Plans for a Jewish school could be the salvation of south London Jewry, where congregations are struggling to combat dwindling memberships and an exodus of the young.
Around 13,000 Jews live in the area, making up eight per cent of the capital’s population. With no Jewish schools, kosher shops and few other services available to the community, many young couples move to north London once they have children.
A Jewish primary is seen as a means of stemming the tide, along with a recruitment drive for younger families and students.
Sarah Dubov, wife of the long-serving South London Chabad rabbi, Nissan Dubov, has been striving to improve services for the local communities. She has even opened a mikveh in the back garden of her Wimbledon home and a kosher store in the front room, supplementing the limited kosher supplies available from some major supermarkets. She is also the driving force behind the school project.
“It would really change the landscape here and many more young families would move to the area,” Mrs Dubov argued.
The one residential home has a lengthy waiting list
“We have done a feasibility study to see how many parents are interested and the results will be published soon. Many families have expressed an interest. We have been in touch with several potential donors.”
Educational philanthropist Benjamin Perl has offered backing, saying: “I would be delighted to support a new school. If there are five young parents committed to the establishment of a Jewish school who would send their kids, I would get involved.”
Families currently face a difficult choice between enrolling their
children at local secular schools or committing them to a long commute to attend Jewish schools in north London.
Yvonne Mason, head of youth at Wimbledon and District Reform Synagogue, which has a membership of 1,000, said finding Jewish friends for her three children had been a major issue.
“They are sometimes the only Jewish person in the year at school. I would love them to have more Jewish friends at school but I’m not prepared to move — it would uproot us completely. They regularly travel to north London to see friends.
“I’d like there to be a greater provision for young people. We want more youth activities. Past barmitzvah age it’s a challenge to keep them involved. Things are considerably harder here than in north London.”
But others, including Rabbi Michael Rosenfeld of Kingston, Surbiton and District Synagogue, believe a secular education can in fact “increase Jewish identity”. He made the decision to send his five-year-old daughter to a local secular school.
“Home is really where Jewish identity is formed and reinforced. Jewish identity can at times be stronger in a place where a person must confront their individuality. I went to secular schools.
“Our daughter’s Jewish identity has only increased since being in a more non-Jewish setting. She is very happy in her school and she enjoys sharing with others about Judaism. She even talks about God, prayer, Shabbat and kashrut with her peers.
“It is possible to have a Jewish home and experience in south London.”
The one Jewish nursery in the area is Apples and Honey in Wimbledon, founded by Judith Ish-Horowicz 19 years ago. She says a Jewish school would face a number of problems.
“We had a rocky start here and it took a while for people to believe in us,” she recalled. “There aren’t enough Jewish families in each locality to have a ‘local’ school. I can’t see it would work at the moment.”
Sutton and District Synagogue is among many shuls in the area suffering a decline in membership. Numbers peaked at more than 450 in the 1970s. Now the figure is around 300, prompting efforts to attract more young families.
Reported vice-chair Rica Infante: “Some of our youth have moved to north London after university and in their old age, their parents have followed suit to be close to them. The majority of our current membership are older people.
“It was a concern that numbers had been declining over the years, which is why we have embarked on a systematic programme focusing not only on increasing our numbers but also on bringing members into shul on a regular basis both for religious and social occasions.”
Social events include communal Friday night dinners with a speaker, youth Shabbatons and film nights.
At South London Liberal Synagogue in Streatham, the membership of 250 is well under half the high of 600 in the 1970s. “We now need to find and attract the young Jewish families I know are out there,” says Rabbi Janet Darley. A new choir had generated interest and a toddlers group was launched to meet demand.
“I think the Jewish community is starting to grow again. There are a lot of people who like to be part of a multicultural community and that’s why they move here.”
At Kingston, Surbiton and District Synagogue, the last AGM was attended by over 80 people, four times more than usual, to take part in workshops on ways to take the community forward.
Says chairman Anthony Cowen: “We decided that instead of having boring reports on what we have done, we asked people in advance to submit ideas for change, taking the community forward. We got a higher audience at that AGM then ever before.” Suggestions arising, such as Friday night communal dinners, have already been implemented.
Over half the 200 residents at the Nightingale home in Clapham are from the surrounding areas and there is a long waiting list. Chief executive Leon Smith highlights a lack of Jewish welfare provision beyond Nightingale.
“I think charities should take a closer look at the needs of south London. Some people feel charitable organisations don’t give sufficient attention to south London.”
Sonia Douek, head of community development and support services at Jewish Care, said it shared a community support practitioner with Nightingale who visits individuals and holds a monthly surgery.
“We do have a south London forum meeting once every six months to which all synagogues and voluntary groups are invited to talk about what their needs are. But it’s the same group every time. We are just the facilitators and need the community to come forward.”
However, some community veterans maintain that small can be beautiful.
For example, Anne Lyons has been a member of Kingston Synagogue for more than 40 years and sees its relative isolation as an attraction, explaining: “Families are much more involved than in north-west London when you are the only synagogue for miles around.
“We have to make more of an effort for our Jewish identity here. It means so much more to people than when it’s all on your doorstep.”
"because there are fewer Jews, we look after each other"
Originally from South Africa, 47-year-old Pam Mackenzie came to the UK in 1988. She lives with her husband, Duncan and their four children, Daniel, 17, Josh, 15, Michaela, 13, and Adam, 11, in Coulsdon, Surrey.
They formerly lived in Chigwell, Essex, “but needed a larger house and wanted more green space around us, so moved to ‘leafy Surrey’. We joined Sutton shul when our eldest son was ready to start cheder. The community is warm and friendly and we met our closest friends through the shul. Our children have also benefited hugely by being part of the shul.
“It is an ageing community and we are concerned about the future, but are doing all we can to keep the shul thriving.”
At one point, the family briefly considered moving to north London, “but after a bit of investigation, changed our minds. Because there are fewer Jews south of the river, each one is very important and we look after each other. Every so often we go to north London for Jewish supplies. It would be really great to have a kosher deli in south London.
“I think if they had opened a Jewish school 20 years ago, we would have a much bigger younger local Jewish community now. There were just a few Jewish kids in my children’s schools and in some ways they were minor celebrities because they are Jewish. Every year I go into the local primary school and tell the children about another festival. They enjoy these talks and ask me interesting questions.
“When my children were small they found December and the seasonal hype a bit difficult to cope with, but we made Chanucah into a big celebration and now they are absolutely fine. I feel it’s good to mix with different people as it creates a greater understanding between the religions.”