Dublin benefits from overseas aid


An introductory panel at the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin quotes from the Annals of Inisfallen in 1079 "that five Jews came over the sea - and they were sent back again".

In recent times, Jews, particularly the young, have left the city of their own volition. The last Irish Republic Census in 2011 recorded just under 2,000 throughout the country, the vast majority in the capital.

Maurice Cohen, the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland chairman, explains that "in Limerick, Cork and Galway, you'll find individual groups, but sadly, not enough people to have regular services".

Mr Cohen is holding the fort in the museum, tucked away in a quiet side street and walkable from the thriving city centre. A source of pride to the Jewish leadership, it stands on the site of the former Walworth Road Synagogue.

A small synagogue area, complete with mechitzah, is its centrepiece and its exhibits reflect a rich Jewish contribution to the wider life of the city and the nation. For example, it was not so long ago that three Jews representing different parties - Alan Shatter, Mervyn Taylor and Ben Briscoe - were members of the Irish Parliament. Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis was once Chief Rabbi of Ireland, and Lord Jakobovits is another in an illustrious past list of spiritual leaders.

As well as its popularity with tourists, the museum is an important contributor to interfaith relations in a country where there is little overt antisemitism but a strongly pro-Palestinian government.

"We've had 50 people in today, 20 in a school group," Mr Cohen reports. "We get about 10,000 visitors a year." It is past closing time when the doorbell rings persistently. It is a couple from Portland, Oregon and, ever the hospitable Irishman, Mr Cohen lets the pair into the foyer, explaining it is too late for them to view the main exhibits. The woman seems pleased enough to have made it this far, telling him: "I'm six per cent Jewish", apparently based on the results of a saliva test. Mr Cohen deadpans heroically through the ensuing exchange.

The majority of the Jewish community resides a little further out in a south Dublin area containing the three remaining shuls. But it is what is happening in the centre of the city that is shaping the present, if not necessarily the future, of the Jewish community.

Dublin's commercial renaissance in recent years has seen major technology players such as Google, Facebook and Intel establish local operations, bringing in a number of young Jewish employees from overseas.

At the main Orthodox shul, Dublin Hebrew Congregation, Rabbi Zalman Lent says the biggest impact of the sudden influx has been on the nearby Stratford Jewish schools, where many are sending their children. There are currently 62 Jewish pupils out of a roll of 110 in the primary section, an upsurge significantly attributable to the Israelis now working for Intel in Dublin.

Rabbi Lent accepts the new arrivals will be with the community for a short period only. But they boost its activities during their time in Dublin. Intel helps Jewishly observant staff members to find accommodation near the shul and even the secular Israelis will join events like a Chanucah celebration. "It is a matter of trying to do social stuff for the non-affiliated," explains the rabbi, who came to Dublin as a youth minister 16 years ago and loved it so much he stayed.

"The Irish people are very friendly. They go out of their way to help. You're 10 minutes from the sea, 10 minutes from mountains and there is no high rise."

His shul maintains a daily minyan and tourists can swell Shabbat attendances to as high as 150 in the modern prayer hall. The other Orthodox shul, Machzikei Hadass, maintains a small but loyal congregation and there are also Shabbat services at the Bloomfield care home, the successor to the Jewish Home of Ireland, "which closed because the facilities were not what was required", Mr Cohen explains. Although Jews make up only a tiny fraction of residents, the home has a Jewish ethos and a full kosher kitchen.

Rabbi Lent reports four barmitzvahs and two batmitzvahs within his congregation this year. BBYO attracts young people from across the community, the Bnei Akiva group in the city having disbanded. "They were too successful - all their members moved to Israel," the rabbi reflects. Tuition fees have stemmed the drain of young Dubliners going to the UK to study.

In kashrut terms, there is a kosher bakery and a branch of the SuperValu supermarket chain stocks a decent selection of kosher items. "I always hear the range is never wide enough - or cheap enough," Mr Cohen says. Comments from other community members certainly bear him out on the latter point.

At Dublin Progressive Congregation, Helen Marks (president) and Jenni Harrison (chair of rites and practices) speak of its efforts to get the young involved.

