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High school raises hopes for stability in the longer term

A youth campus is a key component of the Leeds Jewish community's efforts to retain families

    Seven years ago, Susie Gordon was appointed by Leeds Jewish Representative Council to take charge of community development, ostensibly to attract new blood.

    Today the rep council’s executive director, Mrs Gordon focuses less on population stats — though she is obviously not averse to some fresh arrivals — and more on quality of services and life.

    For the numbers are now taking care of themselves, particularly since the addition of a Jewish high school in 2013 and the success of its adjacent youth club, The Zone, on a campus also housing the long-running Brodetsky Primary.

    It has engendered a level of genuine optimism about the future, rare in a regional community and one expounded with quiet assertiveness by the rep council president, Laurence Saffer.

    The 2011 Census suggests a Jewish population of 7,000 in the city. Given that many respondents do not identify their religion —and based on the healthy membership of the four main Leeds shuls (three Orthodox, one Reform) — he believes the true number could be as high as 10,000. But he is happy to work with Leeds City Council’s estimate of 8,500.

    Although the vast majority are concentrated within a two-mile radius in Alwoodley and Moortown, Mr Saffer says there are Jewish residents in all 33 wards of the city council.

    Leeds born and bred, the 55-year-old immigration judge has seen the community experience some difficult times. He now feels that economic factors, coupled with the progress of Leeds Jewish Free School, has stemmed the haemorrhaging of population to larger Jewish centres. His own two children, who are in their early 20s, have both committed to staying in the city and Raina Sheaf, the dynamic CEO of The Zone, says her similarly aged offspring also intend to remain in Leeds.

    “They wouldn’t consider going,” she insists. “They like the tranquility, the great Jewish community, the fantastic non-Jewish community.”

    Add an impressive welfare set-up and the local kosher dining and shopping options, “the only thing we are missing is an eruv”, Mr Saffer suggests. “But we are working on it.”

    We are speaking in one of the two cafés (milk and meat) at the other major communal hub, the Maz — or the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Community Centre, to give it the full title — where he has just polished off a generous portion of the house cherry pie.

    As well as the rep council, the Maz is home to cultural provider Makor, Leeds Jewish Welfare Board and Leeds Jewish Housing Association, whose 13-acre empire of mixed properties sprawls eye-catchingly into the distance.

    “One of our strengths is that we are geographically compact,” Mr Saffer explains. “Parochiality does not really exist like elsewhere because we see each other regularly.

    “Each Wizo group will comprise women from the four main shuls. If one shul is having an event, people from others will go. A president of an Orthodox shul would go to an event at Reform.”

    Efforts have been made to ensure the community is truly inclusive.

    Mr Saffer cites the example of the rep council helping to set up a group for local gay and lesbian Jews “who maybe didn’t feel welcome. They now take a full role in the community and feel more comfortable doing so.”

    There is a local tradition of synagogue loyalty and I am later told by Rabbi Jason Kleiman of the Beth Hamidrash Hagadol congregation —“a Leeds boy who came back” — that people will join the shul their parents belonged to, even if their preference is to attend services at other congregations.

    BHH has 900 family units, accounting for 1,700 people, and Mr Saffer calculates that the city’s shul population is 7,000, a hearteningly high proportion of the community. From that base, a core of 150 form a strong and cohesive leadership.

    On an average Shabbat morning, Mr Saffer would expect a total of 600 people at the big four congregations, although the davening options can be as high as nine as there are four other regular Orthodox groups and Masorti holds occasional services. His estimate of the pool of regular shul-goers is 1,200.

    The challenge is to “get more people into shul and then percolate them out into the community”.

    Its diversity in economic terms is evidenced by the fact that the Jewish housing association has 800 people in its accommodation — around one-in-10 of Leeds Jewry. Committed to offering sustainable community housing, it administers close-on 500 properties with a mixture of shared ownership and housing for single people, families and the elderly in attractively verdant areas around the LS17 postcode. The housing is split almost equally between sheltered and general needs.

    Established in the 1950s, its development is testimony to the foresight and philanthropy of Leeds Jewry. Showing me around a selection of the properties, Lee Bloomfield and Craig Simons, respectively chief executive and director of operations, explain that some tenants have spent their entire lives in LJHA housing. The current oldest tenant is a 103-year-old, who was more than a little put out that her birthday fell on the day of the general election.

    “They want a Jewish ethos — to be living in a familiar environment,” Mr Bloomfield says. Great store is placed on meeting religious and cultural sensitivities and all communal areas are kosher.

    Mr Simons promotes the quality of facilities with the zeal of a commission-hungry estate agent. He says those housed by LJHA in their later years enjoy a new lease of life. “They are reunited with people they went to school with.”

    A sizeable proportion of tenants are on some form of benefits. “There is a housing need and a financial need,” Mr Bloomfield says. “Income in this area is not the highest.”

    It is a view echoed at the welfare board, where chief executive Liz Bradbury says: “We try to challenge the perception that all Jews are wealthy. We have people who come in because they need food.”

    Adds Tracey Bickler, its community engagement and inclusion manager: “Everyone knows about us but might not know what we do.” Well for starters, LJWB runs homes for those with learning disabilities, offers domiciliary support for adults of all ages, arranges wide-ranging educational and well-being activities, assists children with special needs and operates a helpline.

