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Living in a small community: 'There is no need for a welcoming group - you are it'

In the first of a two-part series, we look at how congregations outside the major centres survive, and sometimes prosper, as well as some of the key challenges they encounter

    Shenley Liberal members in educational and festival celebrations
    Shenley Liberal members in educational and festival celebrations

    With the Anglo-Jewish population increasingly concentrated in north London and the Hertfordshire suburbs, it is easy to forget that Jewish life exists, and in some cases thrives, in small regional communities.

    Dividing her time between leading Gloucestershire Liberal Jewish Community and overseeing outreach and development work at Liberal Judaism's London HQ, Rabbi Anna Gerrard has a special perspective on the pluses and pitfalls.

    Rabbi Gerrard classifies a genuine small community as one of under 100 souls which requires financial and bureaucratic support. Those outside the capital can draw members from a 50-mile radius, "so there is the difficulty of getting people to the same place. You can't, for example, run a weekly cheder as parents are not prepared to drive their children on a two-hour round trip every week. You have to think quite creatively about how you run things, when you run things, even what time of day. Most small communities have a bring-and-share supper after Friday service while London communities might have it once every two months. It's partly because some people are travelling so far, it would be too late for them to get home for dinner.

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

    "And if you are quite ambitious and want to do the kind of things that a big community does, you still need almost as many volunteers to make things happen. So the burden falls on more people's shoulders more heavily, which can be a benefit because everyone has a real sense of 'we're in this together'. It can also be a strain as people get tired. If they've been a volunteer for four or five years and want to take a break, there aren't as many people to take over."

    ‘We try to have provision for all ages’

    Hull-based Sarita Robinson, who works with northern congregations on behalf of the Movement for Reform Judaism, says one virtue of a small community is that it can "feel like a family. Everybody knows everybody. There is no need for a welcoming committee because you are it. People will immediately spot a new face."

    Her own synagogue has 56 members and she says that those lost through death or relocation are generally replaced by new recruits. "We lose young people who go to uni but have gained two who studied in Hull."

    It also attracts a fair number of converts and its first wedding in 20 years was of a couple who converted. "Our vice-chair acted as wedding planner." Shabbat services can bring in close to half the membership - "and some do a 45-minute drive to make it".

    Some areas of small Jewish population are served by both an Orthodox and Reform/Liberal grouping. Where there is the one Progressive community, Rabbi Gerrard feels the aim should be to reflect the "catch-all" nature of membership in its activities. "We're either the only game in town or the only non-Orthodox game in town."

    Pastoral support is important, which is why Liberal Judaism ensures its small communities each have a named rabbi from its team they can call upon in times of difficulty. "They will drop things to be there if need be."

    Congregants of the growing Gloucestershire shul
    Congregants of the growing Gloucestershire shul

    At the Chief Rabbi's Centre for Rabbinical Excellence - which is geared towards building stronger Orthodox communities - director Rachel Shababo speaks of its own initiative, the Rabbis for Communities project.

    "The Chief Rabbi wants all communities to have a rabbi," she explains. "It makes a difference when they have a dynamic leader.

    "We recruited a team of rabbis to go into communities where they don't have one. They will visit on several Shabbats throughout the year and also during the week. We want communities to have this resource regardless of funding. They can pay as much as they can afford. We are looking into helping with kosher provisions, too." Congregations can also apply for financial support for specific programmes and projects.

    Another way of countering feelings of isolation is a twinning scheme, allowing the small community to join its larger twin for events such as a Shabbaton. Pinner and Portsmouth are an early partnership.

    Rabbi Gerrard says that where the commitment and identity is strong, even a tiny community can remain functioning. She cites the example of Crawley, down to a mere half a dozen members as "the demographics of the area have changed. But they are determined to continue and so we support them."

    Her relationship with her own community dates back seven years. "I was placed with them as a fourth year rabbinical student. When I started there were 40 souls in total. There are now just over 80 adult members and 30-plus children."

    She attributes the increase to word of mouth and publicity through a website, local newspapers and radio (Mrs Robinson says some Reform communities are nervous about advertising because of security concerns).

    "We have been ambitious in that we are a small community but we have a full demographic - babies, toddlers, children, teens, people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, up to their 90s. We try to have provision for all those ages.

    "So we have regular Shabbat services, festival events, a cheder, adult education, toddler Shabbats, teenage youth group - all the things you would expect from a big community but on a very small scale."

    The minister's home is in Stroud, about 25 minutes from where her congregation meets. She stresses the importance of a "live-in-the-area rabbi. I can get to any member's house if they are ill.

    "A new community is inward looking to start with," she explains. "Now we have the confidence of a presence in the county.

    "We've started to work in collaboration with other faith groups, with the municipality around Holocaust Memorial Day, on interfaith initiatives, around social action.

    "We broadly advertised a toddler event and got 10 under-fours with their parents. Now we have started running [an occasional] toddler service, which has been lovely, if a little noisy."

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