Once the natural settling place for Jews moving from their original East End homes, Redbridge Jewry is engaged in a fight for survival.
Younger members are migrating in large numbers to the major north London and Hertfordshire centres for social, family or employment reasons. Others have moved further out into Essex to the more expensive properties of Chigwell, leaving once thriving synagogues in decline. Kosher shops have shut and Jewish schools are struggling to fill places.
Such is the changing situation that the Ilford United and Federation synagogues have held preliminary discussions about a merger. At Ilford United, Rabbi Geoffrey Hyman maintained that amalgamation would best suit the Federation congregation because of the problems associated with its central Ilford location in Coventry Road. “It is just not where Jews live any more,” Rabbi Hyman observed. “It’s also not the safest area and I know walking there on Shabbat is not easy.”
He added that Ilford United had been “the biggest shul community in Europe 15 to 25 years ago. We had more than 2,500 members and over 1,000 children in the cheder. We are not as many now but still have over 1,000, putting us in the top 10 of United synagogues for membership.”
The 2001 Census gave the Redbridge Jewish population as 14,800, around half affiliated to shuls, and over a dozen synagogues still operate in the area, as well as the Sinclair House community centres, one secondary and two primary schools and a range of welfare facilities.
It was a source of local pride when King Solomon High School opened in Barkingside in 1993. But last year, the Jewish Leadership Council’s Commission on Jewish Schools advocated drastic action to preserve Jewish education in the borough.
According to the commission, Redbridge cannot sustain four forms of entry to its two Jewish primary schools, Clore Tikva and Ilford Jewish Primary, or the five at King Solomon. Demographic projections by the commission suggest the year one pool of primary children will drop from 160 in 2005 to 139 by 2012.
It warned that “doing nothing in Redbridge is only an option if people are sanguine about the Jewish schools enrolling a significant proportion of non-Jewish children in the near future”.
Jonathan Goldstein was hired by the JLC to head the Redbridge Schools Change Project, which is soliciting the views of parents on how the schools can survive. Yet despite falling numbers, he is confident that the schools won’t have to take in non-Jews.
“The children enjoy a good Jewish education at the three schools, but we do need a coherent strategy to bring people in who are now more disparate in geography,” he said.
Among residents, Shelley and Gary Latner — who live in Barkingside and are members of South West Essex Reform congregation in Newbury Park — cite a lack of Jewish cultural life and kosher outlets for the exodus from Redbridge.
“There hasn’t been enough kosher provision here for years,” Mr Latner said. “And now the shops and cafes here can’t attract the Jewish clientele.”
His wife added: “The life we knew here is disappearing and I do wonder how long we’ve got left as a community.”
David Hulbert of Bet Tikvah Synagogue, the area’s longest serving rabbi, supports the view that “there’s a pretty poor Jewish cultural life here. It’s an incredibly bad reflection on the Jewish Community Centre [for London], that most of their interesting events are all held in north London. It causes a lot of resentment.”
Last June, two fixtures of Redbridge Jewish life, Brownstein’s deli and Ilford Kosher Meats, closed within weeks of each other, and the area has not sustained a kosher restaurant for many years.
But Ilford Federation’s Rabbi Alex Chapper contends that locals have got used to going further afield for kosher food and dining. “I don’t think it’s shops that make a community. The truth is that when we had a kosher restaurant here, people said they didn’t feel it was properly like going out. They don’t want to go round the corner for salt beef and latkes every week.”
Some also voice feelings of isolation from the north London community and talk of being the “poor relation”. The divide concerns Rabbi Larry Becker of the Sukkat Shalom Synagogue in Wanstead, who said: “It kills me when people refer to us as being so far away. It’s actually the same difference from central London to get here as it is to get to north-west London. It is just psychological, there’s no sense to it.
“Too many people think Golders Green is the Jewish centre of the universe. The reality is that our community here is wonderful too.”
Woodford Progressive minister Rabbi Richard Jacobi sees “a very strong Essex Jewish identity, and one very different to the identity of north London Jews. But it is an identity that needs nurturing.”
New Essex Masorti member Mark Carter, 30, acknowledges that those in east London are less open about their Jewishness. “It does seem to be a different sort of community here. But I’m always walking through the area and spotting shuls which I didn’t know were there.”
For the moment, local leaders are pinning their hopes on a centralisation plan which would see Sinclair House and Ilford Jewish Primary move to the King Solomon site in Barkingside. The new Ilford Jewish Primary will run at a smaller capacity at its new site. But the area’s other primary, Clore Tikva, will not be able to accommodate extra pupils. Headteacher Lenna Rosenburg said: “We’re at full capacity, we’ve got a waiting list for children wanting places, so we couldn’t take on extras.”
But she is keen to form a partnership with the new community campus, saying: “It would be nice to be able to have a communal facility here at Clore Tikva which people at the campus could come and use. Our relationship with the two other schools is very strong.”
Redbridge JCC chairman Philip Leigh has a vision to augment the Jewish campus with a synagogue and kosher restaurant. He would love the shul to house a merged Ilford United/Federation congregation but both have rejected the idea.
South West Essex Reform’s Rabbi Michael Pertz even sees the potential for a renaissance. “There are so many untapped, secular Jews in Ilford. Many of the weddings and funerals I do are for people who are unaffiliated. There’s a huge amount of effort which needs to be put in.”
In recessionary times, there is also the virtue of more affordable housing. Estate agents Winkworths say the average cost of a three-bedroom house in Gants Hill is £350,000, in some cases half the amount for a similar property in Hendon.
New Essex Masorti chairman Howard Robinson believes the future can be bright. “When people say, ‘Oh Ilford’s not what it was’, they are right. But I think that in many ways it is better now. It was so huge when I was growing up that it was impersonal. We are smaller, but the smaller communities are tighter, with a closer rabbinate.”
Echoing his sentiments Rabbi Hyman maintained: “We have a very healthy Jewish population here. It’s still vibrant and viable. Jewish history is one of movement. But for now we are here, carrying on with our lives.”