"We're about building a community, not about building numbers," Dr Marks stresses. But her colleague adds that "for a minority community [200 people] within a very small community, we're thriving." Friday night services attract an attendance of 40, there are 10 children in the cheder and a Tots on the Bimah group is enjoyed the very youngest and their parents. Dr Marks reports that in some cases, it is the children who are bringing parents back into the fold. "Three of the most active members of our council were brought in by their kids." The average age of the council is 45.

As often the case with Liberal communities, members are drawn from a wide area. The leaders see the congregation at "the traditional end of Liberal Judaism. We need to appeal to people who would be Masorti in the UK." Yet as Ms Harrison points out, a lot of its families are from mixed marriages. "We offer a friends membership for people who don't want to convert. It's our way of saying 'You are welcome'. We also offer a blessing, but not a ceremony, for a mixed faith wedding."

Beyond local celebratory events, the leaders report an element of "barmitzvah tourism", accommodating Americans with Irish roots who want to hold a simchah in Dublin. And given Dr Marks is the sister of Mitzvah Day founder Laura Marks, it is hardly surprising the Liberal community has driven one of the first and strongest Mitzvah Day programmes outside the UK.

Although emeritus rabbi Charles Middleburgh continues to visit on a monthly basis, his brief includes helping to find "a permanent congregational rabbi, something we both want and need", Dr Marks says. For the moment, the gaps are filled by a team of lay readers, one of which is Ms Harrison, whose business as a hen party organiser is on the up.

The wall outside the Stratford schools entrance is brightened by the graffiti art of a former pupil. Inside, Jewish studies and services are in full swing first thing on Friday - the Judaics programmes continue until 10, when the non-Jewish pupils arrive for the secular syllabus.

Claire Harrington, principal of the primary section, expresses pride in heading "such a unique school. I am not Jewish but having been brought up in the area, I understand the community. It's always been a fascination." She adds that the strong academic performance has generated "a huge waiting list".

One consequence of the "Intel generation" is the number of pupils for whom English is a second language. "The younger they are, the quicker they pick it up," the principal says. "We encourage them to speak English in class." All pupils celebrate festivals like Purim, or "the hat one" in Ms Harrington's words.

Jewish numbers are lighter in the senior school - "we're on the cusp of a minyan", says long serving principal Patricia Gordon. Boys are laying tefilin during the morning service for the small but cosmopolitan Jewish pupil group.Those with overseas backgrounds say they have integrated well into the school and wider Dublin life. For example, Israeli Ziv Ytshak reflects that "it is very nice to be in a community which feels very loving".

Ms Gordon says "the quality of teaching and learning is fantastic and we are quite innovative, leading the way in some aspects of education". It is a claim supported by the last inspection report by Ireland's Ofsted equivalent.

The Jewish ethos is equally important, as evidenced by a Rosh Hashanah display on a wall next to the Irish Times sports calendar. "We protect and nurture it. It's enshrined in our policies and curriculum and is very much part of our day to day life. The tuck shop is kosher and we ask non-Jewish pupils not to bring in non-kosher meat."

Among parents dropping off children at the junior school is Johanna Novis, whose family have decamped to Dublin because of her husband's job with KPMG. In Toronto, she worked for the UJA Federation and admits it was initially "shocking to see the size of the community here. I missed the challah I love, the delis. But because it's small, if there are gaps, you fill them. And having the school here is huge."

But small is not always beautiful. A £9 million expansion of the museum has been "parked" because of fundraising issues, says its chair Yariv Reisler, an Israeli who has made his home in Dublin.

Yet he still intends to build on its appeal to Jews and non-Jews alike. "It's about education, education, education, showing the most positive aspects of Jewish life. Outside the synagogue [in the museum] is the Hebrew writing beit midrash, meaning house of study. We are reviving those traditions and teaching modern Hebrew and there is a big demand for that."

In the wider sphere, Mr Cohen says the focus of the representative council has shifted "from kashrut, rabbonim, internecine warfare, the usual stuff, to involvement in interfaith, liaising with the political establishment and advocacy of Israel. It's important for Israel to have a voice in Ireland because Ireland has a voice in the EU. I always say I'm pro-Palestinian - nothing would give me greater pleasure than the Palestinians living in peace with Israel."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive