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Living in a small commmunity: Chatham - The 800 mile commuter

    The Grade II-listed Chatham Memorial Synagogue exterior
    The Grade II-listed Chatham Memorial Synagogue exterior

    It is not unusual for a small community to have a wide catchment area. But it is doubtful whether any can match the monthly 800 mile-plus round trip that Chatham Memorial Synagogue events co-ordinator Jo Freeman makes from Scotland to Kent to run the social events that follow the monthly Shabbat service.

    Mrs Freeman, who is in her 60s, moved to Scotland in 1994 but remains emotionally attached to the Grade II-listed synagogue in Rochester. And having two daughters living in the area means that accommodation is not an issue when she visits.

    "I feel I am in a unique position because both my great-grandfathers were associated with the synagogue," she explains. Her paternal great-grandfather was president for 40 years; her maternal great-grandfather - glassmaker Max Goldstein - has a stained-glass window dedicated to him. Her daughters and cousins remain active in a congregation of barely 50 souls.

    LISTEN: What it's like to live in a small community

    Chatham can trace its Jewish history back to the 11th century. The synagogue was constructed in 1865 and there is a cemetery and disused mikveh on site.

    "I find it frustrating that we have a magnificent building but it's hardly ever used," Mrs Freeman says. "Most of the people who see it are those on school visits, which happen almost every week."

    Numbers-wise, the community peaked in the 1960s when there were 100 families. Then there was even a local kosher butcher - kosher food is now ordered from Ocado. Declining membership and "a beautiful building that needs repairs" are a recipe for concern.

    "It is very difficult to attract other people to small communities, and we don't get much publicity. But we do all these social activities to get people to come along. In a way we're quite successful."

    Young Chatham congregants
    Young Chatham congregants

    As well as the monthly Shabbat morning gatherings, Chatham hosts weekly Friday night services. Without the money for a rabbi, services are led by congregants. For the festivals, up to 50 people attend.

    Although Chatham is independent, services are traditionally Orthodox.

    Mrs Freeman is proud of the community's outreach work. Beyond the school visitors, the shul maintains good relationships with interfaith groups and hosted a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony this year.

    Getting teenagers involved is one of the biggest challenges. Chatham has seven young families, but no cheder. A community member teaches barmitzvah classes.

    For repairs, the shul applies for Lottery funding and other heritage grants. It is getting by on minimal maintenance, but major work is required to the roof and kitchen.

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