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Brum role depends on recruitment policy

Its shuls are exploiting commercial opportunities. But they also have to address falling numbers

    The restored interior of the Grade II* listed Singers Hill Synagogue
    The restored interior of the Grade II* listed Singers Hill Synagogue

    There is not a space to be had in the car park of Birmingham's main Orthodox synagogue, Singers Hill. But the vehicles are not those of shul-goers. They belong to commercial parkers, taking advantage of the city centre location. Their fees earn Singers Hill "the thick end of £100,000 a year", says president, Keith Rowe, which is crucial to the shul's financial well-being.

    Generating income from outside sources also looms large in the thinking of the leadership of the Edgbaston-based Central Synagogue, where new chairman David Korn touts its suitability as a venue for government conferences. Here, the Thursday lunchtime parking reflects a brisk trade in the Central's deli, the only serious option for kosher shopping in the city and another revenue stream for the shul.

    Financial concerns could have lessened had moves towards a merger between Singers Hill and Central not foundered 12 years ago after the Singers Hill "yes" vote fell 0.4 per cent short of the constitutionally required 65 per cent. The then Central president, Leonard Jacobs, told the JC at the time that it was a missed opportunity which might never again present itself.

    "Of course it would have been better to have one Orthodox congregation," Mr Rowe reflects. "But everyone wanted that one place to be their one place."

    Mr Korn says that his community voted overwhelmingly in favour of amalgamation. But it was now water under the bridge, particularly as three years ago, Central moved into more intimate premises in its redeveloped former community hall, having sold the old synagogue. "Sooner or later there will probably be one shul but at the moment it is not a discussion point."

    Rochel and Rabbi Yossi Jacobs
    Rochel and Rabbi Yossi Jacobs

    Singers Hill, meanwhile, is looking to the future under the energetic spirtual leadership of Rabbi Yossi and Rochel Jacobs in its Grade II* listed "cathedral" synagogue, an easy walk from New Street Station, if not from the homes of many of its 500 members, including 50 youngsters. Rabbi Jacobs argues that stabilising membership in a regional synagogue is akin to growing a congregation in north London or the Hertfordshire suburbs. Forty-five new members were recruited last year, against an annual average of around 30 funerals. The simchah count for 2016 comes out neatly at five barmitzvahs, five batmitzvahs and five weddings.

    Giving the grand tour, Mr Rowe points out his favourite vantage point from the top floor gallery, a view no longer afforded to congregants as the ladies' section was moved downstairs, reflecting the gradual drop in numbers since the shul's wartime heyday. Attendances are 50-60 on Shabbat, rising to up to 350 on Yom Kippur.

    A celebration was held recently to mark the rabbi's 10th anniversary at the shul but a plaque in the boardroom - with its wall-to-wall portraits and tributes to past leaders - suggests that he is a mere stripling. The shul has had just 11 chief ministers since 1785.

    Another plaque records the presidency during the 1930s of Otto Deutsch, founder of Odeon cinemas in the UK (Odeon stands for Otto Deutsch entertains our nation). Mr Rowe's lesser claim to fame is being a Ukip candidate and congregants are not averse to starting up a political conversation on Shabbat.

    In the synagogue itself, a school group of mostly Muslim children is being shown around - 6,000 pupils visit every year. A £90,000 restoration project funded by members has improved its appearance. "What better way to focus on the future than ensuring the shul is welcoming and warm," Rabbi Jacobs says.

    "But we refurbished the activities of the shul first," Mr Rowe interjects and the latest Singers Hill events brochure certainly suggests a diversity of activities for all ages, from pre-school to "heavily subsidised" sightseeing trips to London (including a JC stop-off), Liverpool and St Annes.

    Having come to Singers Hill in their early 20s, the Jacobs feel they have grown with the community and the rebbetzin, a Los Angeles girl, says that "what is keeping me here is that we have invested so much in relationships. We'll look after someone even if they are not our member."

    In a bid to stand out from the crowd, Central appointed concert violinist Rabbi Dr Lior Kaminetsky, whose role incorporates the title of music co-ordinator, responsible for musical events within the shul and the wider community. "Music is the way to attract people," Mr Korn says. But in an ageing congregation, it is equally important to involve the younger generation. With its proximity to the residential Hillel, Central has a tradition of extending hospitality to students. "They all say how great we are and then they move away."

