Glasgow: Hopes are high despite declining population

We find a community trying to adapt to diminishing members


Cosgrove Care, supporting those with learning disability and mental health issues, is one of a variety of organisations providing welfare, social and cultural activities for the Glasgow Jewish community.

But only around 30 of its 120 clients are Jewish. "We suffer from a reduced community," admits the charity's treasurer, Paul Shafar. "We could not operate just serving Jewish clients."

The Cosgrove offices are on the same site as the Maccabi building, where a refurbished lounge for teenagers stands largely unused and the hire of facilities such as its impressive sports hall by non-Jewish groups is crucial to its survival. "Without non-Jewish use or hire, we couldn't keep going," says operations manager Sue Faber.

According to the 2011 Scottish Census, the Glasgow Jewish population has shrunk to around 3,500 from its 1960s' heyday of more than 17,000. Jewish representative council president Paul Morron thinks the true figure exceeds 4,000, given that not all Census respondents acknowledged their religion and that there are many Israelis working or studying there.

Many of those who remain take a full role in communal life. Three hundred turned out on a Monday night in August to question Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on issues ranging from antisemitism and Middle East policy to local hospital provision.

Mr Morron also cites attendances of 500 and 300 at, respectively, JNF and Chabad events, as evidence of proportionally high involvement.

But this does not blind him to the fact that "the biggest issue we face is adjusting to the level of population". Maccabi's business model required a high level of non-Jewish usage. "But, because of that, we are able to sustain a Maccabi service with 200 members. We've just had a summer scheme with 100 kids. But it's different from what we would like. We need to invest more and more in people in our community, not in buildings which are not used sufficiently."

Organisations needed to work more closely together than in the past "and I think that is most acute in the welfare sector. I don't think we can continue to have an increasing number of non-Jewish residents and users without that eventually affecting the nature of the Jewish care itself." There are four organisations involved in Jewish welfare provision. "Can we afford four chief executives? Do we need four different backroom staffs?

"We need to have a model of operation which is not only rationalised but, perhaps, goes a stage further, because the core responsibility of these organisations is the welfare of the Jewish community, and it must be that which dictates the nature of the services."

Jewish Care Scotland - the community's biggest welfare provider - is looking to a more streamlined future with the appointment of its first part-time, and indeed non-Jewish, chief executive, Kevin Simpson.

His involvement in a Scottish charity committed to establishing sustainable businesses in Malawi puts him a breed apart from the average Jewish charity CEO. He had been seeking a "rewarding, stimulating challenge". Given the picture painted by Jewish Care Scotland chair George Hecht, he has undoubtedly found himself a challenging role.

As the title implies, the charity serves Jews throughout the country, including those in remote areas. It deals with around 500 cases annually across the welfare spectrum. Among the problems it faces is a growing demand from those living in poverty.

"We have a food bank feeding 25 people a week," Mr Hecht reports. "We also give emergency grants. If it wasn't for Jewish Care, people would be out on the street. And I believe there are many more who have not come forward."

In recent years, the charity has been forced to make cuts to the point where "there is nothing else to trim", says Mr Simpson. "If we make further cuts, it will impact on services. And, like everyone else, we are working to keep people out of residential care." Its financial situation would be parlous without its "unique partnership" with East Renfrewshire Council, which has four social workers embedded with the Jewish Care Scotland operation.

East Renfrewshire is also the only one of the 32 Scottish councils which funds its work. But Mr Hecht says the board takes the view that wherever clients are in Scotland, "we should look after them". Mr Simpson's arrival had seen renewed emphasis on fundraising and there is also talk of rebranding. Mr Hecht says "we are not getting our share from Jewish charitable trusts", which may be down to the erroneous assumption that the charity is connected to Jewish Care in London.

Shul-wise, Glasgow sustains five congregations, six if including Lubavitch, after two closures over the past decade or so. Mr Morron thinks other shuls may be forced into extinction in the longer term. For now, he is heartened by the improved relationship between the city's largest congregation, Giffnock and Newlands, and Newton Mearns, whose respective rabbis, Moshe Rubin and Eli Wolfson, share a table with Reform shul lay leaders Karen Kaye and Eileen Carroll to discuss how the community is faring.

Giffnock and Newlands has 850 members and its building houses offices of a number of communal charities. Newton Mearns's membership is 420 and growing and the Reform congregation exceeds 200. "Glasgow Jewish religious life is waking up and Jewish life can start from shul," Rabbi Wolfson says. Rabbi Rubin, Scotland's senior minister, cites a popular mums and toddlers club as an example of renewal. The Reform leaders talk of the positive impact made by their part-time rabbi, Kate Briggs.

It emerges that enhanced links between Giffnock and Newlands and Newton Mearns have extended to a football friendly refereed by the Scottish Football Association-qualified Mr Morron, who has officiated at age group internationals. The clash of the shuls ended in a diplomatic 5-5 draw, with no complaints when Mr Morron blew the full-time whistle early.

A Lubavitch-run restaurant also operates at the Giffnock site, but the biggest kosher dining buzz is at the café at Mark's Deli, which has been rebuilt after a fire. It is full to bursting on a weekday lunchtime, serving equally as an informal communal meeting place.

Further facilities will arise from the pioneering scheme to relocate Scotland's one Jewish school, Calderwood Lodge Primary, into the heart of the Jewish population in a joint campus with a Catholic school in Newton Mearns. The new site will open in 2017 and Jewish pupils at the nearby Mearns Castle High can pop in for a kosher lunch.

Calderwood head Marion Johnson, who formerly presided over a Catholic school, appreciates the "faith dimension. It's a different faith here but the values underpinned are the same."

Around half the 150 pupils - and the 60 in the nursery - are Jewish, but Ms Johnson says that the non-Jewish parents respect the Jewish ethos. No one asks for their child to be removed from religious observance or the Ivrit classes. Muslim children account for 30 per cent of the school population.

Calderwood's Jewish intake has been high in recent years and Rabbi Rubin, the school chaplain, recounts a call from a parent warning that the family were considering leaving Glasgow because they could not get their child into the school.

"The news from Calderwood has been very positive," Mr Morron stresses. "It's an important selling-point for those who want to come here - and for those who are here [it is an incentive] to stay within the Jewish community."

Rising tuition fees in England have also persuaded some Glaswegians to opt for a Scottish university, where tuition is free for Scots. "It has been a really strong trend," Mr Morron notes. There is an engaged local chaplaincy board - Glasgow claims to spend more than any other community on Jewish chaplaincy - and the current chaplain, Rabbi Yossi Bodenheim, says that 200 students in Glasgow, Edinburgh and beyond are regularly involved. As on other campuses, there have been issues with anti-Israel elements and, when the problems persist, leaders meet university officials to try to calm things down. "I can say to a student: 'You have 5,000 Jews behind you'," the rabbi points out.

The community has faced increased antisemitism since the Gaza conflict last year, with 25 arrests resulting in eight convictions. The rep council has a strong relationship with the police and the Procurator Fiscal service. Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland, the chief prosecutor in Scotland, has taken a particular interest in hate crime.

Political interest was evident in the turnout and questions raised in the meetings with Ms Sturgeon - the Jewish community is broadly against Scottish Independence - and the former Glasgow City Council leader Gordon Matheson. It was under Mr Matheson's watch that the Palestinian flag was raised over the city chambers, prompting an unprecedented outcry.

"It certainly helped to activate people," Mr Morron says. "Over 1,000 complained, from pauper to millionaire." Relations with the council have been rebuilt and it has since "intervened on our behalf, and on behalf of the Israeli community, time and time again".

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