South-East London may not be a hotbed of Jewish life. But nestled behind a gated car park close to a busy main road is the home of an active community serving 250 families.
The Catford and Bromley United Synagogue building is weathered in appearance, its paintwork chipped. However, congregants gathered mostly for the weekly friendship club insist that the spirit within is more important.
Looking forward to a three-course lunch, Benita Dent, 83, a Catford member for 55 years, highlights the lavishness of its kiddushim.
“I have been to at least four kiddushim in north London and got nothing to eat, including at my nephew’s barmitzvah,” she says. “Here, nobody goes away hungry.”
There are three dozen people at the shul to celebrate the 96th birthday of Marie Blumenfeld, who can remember the first building of the congregation, which is now in its 80th year.
“Fifty-three Catford Hill,” she recalls nostalgically. To her, the shul is more than a community. “It is my extended family.
“I don’t know what loneliness is. I love everybody here and I am a bit naughty because I kiss all the men.
“Since my birthday I have had a visit from someone in the community every day. My dining table is covered in flowers.”
She squeals with excitement as two police officers in uniform pop in to extend birthday greetings.
Although the shul is hugely supportive of its elderly members, leaders are conscious of the need to attract younger families and are heartened by the rising numbers in the cheder, currently educating 35 children.
Joe Burchell, the Catford and Bromley chairman, believes lower property prices are keeping young families in the area — and are making it more attractive to others.
“Many parents who follow their children to north London keep their Catford contacts,” he notes. “Some even return because they don’t like the north London environment.
“We really are part of the local community. They know us and they know our members.”
Mrs Dent dismisses the notion that it is hard to maintain a Jewish lifestyle in south London.
“The shops round here are great. Waitrose do kosher stuff and I organise a Sunday delivery of meat and poultry from north London.”
Leila Power, 88, and husband Gerry 91, have been members for 50 years.
Mrs Power says the couple have periodically considered moving to north London. But they would miss Catford’s communal spirit.
“I’d put up with the inconvenience of not having that many [kosher shopping options] for the sense of family we have.”
Dorothea Lipton, 75, relates that one woman spends up to two hours travelling from west London to attend the friendship club lunch “because she likes the atmosphere so much.
“Everybody is warm and welcoming. There is no cliquishness. I look forward to a Tuesday with real anticipation because I know I’ll have people to talk to.
“When the children are married and gone away, you find yourself isolated. But if you have a place like this to come to, it means everything.”
Rev David Rome says he felt he was “coming home” when he joined the synagogue as minister in 2012 — his grandfather Rabbi Judah Rockman served Catford and Bromley for more than 40 years.
“We are very diverse,” he says. “I try to keep everyone happy, both religiously and socially, even if it does not always work.”
Good relations are maintained with other local faith groups. School parties are hosted almost every week and the police and Lewisham Council also use the venue for events.
The building adjacent to the shul has a mezuzah on its door. It houses the Ravensbourne Project, a non-Jewish respite home for children with severe special needs, of which Mr Burchell is director.
“On occasions the children use our forecourt for safe play — and sometimes they use our youth club,” he explains.
“We help with fundraising and generally look out for each other.”
Henrii Webb, Ravensbourne’s chairman of trustees, says: “Joe has been great for us. He can get people to give in a way no one else can.
“It is really nice having the shul next door to us because it feels safe.
“We look out for them and they look out for us. We are a great community.”