2020 was not all about Covid-19: 12 months of arrivals, departures, successes and setbacks

It has been easy to forget, but there were many notable communal events that took place in-person during the first three months of the year


Difficult though it may now be to recall, there was life before coronavirus. That was certainly the case in January when almost 500 Nightingale Hammerson supporters filled London’s Guildhall for a dinner which raised £1.45 million for the care home charity.

Guest speaker Howard Jacobson told them he found the old “infinitely more interesting than the young” and the sentiment was borne out by the moving and often amusing stories of Nightingale residents.

In the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan pledged £300,000 to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation “to help ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust are never forgotten”.

And as City Hall hosted survivors on HMD, Mr Khan said that “progress in opposing hatred and promoting equality must never be taken for granted. That’s why it’s ever more important that we hear survivors’ stories and remember the horrors of the death camps and the millions who died.”

Also in January, Rabbi Danny Rich announced he was stepping down as Liberal Judaism chief executive after 15 years in the role.

Never afraid to voice his opinions, Rabbi Rich had presided over a period of congregational growth with 11 new communities established, from Crouch End to York.

Quoting the Book of Ecclesiastes —“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven” — Rabbi Rich said: “I have decided that it is the right moment for me to turn my mind and skills to other opportunities.”

Bookending the year, Rabbi Charley Baginsky was confirmed as his successor in December. The former South Bucks and Kingston Liberal minister said she was “honoured” to have the opportunity to shape the movement’s future direction and find new ways of making Liberal Judaism “the home for everyone’s Jewish story”.

2020 also saw the election of Liberal Judaism’s first woman chair, Ruth Seager, who had told the Liberal Judaism biennial that “non-Jewish members of Jewish families should be welcomed inside the boundary. I’d love never to hear another apology for not being Jewish.”

Completing a year of change within Progressive Judaism, Laura Janner-Klausner stepped down as Reform Judaism’s senior rabbi. Initially telling the JC she would be taking a PhD in digital theology — “yes that really is a thing” — she instead helped to launch a consultancy to combat cancel culture.

She said Reform Judaism “has, and always will have, a special place in my heart. I have loved my time in this role, in particular the opportunity to work closely with the professional and lay leaders of our youth movement, RSY-Netzer, for which I will always hold the deepest love and admiration.”

There was big news in January for the innovative Mosaic Jewish Community, with Harrow Council approving plans to move to purpose-built premises in Stanmore in 2021.

Established in 2014, the community comprises Mosaic Reform (formerly the Middlesex New), Mosaic Liberal (formerly Harrow and Wembley Progressive) and Hatch End Masorti.

The Reform and Liberal congregations had been holding services on the old Middlesex New site in Bessborough Road, Harrow — the Masorti group gathered in premises elsewhere.

But the community had long wished to have a modern building better suited to current needs.

In those far-off times when large crowds could still congregate to enjoy a convivial drink, 900 wine connoisseurs and enthusiasts got the taste for Kedem Europe’s annual Kosher Food and Wine Experience.

Fortified by a gargantuan buffet featuring sushi, salt beef and multiple dessert options, guests at the West End venue jostled with varying degrees of patience to sample some of the best and newest from the world of kosher wine and spirits.

Kedem Europe general manager Benjamin Gestetner said the evening had offered “some of the best wines we’ve ever shown from Israel, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the US”.

He felt Jewish consumers were now “more appreciative of quality kosher wines of every origin. Our tastes in wine are becoming more modern and sophisticated.

“We are also seeing a greater willingness to increase the spend per bottle as the community recognises that there is a distinctive difference in quality and complexity between low and higher priced wines.”

In royal news, the Queen extended her good wishes to the United Synagogue on its 150th anniversary, having been a guest at the US’s centenary reception.

Responding to “loyal greetings” relayed by US president Michael Goldstein, Andrew Paterson, director of operations at the private secretary’s office at Buckingham Palace, wrote that the Queen had seen Mr Goldstein’s message and conveyed “warm thanks”.

She was pleased to be reminded of having attended the centenary dinner and sent best wishes “for a most successful and enjoyable year celebrating this significant milestone in the history of the United Synagogue”.