    On a busy day, it can touch the lives of 750 people. “We are not a crisis charity — we are here to prevent crises,” stresses Meirav Sasson. “Our results show that we do. We are the safety net.” Her brief is income generation and in times of slashed statutory support, the charity relies heavily on communal backing, needing to generate £700,000 annually from donors and fundraisers to complete its budget.

    Ms Bradbury says LJWB has worked hard on increasing efficiency, cutting back office costs to put the maximum into services. It pays “over and above” the going rate to attract quality care staff and Ms Bradbury fervently hopes Brexit will not hasten the departure of EU employees. “The care system would collapse if they couldn’t stay.”

    One key local personality who is leaving is Or Nehushtan, who is returning to Israel after four years as community shaliach. The emissary recalls that when Leeds was among the posting options he was given by the Jewish Agency, his knowledge of the city was confined to its footballing heritage and the glory days of Don Revie’s team.

    Told by the Jewish Agency that it wanted other communities to be like Leeds, his assumption was he was being sold an unwanted assignment.

    “I know now that Leeds has so many things that make my colleagues envious,” he says. “This community doesn’t doubt the need for a shaliach. Because of what the community allows me to do, I’ve been able to do so much.”

    Mr Nehushtan has been based at Makor, whose leaders speak of a keen appetite for its food, film, Israel-oriented entertainment and other cultural events.

    “We can turn on a sixpence,” says Makor’s Helen Frais. “When we got Simon Schama at short notice, there were 400 people in a building supposed to hold 300.”

    Makor chair Stanley Cundle adds: “We have been told we are unique. It’s not by accident. We think outside the box. We work outside the box.”

    His ideal “is to give kids a Jewish identity to take on through life”. And The Zone and the schools are undoubtedly playing their part. It is late afternoon on the youth and education campus and the school’s outdoor sports facilities are being used by members of The Zone. “They are ours after 3.30,” Mrs Sheaf explains.

    Trade is brisk at the venue’s café, boosted by some mums arriving early for the Thursday night women’s netball session. The café also opens on Sunday to cater for the Maccabi sports crowd, an example of the co-operative spirit that pervades the enterprise — the buildings are also used by JLGB, FZY, Habonim and Leeds Jewish Orthodox Youth. “We’ve found a way to work with everyone,” Mrs Sheaf says. It is one reason The Zone is thriving when other youth centres have closed or downsized.

    High school students have the option of having their lunch at the café. There are post-school activities for Brodetsky children and their parents. Older pupils can come in to chill out straight from school, pursue Duke of Edinburgh Award activities or take advantage of The Zone’s studio to make music or videos with operations manager Simon Harris.

    The infectiously engaged CEO — who grew up in Leeds and has lived in Israel — likens it to a kibbutz. “We are bringing up kids with a sense of community.” Those who go on to university come back to volunteer during the holidays. The centre has even created its own cheder, educating in a modern way through methods such as dancing, singing and YouTube. Moving to the school site had felt like “going from a corner shop to a hypermarket”.

    Another feature is a youth support service helping those with academic issues or physical or mental health problems.

    It has dealt with cases of young people made homeless after family breakdown. More recently, it has provided counselling for Jewish and non-Jewish friends of a local girl who died in the Manchester Arena terror attack. “We’ve also worked with with ultra religious children — for example, a girl who was scared about getting married as she knew nothing about sex.”

    The following morning, the campus is in school mode as Susy Jagger, who heads Brodetsky and Leeds Jewish Free School, talks excitedly of the progress made by both the primary and secondary branches.

    Nearly 400 young people are currently educated on the site, with more than 300 at Brodetsky, including the nursery.

    From small and concerning beginnings — fewer than 10 pupils when it opened in 2013 — the high school has grown to a roll of 85, which will build to a capacity of 110. The next academic year will see its first GCSE cohort.

    Ninety per cent of the primary children are Jewish. The ratio in the high school is 50/50 and Mrs Jagger is impressed by “the amazing respect they show each other”.

    Mrs Jagger, a non-Jew, is taking Ivrit lessons and expresses genuine regret the JC cannot stay until the afternoon to witness the kabbalat Shabbat service in the primary school: “The children sing at the top of their voices and the staff are so enthusiastic.”

    She is equally proud of the commitment and world view of the high school pupils. “Look at their Snapchat pages. They are not about dresses but about Donald Trump.”

    For Rabbi Kleiman, the schools’ chaplain, the development of the campus is a reflection “of a lot of joined-up thinking within the community — and not just from an educational point of view”.

    The establishment of the high school has also been a major factor behind a small number of new arrivals, among them families from Birmingham and Newcastle.

    Can the community bring others in? Mrs Gordon reflects that “once you have children, your life changes and you want to have family around you”.

    With three-bed semis in the Jewish areas going for £200,000 and four-bed detached properties on the market for £400,000, younger people who have married and left the city might be persuaded to return to the fold.

    “But unless someone has a connection to Leeds, it is a hard sell to move someone away from their network.”

    For her, the future hinges on “providing a bit of love to make those who are moderately engaged become fully engaged”.

    Agreeing with the sentiment, Mr Saffer reasons: “If you’ve got a light that’s not very bright, not many moths will be attracted to it.

    “If you have a bright light, moths will be attracted.

    “What we have to do is to get young people to invest in the community.”

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