had earlier sent a letter to congregants with the message: “None of us are looking to take over SWHC, nor are we seeking to impose our lifestyle on others.

    “We are simply looking to live together and alongside the existing community.

    “None of this is to deny that fundamental differences in lifestyle and outlook still prevail — but we want to work towards mutual understanding.”

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