Prince Charles committed to a further term as patron of World Jewish Relief, having taken an active interest in WJR’s work since becoming a patron in 2015. And in November, on #CharityTuesday, Norwood was invited to take over the Royal Family’s social media.

The honour reflected a long-time link, the Queen having been a patron of Norwood, the UK’s oldest Jewish charity, since 1952.

Norwood was also celebrating its 225th anniversary and conversations with the palace had been ongoing on a way for the landmark to be marked. However, the pandemic had complicated matters and the social media tie-up was a way of affording recognition.

The Royal Family’s Twitter account featured images of visits by the Queen and the Princess Royal to Norwood facilities, as well as a photo of the charity’s Buckets and Spades service, which supports children with physical and learning disabilities.

A snapshot of the earnings, qualifications and IT capabilities of British Jews was given in our report on a survey conducted by employment charity Resource on its clients.

It found high academic qualifications and salaries above the national average — 13 per cent of clients reported a salary of £60,000 or more in their previous job — but also a significant number on lower incomes.

Some of the findings reflected national trends, such as men earning more than women (although the Resource figures were influenced by factors such as women returning to the job market after having children).

The research also showed a lesser level of computer savviness among the older generations, although the necessities of the pandemic era are likely to have changed that.

Ah, Covid. From mid-March, our pages took on a very different appearance, with no stories or images from physical events to publish. But communal life continued with even greater intensity as organisations had to hastily adapt to the new realities.

As we looked in-depth at the community’s response to the crisis in a review of the year, published in last week’s edition, I will avoid repetition, other than to applaud the efforts of shuls for upping their online game; charities for supporting those in their care, the vulnerable and the isolated; and the generosity of the masses in donating to the assorted emergency appeals from Jewish organisations.

But there was plentiful other news. In March, Jewish Blind and Disabled unveiled plans for a £6 million apartment development in Mill Hill, its eighth project in London, Essex and Hertfordshire. JBD had purchased a site two doors down from its existing Mill Hill property. The new building would be extended outwards and upwards to provide 30 large one-bedroom flats plus communal facilities, with the hope that the first tenants would move in early in 2023.

Chief executive Lisa Wimborne said JBD had been looking for a suitable site in Barnet or Hertsmere but the latter had proved problematic — “organisations are struggling with land acquisition there”. The charity would continue looking around the Borehamwood and Elstree area for a potential ninth site. But Ms Wimborne pointed out that were a suitable site to become available, “we have to be in a position to buy it”.

The Brondesbury Park Synagogue eruv was finally up and running, five years after receiving planning consent.

Covering Cricklewood, Willesden, Brondesbury Park and Kensal Rise up to Finchley Road, the religious boundary was launched with a low key “eruv chatzerot” ceremony by Rabbi Baruch Levin and eldest son Meir outside their home. Hot on its heels was a Stamford Hill eruv, spanning an area from South Tottenham to Clapton Common, and the long-awaited St John’s Wood (North Westminster) and South Hampstead (Camden) eruvs.

And a Leeds eruv — heralded as a “game changer” for the Jewish community — was green-lighted by the city council. Designed to cover the vast majority of the Leeds Jewish population, project leaders hope it will be up and running early in 2021.

Things were less happy in the city as plans by communal welfare groups to create a “Jewish village” foundered amid acrimony with the withdrawal of one of the organisations.

Leeds Jewish Welfare Board and the Leeds Jewish Housing Association had been in talks for 18 months about relocating the Donisthorpe Hall care home — which has faced financial problems in recent years — to a new development on the LJHA’s Queenshill housing estate.

But following a board meeting of the housing association in August, LJHA chair Jayne Wynick announced that it would be withdrawing from the project. Three LJHA board members resigned in protest.

The capital lost a character with the death of London’s oldest man, 108-year-old Nightingale House resident Ben Raymond. The former hairdresser had regaled friends with anecdotes of celebrity clients, among them Charlton Heston during the filming of Ben Hur.

Paying tribute, Nightingale Hammerson chief executive Helen Simmons said: “He was full of wonderful stories, many of which centred around his hair salon where his clients included aristocracy and film stars.