    The Hillel is a thriving centre of activity for a Jewish student community estimated at up to 900. Forty-one students can live in and as many as 300 attend Friday night events in the synagogue and library refurbished after fire damage. A wide list of Hillel offerings are reeled off by J-Soc president Daniel Clements, who hails from a local and Jewishly involved family. He says he will "probably not" remain in the city after his studies, with either Israel or America his likely destination. "It comes down to jobs and a Jewish social life."

    On the employment front, Jewish leaders are pinning their hopes on major additions to the city centre landscape such as HSBC's UK headquarters. Cheaper housing and a Jewish primary school, the King David, are other selling points. But spreading the word has been a problem.

    Ruth Jacobs, the no-nonsense president of the Representative Council of Birmingham and West Midlands Jewry, says that in an ideal world, funding could be found for a community development worker who would focus on promoting the area's attractions to those living elsewhere. For Jewish residents, a rep council initiative has been a weekly newsletter featuring details of events, services and matters of interest. It is emailed to 450 people, not all of them shul members. Emphasis is also being placed on activities such as gardening, literary and knitting groups which are not shul-based. And Mrs Jacobs sees the upcoming first Birmingham day Limmud as a means of showcasing Birmingham Jewish life.

    She says that the Jewish population, mostly centred in Edgbaston, has dropped from 3,000 15 years ago to around 2,000, the result of "a lot of deaths and a lot of moving away".

    Those who remain in the area are also served by a Solihull congregation. For the non-Orthodox, there is the Progressive synagogue, where the high end cappuccino machines are noticeably different from standard shul kitchen appliances. All becomes clear when Frank Maxwell, BPS's genial president, explains that they are manufactured by his company, Fracino.

    As honest as his first name, Mr Maxwell relates that "for some unknown reason, Birmingham is not the sort of place Jews are attracted to, or stay in". Although the shul can draw on people from a 30-mile radius, membership has fallen from 320 to 270 since the move to its current premises eight years ago. However, the dearth of weddings "is more an indication that people now don't bother to get married".

    BPS has tried to engage teenagers with leadership potential, to the point of giving them a full voice on synagogue issues - "if you don't motivate them you'll lose them. But if they go away go to university, there's always the risk that they'll not return."

    Along with the Hillel and the Birmingham Jewish Recorder, Mrs Jacobs's other jewel in the crown is the King David School, "a model for different faiths coming together". So it is apposite that a non-Jew, Steve Langford, has been head of the voluntary aided primary for 12 years and on the staff for 14. Mr Langford reports that there are 53 Jews among the current roll of 243. Seventy per cent of the children are Muslim.

    Yet the school is run along Orthodox lines, which the non-Jewish parents buy into. "Every child learns Ivrit and every boy has to wear a kippah for prayer or religious education lessons," Mr Langford explains. "Many of the Muslim families are observant and value a faith school for having a moral basis." They also approve of the conservative dress and kosher food.

    The Jewish intake has remained stable over the past few years, helped in no small measure by the promotional work of Rabbi Jacobs, its director of Jewish studies, who will have three of his children at KD from the September academic year. Singers Hill's Tiny Tots nursery is a feeder for the school.

    At the other end of the age spectrum, residential facility Andrew Cohen House is the centrepiece of the Birmingham Jewish Community Care complex. Around 50 of the 59 places are taken and while there are non-Jewish residents, Jews receive priority.

    It has not scored well with Care Quality Commission inspectors, rated "requires improvement" in all five categories of the last CQC report. The home's Christine Elliott admits that it had not kept up with regulatory issues such as care plans but believes things are now on a much sounder footing. Certainly, the rooms are bright and modern and there are some welcoming reminiscence areas for those with dementia.

    Contemplating the future, rep council vice-president Alan Blumenthal sees the failure of Singers Hill/Central merger as a positive in that it safeguards against complacency in the two shuls. Mrs Jacobs disagrees.

    "The majority of people here would say it was better that there was one Orthodox shul."

    Rabbi Jacobs maintains that "20 new young families would make all the difference. It would give us a huge impetus," particularly if their children were enrolled at King David.

    But if new people cannot be enticed to Birmingham, more of those remaining will need to take on leadership positions. "There is a deficit of 30s-50s prepared to get involved in communal work," Mrs Jacobs observes.

    And she concedes that as she gets older, she better appreciates the decision of those who move from Birmingham to be nearer families. Would she leave the Midlands for a major Jewish centre? "Here I'm a big fish in a little pond. The big pond scares me."

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