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Edgware: Journeying into challenging times

With many young families settling in Borehamwood and Elstree, a few miles away, Edgware does not have the pulling power of former days

    Edgware is easy enough to find — it’s the Northern line terminus — but harder to summarise, beyond being one of the country’s most ubiquitously Jewish areas.

    Close to the station and High Street is Edgwarebury Lane, where shopping options include a large Grodzinski bakery, the Divrei Kodesh bookstore and kosher butcher Louis Mann and Sons.

    Add the shtiebels to the shuls covering the religious spectrum and you have more than 20 congregations. And for the more observant, the local eruv —erected in 2006 — was extended at the end of January, connecting it with Belmont Synagogue and the surrounding Stanmore area.

    But with many young families settling in Borehamwood and Elstree, a few miles away, Edgware does not have the pulling power of former days.

    The theory goes that a shortfall of new affordable homes has priced the town out of the market for many young couples and first-time buyers, who also see the expansion of Jewish amenities in the Hertfordshire suburbs as reason to look beyond North London.

    Speaking to parents on the school run at Edgware’s Rosh Pinah Primary, it is quickly apparent that local loyalty remains strong, albeit realistic.

    “As long as I’ve known it Edgware has always been one of the biggest Jewish areas,” observed Darren Grynberg, 40. “It’s where Jewish people settled over the past 50-odd years or so. It’s almost like a shtetl from the old world.

    “But with house prices going up and up, I can see younger people continuing to go into Borehamwood and possibly even further afield, where it’s a bit more affordable.”

    Another parent said that without wishing to sound negative, “lots of parts of the country are under threat from unaffordable housing. And it is threatening the community in Edgware.”

    In fact, a number of Rosh Pinah parents travel from Stanmore, Canons Park or Herts, combining the drop off or collection of their children with some kosher shopping.

    Other residents identified a demographic shift, particularly over the past ten years, with the “Jewish middle” squeezed one one side by an influx of strictly Orthodox and on the other by growing South Asian and Eastern European communities.

    As manager of the Three Wishes pub in the High Street for more than a decade, Michael (he declined to give his surname) has noticed the changes.

    “We’ve always had Jewish customers,” he said. “Not regulars so much but they’ll come in for the football — only Arsenal or Spurs. Or the young ones, before they go off to university.

    “But now what’s interesting is that you can step outside for ten minutes and hear nothing but Russian and Polish — and there are a few Eastern European-owned businesses, too.

    “Jewish people moved here in the first place because they feel safe — it’s their area. And that’s still true now.”

    That view is not shared by a parent who moved to Edgware a decade ago. He said Edgware’s homely feel was imperilled by rising crime, “with regular reports of muggings, robberies and drugs. It is extremely worrying for those with a young family.”

    The traditionally Conservative-voting populace has elected Tory Matthew Offord as local MP for the past three elections, although Jewish Labour candidate Mike Katz cut Mr Offord’s majority to just 1,000 last June.

    Jews began moving to Edgware in the pre-war period. There were around 30 families in 1930, shortly after what is now Edgware United Synagogue was founded and six years after the Northern line extension, the catalyst for significant Jewish migration.

    With the rapid establishment of other congregations and Jewish businesses, plus an exodus from the East End, Edgware’s Jewish population continued to grow. According to the Institute of Jewish Policy Research (JPR), the only historical data about Jews in Edgware is a study conducted in 1963 suggesting a Jewish community of 7,803, representing 39 per cent of the total population.

    It also demonstrated how the general population had quadrupled from just over 5,000 in 1931 to 20,000, largely due to Jewish migration.

    Although JPR could not say with certainty when the high point of Jewish population was reached, synagogue membership data indicated that it was around 1990.

    In the 2011 Census, around 5,500 Edgware respondents who gave a religion identified as Jewish, broadly in line with the figure from 2001.

    JPR suggests that numbers are unlikely to have changed since 2011 as growth among the Charedi community has been offset by a decline in the mainstream Jewish population “due to an excess of deaths over births and some out-migration”.

    Whatever the population trends, Edgware’s religious leaders maintain the town still has much to offer observant Jews.

    Rabbi Lister (Photo: YouTube)
    Rabbi Lister (Photo: YouTube)
    Rabbi David Lister, who has led the United Synagogue congregation for more than ten years, said that what separated Edgware from other communities was the level of “Torah learning”, pointing out that the town has its own kollel.

    The Manchester-born minister refrained from discussing demographics and property prices, preferring to focus on what happens within the walls of his own shul.

    Impressively enthusiastic for our last-thing-on-a-Thursday appointment, the 48-year-old became even more animated — and his smile wider — when we moved onto his favourite topic, “the strength to Jewish life and Judaism here. It’s phenomenal. We have the people who learn in the kollel who daven with us regularly. We have a wonderful relationship with them.

    “And apart from us, you have many other wonderful places of Jewish learning and observance around. And the more Torah, the more Jewish life — strong religion means strong Jewish life. It’s a a no-brainer.”

    The plurality of synagogues is perhaps best typified by the 150-member Kol Nefesh, established 18 years ago after a split within Edgware Masorti over “the sight of women in tallitot.

    “Our thing is that we are fully egalitarian,” said Jacky Chernett, a founding member and chazan of Kol Nefesh. “Women can wear tallitot if they want to and they lead services.

    “We are non-judgemental and inclusive and our congregation is one that loves study. We see ourselves as particularly knowledgeable and conscious of the Torah.”

    Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, borne out of a 2017 merger, represents 2,000 member households, roughly the same as that of Edgware and District Reform when Rabbi Daniel Smith joined in 1993.

    Rabbi Smith said that what kept Edgware Jewish was the communal and cultural character of the town, as much as the spiritual.

    “Apart from having lots of synagogues, and some very good ones, we also really are a hub of Jewish day schools, for those who want it. It also has a number of very good Jewish shops, so if you want your hummus and falafel and all your Grodzinski’s stuff, it’s got that.

    “Part of the reason we moved here is that my wife, who is Israeli, said it was a step nearer Israel, even though it’s in the wrong direction. It has more Jewish possibilities for us and our children, which we like.”

    Rabbi Smith accepted that fewer young people were likely to buy properties in the area. But as a Reform shul, there were members who drove in from outside London to maintain “traditional and familial ties” to the synagogue.

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