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Living in a small community: Norfolk is proving broad in its appeal in Norwich

We discover how regional congregations survive - and even prosper

    Rabbi Jordan
    Rabbi Jordan

    During his first two years in Norwich, Alan Joseph drove back to Edgware every fortnight so his son could continue his barmitzvah tuition. Five years on, his daughter is studying for her batmitzvah with the Norwich Liberal Jewish Community rabbi.

    Mr Joseph had been a regular at Edgware and District Reform Synagogue, having met his wife, Debbie, at the EDRS youth club. But in 2010 the couple decided they needed a "change of pace" and a change of career for Mr Joseph, whose job then involved a lot of time away from the family.

    "It was important that wherever we moved had a Jewish community," the 42-year-old recalls. But it was a big transition to go from a major Jewish area to a community with a membership shy of four dozen where a Shabbat service is a monthly event.

    The Josephs were impressed by the "group of dedicated people committed to the community", and have embraced the increased demands of small community life. Mr Joseph is in charge of security, and his children Ollie and Amy are involved in the Liberal youth group LJY Netzer. Their rabbi, Leah Jordan, is seconded from Liberal Judaism and although she generally only visits once a month, she provides weekly batmitzvah lessons to Amy via Skype.

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

    Norwich is over 100 miles from the nearest Jewish hub in London. And the 200 Jews in the area have a choice of two shuls, the original being Norwich Hebrew Congregation, which was founded in 1849.

    The Liberal community's membership has risen by 50 per cent over the past few years, which chair Annie Henriques attributes to the "dynamic" Rabbi Jordan, who started her monthly weekend visits in September 2013.

    Two-thirds of the membership attend the Shabbat services held in the Old Meeting House of the Congregationalist Church, a Grade I-listed building with a pretty garden courtyard where the community erects a succah. Parts of the building have seen better days and it lacks essentials such as a kitchen. But at a cost of £25 a month, the congregation is not complaining.

    Chanucah at the Orthodox synagogue
    Chanucah at the Orthodox synagogue

    There are ties with the Orthodox community - a joint Shavuot service this year - but a recent proposal to share NHC's building was rejected through fear the community would lose its identity.

    "The flavour of the two communities is very different," says Ms Henriques. "The richness of Norwich is that we have a choice of communities."

    NHC has stabilised at 70 members and has its own part-time minister in Daniel Rosenthal. Although it can struggle to get a Shabbat minyan, new president Marian Prinsley is convinced the community has potential and is launching a £100,000 fundraising drive to renovate its building, which is visited by more than 3,000 schoolchildren every year. "They come from far-flung places around Norfolk and have probably never heard of a Jew, so it's really important outreach work."

    It seems strange for a congregation that attracts an average turnout of 25 people at social events to commit to a six-figure outlay. But Mrs Prinsley - who moved to Norwich with her family in 1996 - sees the project as offering a "community centre for the Jewish people of Norfolk". The congregation has no debts and its reserves will help with the cost of the work. Local and Jewish charities have been approached for support.

    "My vision is for the community centre to be open to all. I would like to have a particular focus on our congregation, but also on non-attending Jews."

    The Orthodox community has this year celebrated two brits, one naming ceremony and a barmitzvah, with another due next year. In something of a coup, Mrs Prinsley has persuaded the local Waitrose to install a chilled kosher section.

    The previous president, Maureen Leveton, has been a NHC member for 55 years. She recalls it being at its most vibrant in the 1960s but says there remains potential with events such as a London Jewish Male Voice Choir concert attracting more than 100 people. She supported the proposal for the building to be shared with the Liberals. "I think it is a shame because we are much closer in thought than the Liberals think."

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