When Professor Joe Goldblatt was offered the opportunity to relocate from America to Edinburgh 10 years ago to take up a post at Queen Margaret University, his wife had three questions.
“Can we afford a home? Can we bring the dog? And are there any Jews?” After some assiduous internet research, he found enough encouragement in each case to make the move and their son followed, and married a Scot. Professor Goldblatt is now the proud grandfather of Hamish.
So comfortable in the tartan universe is the 65-year-old that he asks for his tea in the plush Balmoral Hotel in Princes Street to be accompanied by “loads of shortbread”.
Married to a convert, he is equally at home within the local Liberal congregation, Sukkat Shalom, but says the dearth of religious involvement within both his own shul and the Orthodox Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation is a serious concern.“We have so few engaged Jews and it’s getting worse,” he observes. “All religions have a footfall problem. Young people don’t need a building to pray in.”
Including children, both shuls in total account for fewer than 300 people, despite Census figures and anecdotal evidence pointing to a local Jewish population as high as 2,000.
When Edinburgh Jewish Dialogue was established a few years back to consider options for Jewish life in the city, Professor Goldblatt was among the founders with Jane Ansell and Janet Mundy.
Assisted by a grant from the Big Lottery Fund, EJD commissioned educator and consultant Clive Lawton to carry out research among the wider Jewish community. His findings — communicated to a packed meeting in May 2016 — favoured a Jewish cultural centre as a unifying space which would bring in many of the unaffiliated.
The principle has been enthusiastically accepted by all shades of the community — there is also a Chabad and a popular literary society — and this year’s bicentenary of Edinburgh Jewry culminated in a meeting at the city chambers where the project was personally endorsed by the Lord Provost and the city council leader.
Those previously uninvolved in Jewish life have been energised by the scheme, none more so than Adrian Harris, the EJD chair. Formerly chief executive of top Edinburgh music venue The Queen’s Hall, Mr Harris was raised in Hackney, where his parents ran a pub. “They were real north London Jews,” he recalls, “going to shul three times a year”.
Active in Habonim in his youth, “I always saw myself as strongly Jewish. But that was easy to say at the time, living in a large community. It was only when I started work in the cultural sector that it got harder.”
The Queen’s Hall job was his second major arts post in Edinburgh. Yet before hearing about EJD, his contact with the Jewish community had been restricted to sporadic visits to the literary society.
“EJD brought in people like me — culturally Jewish but not involved in Jewish life. I thought my expertise would be useful.”
A “surprising number” of professional people Mr Harris has consulted about the project have said to him: “Do you know I’m Jewish?” He did not — and vice-versa.
He adds that “one of the driving forces is about making Jewish culture accessible to the city. There will be a philosophical and commercial need to attract other locals and tourists,” hence the importance of identifying a central site.
But location is proving a divisive issue. Professor Goldblatt is adamant that a new building is required. Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation chair John Danzig wants the centre to be within his own shul’s property.Mr Danzig, a financial adviser, is another north Londoner who has found contentment in the Scottish capital, where his three adult sons were born. “My wife is from Glasgow though we met in London,” he explains. “We had always loved Edinburgh, a lovely villagey place.”
He says he took on the shul’s chairmanship with the remit of trebling membership — currently around 150 — in five years and also wants to work towards increasing kosher facilities in the city. “We have been underselling ourselves for a generation,” he says of EHC. “There was a tide of people dying off. We have a demographic imperative to find new people. Four couples have recently expressed interest in joining.
“By raising the profile of Jewish Scotland, we all win. We have to market ourselves locally, nationally and internationally. You maximise respect if you don’t hide your light under a bushel.”
Mr Danzig acknowledges that “a Scottish Jewish cultural centre would be good for all Jewish communities. But there’s a whole range of complex aspects to consider.”
He describes EHC’s membership — and board — as divided over the need for a new site, which Mr Harris says would incorporate a dedicated space for EHC, a flexible space for the Liberal congregation, a 300-capacity performance area, study rooms, a commercial nursery and a kosher restaurant and bar.
Mr Danzig contends “that it would make a huge amount of sense to develop our shul. We have considerable plans to develop cultural activities which overlap what they want to do.
“To say the panacea is a new centre when we have such a fine building is nonsense. It worries me that if it goes ahead as a separate building, it might split the community. We have a mikveh in our shul. There are no plans for one in the cultural centre.”
For the Liberal community, a cultural centre represents the possibility of a permanent base after a peripatetic existence.As a former chief brewer for Heineken, its chairman, Nick Silk, would drink to the prospect “of somewhere we could call home and not have to shlep books around for the High Holy-Days. Our long-term goal would be a full-time rabbi and a place of our own.” Rabbi Mark Solomon currently travels from London to assist the community on a part-time basis, evidence of the support it receives from Liberal Judaism.
Sukkat Shalom draws its membership from a wide area and Mr Silk highlights the commitment of Dan and Lorraine Hershon, who make a 200-mile round trip from Carlisle every fortnight to run its cheder. “In a small community, you feel guilty if you don’t turn up to events.” Indeed, his mild concern about a space in the cultural centre is that should it lead to a sudden influx of members, the spirit of the congregation might be damaged.
That Mr Silk and Mr Danzig are sitting down together with the JC is an example of the co-operation they are eager to foster between their communities, best shown through Mitzvah Day activities and Burns Night celebrations.
Ms Mundy — the daughter of Finchley Progressive Synagogue founders but a long-time EHC congregant — says the dialogue group has given those from all shades of Judaism, and none, a forum where they can feel comfortable expressing their opinions.
“The whole point about dialogue is that it is passionate — and people are passionate that Edinburgh Jewry has a future. There are people who are resistant to change but then there always are.”
She appreciates the sentiment of those who want the cultural centre to be on the EHC site. “I have great affection for the building — it has lovely stained glass windows. But it’s a listed building and expensive to maintain.
“Bringing in new people is one of the key things [about the cultural centre]. Its core will be Jewish but there is no religious test. From my generation, there’s a lot of women whose partners are not Jewish. My two adult children don’t set foot in shul but want a way to express themselves.”
Whatever the final decision on venue, the best case scenario is for the cultural centre to open in late 2021. If it is to be on a new site, Professor Goldblatt anticipates an outlay of £6 million, £2 million of which would be an endowment, “as we want to ensure there is capital from day one”.
The first fundraising challenge is to find a lead donor and Mr Harris says there have been “informal meetings in London to identify members of the Scottish Jewish diaspora who might be prepared to come on board”. The donor search will be extended to major Jewish centres beyond the UK. The goal is to find both the site and key benefactor by the end of next year, “so we can move on to the next level of donors”.
Professor Goldblatt adds that the support of civic chiefs reflects a view that the centre would enhance cultural provision in “one of the best-loved cities in the world”. Family reasons also drive his infectious enthusiasm for the project. His daughter-in-law, and thus grandson, are not Jewish. “One day Hamish is going to ask about Judaism and I want to be able to walk him into the cultural centre to help explain.”