Radlett's village people are prospering in harmony

Radlett is viewed as a model for Jewish life. But will the young generation remain in the Hertfordshire suburb?


Alighting at Radlett station on a quiet Thursday afternoon, it feels as if you’ve entered Little Whinging — the home of Harry Potter’s relations, the Dursleys — which JK Rowling created to represent a typical commuter belt community. 

But your average commuter belt community does not feature two synagogues on its high street, a kosher butcher and two kosher-style delis.

Almost a third of the Radlett population identifies as Jewish — more than 2,200 in total — after migration to the Hertfordshire suburb, mainly from north-west London, from the mid-1990s into the new century. Radlett Reform’s Rabbi Paul Freedman sees it as a model for Anglo-Jewish life.

“There are good schools around here — my boys go to Yavneh,” says local florist Danielle Halmer. “And the United shul is right in our back garden. Everyone is just really, really friendly. Everyone looks out for each other.”

Mrs Halmer works with her friend, Sara Taylor — another Radlett United member — outside the Thameslink station on Thursdays and Fridays.

At just over 30 minutes by train from St Pancras, it is easily commutable and both the US and Reform congregations have their fair share of doctors, lawyers and accountants.

Shopping at Yummies deli on the high street, Angela Sear says her move from Pinner was inspired by Radlett’s  schools, transport links and “lovely, caring community feeling.

“This is the best place. It has the best schools, right on your doorstep. But the most important thing is the people.”

British-Israeli Jael Lynn, 73, was a pioneer, taking up residence almost a half-century ago, when the two synagogues were “tiny congregations”. Today their joint membership exceeds 3,500, reflecting the numbers residing outside its borders.

“We used to live in Hampstead and in Finchley,” Mrs Lynn recalls. “Back then we looked around and found a house we really liked. And it’s such a beautiful place.

“We never looked for a Jewish area. This was just considered to be a good area to live and close to where we needed to be for work. But Radlett has become very Jewish in the past few years.”

Jews make up the second-largest ethnic group in the village, accounting for 28 per cent of the population — it is 20 per cent in Bushey and 15 per cent in Borehamwood. And in St Albans, Hatfield and Hemel Hempstead, the figure is less than one per cent.

However, Radlett regularly features in lists of Britain’s most expensive places  to live and many of the younger generation will be priced out of remaining, suggests Stephen Grossman, who owns Silvermans kosher butcher’s.

“The Jewish population here grew dramatically between 1996 and 2008 [when] house prices weren’t too high. But the community has not accelerated in its growth for several years now,” he reports. 

“A lot of this is down to rising house prices, making Radlett a less affordable destination for young people. 

“It’s similar to the phenomenal growth Pinner and surrounding areas had in the 80s and 90s. But the children who grew up there moved on and don’t reconnect with the area.”

According to real estate specialist Rightmove, most house sales in Radlett in 2016 were of detached properties, fetching an average £1,568,081. 

Semi-detached properties sold for an average £905,929 and flats fetched an average £409,553. The overall property average was £1,153,202. 

Mr Grossman believes the young generation will move into London, “or out to St Albans or beyond.

“This is because Jewish people tend to migrate to an area with people in the same contemporary age group, as demonstrated by the rise of young couples in Borehamwood and Elstree.

“I don’t know where the next area will be but the United Synagogue is talking about exploring Hatfield as an option.Young people just like to feel like they’ve got a new area for themselves.”

At the other end of the age spectrum, there might be another exodus because of a lack of retirement or care homes.

“We have seen some of the community sizing down and moving to Bushey.”

Rabbi Jonathan Hughes has been 20 months at Radlett United, to which 1,200 people from 663 households belong.

His was not a typical route to the rabbinate, having come from a secular background and represented Reading and Swindon Town at youth football level before a spiritual awakening during his law studies.

After 10 years in Israel, his first “solo pulpit” job was with the small Richmond congregation in west London, where he was a popular minister.

He does not come across as a traditional US rabbi, speaking in a direct fashion, illustrating points with footballing analogies and sharing anecdotes about his favourite pub in Reading.

Locals say he is well-suited to Radlett, where the Orthodox are “less overt” in their Judaism, as Rabbi Hughes put it. He also enjoys cordial relations with Reform’s Rabbi Freedman.

“I’m just a bloke from Reading,” he says. “I think people can relax with me. My congregants are traditional rather than strictly observant.

“But they have a respect for Judaism and Jewish values and they are in touch with their heritage. They’re proud of being Jewish and they want contact with Jewish spirituality.”

Rabbi Hughes sees his greatest challenge as creating programmes which make Judaism more accessible.

One example is “Schmooze with Hughes”, where he visits the home of a congregant for a weekday dinner — “usually sushi” — and engages with his hosts on a range of subjects, from Brexit to Donald Trump.

“Sometimes the synagogue is not the centre of Jewish life. I’d like to make this into a thriving, dynamic, engaged, learning, aspirational community who are more informed, more able to express their Jewish identity — and to hand this jewel onto the next generation.”

Membership at the Reform shul is almost double that of the Orthodox congregation.

Rabbi Freedman refers to it as a regional hub of the movement, with shul-goers drawn from a wide radius.

“We could have called ourselves South Hertfordshire Reform Synagogue — in fact, we used to be Radlett and Bushey Reform because we were born in Bushey. We’re now just Radlett Reform to recognise the fact the synagogue is in Radlett.

“If it was still Radlett and Bushey, why wouldn’t it be ‘and Hemel, Shenley and Borehamwood?’. We recognise the building is here but we are all these other communities, too.”

His goal is to ensure members feel they are part of a “small community within a big community”.

In his 13th year with the congregation, he has seen children from his first baby blessings grow to bar and batmitzvah age. His own 15-year-old twins are youth leaders at the shul.

“There are those moments where you suddenly think: ‘Wow, I’ve been here for a while’,” he says smiling. 

“My 15-year-olds were two-year-olds crawling around the synagogue when we arrived here. They have grown up here and there’s something magical about that.”

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