“He loved dancing and put his long life down to having a positive outlook — and the occasional shot of whisky. He had only recently given that up, along with smoking his pipe, for health reasons.”

There was a setback for Norwood with the abandonment of a £16 million-plus development of its Ravenswood village in Crowthorne, Berkshire, for those with learning disabilities after the sudden withdrawal of its development partner.

Norwood chief executive Dr Beverley Jacobson tried to remain positive, pledging: “We will apply our creativity and passion for the people we support to develop an exciting new plan of action.”

The charity was considering ways to upgrade accommodation for Ravenswood residents in the short term.

Among the usual slew of rabbinical comings and goings, the story of Mati Kirschenbaum stood out.

Raised in Poland in the aftermath of Communism, he only discovered he was Jewish when he was 13 — and was not barmitzvah until at university. But having belatedly discovered his heritage, he began a love affair with his religion, culminating in his appointment at Bromley Reform Synagogue.

Although his parents had been surprised by his career choice, “having survived my twin brother going properly frum in his early 20s, having a son who decided to become a Progressive rabbi felt like an easier thing”, he told the JC.

Elsewhere, while theatres remained dark, there was a leading West End role for Rabbi Daniel Epstein, who will be leaving Cockfosters and North Southgate Synagogue to join Western Marble Arch shul.

Having come to the rabbinate relatively late after a career in marketing and PR, Rabbi Epstein said he and his wife Ilana had “grown to love” the North London community but were looking forward to the challenge ahead in an area with “a slightly different demographic — more young professionals, multi-nationals passing through and students”.

As the music world mourned the loss of a seminal figure, Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green, we revealed a hitherto unknown side of his life —Jewish Welfare Board volunteer and benefactor.

Melvyn Carlowe, who headed the JWB (later Jewish Care), recalled a visit to one of its homes for the elderly in Highbury in the early 1970s.

“I saw this guy in the dining room serving lunches to the residents. The typical volunteer at the time was a middle-class Jewish lady or a retired Jewish tailor. And he was a youngish man.”

When Mr Carlowe asked staff who he was, they told him he was one of Britain’s most acclaimed rock guitarists.

“They told me he’d been there several times. He may have lived nearby and I think he re-identified with his Jewish faith. Maybe he had a relative there.”

Mr Carlowe did encounter Green on a further occasion.

“He was in our offices in Charlotte Street [in the West End]. Apparently, he had just popped in to make a donation.”

Kisharon celebrated the new academic year by opening its £13.5 million free school building in Hendon to its first 44 pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.

The school’s former premises in Temple Fortune could only comfortably accommodate around 40 students whereas the Hendon building has a capacity of 72, better enabling the charity to satisfy the growing demand.

Headteacher Sora Kopfstein said the Hendon campus fulfilled a long-cherished dream, having been “designed to meet the [diverse] needs of these young people — and to make sure they get the best education possible”.

In a love story to dispel some of the Covid gloom, Nottingham Liberal Synagogue members Laurence and Sarah Sugarman donned hiking boots to accompany their wedding outfits as they renewed their vows in a chupah at Jacob’s Ladder in the Peak District. Their rabbi, Tanya Sakhnovich, officiated, giving a blessing at the top, where the couple and guests had climbed.

Married for 26 years, the couple, both 52, were also celebrating Mr Sugarman’s recent recovery from Guillain-Barre, a syndrome which affects the nervous system and causes temporary paralysis.

Mr Sugarman said that during his illness, “I realised how much I loved my wife and how much my wife has added to my life. When you become older, you want to renew that love.”

His wife described the day as “a happy event in a pretty miserable world at the moment”. She hoped that sharing their story would “make some people smile”.

Love was also in the air at Liberal Judaism, where in a first, mixed faith couples were offered a wedding blessing from a rabbi under a chupah. The change, approved unanimously by the movement’s rabbis, recognised the diversity of Jewish life in modern Britain.

The movement has always accepted mixed faith couples into its synagogues. But previously, as in all other strands of British Jewry, it only allowed Jewish couples to have a chupah. The new offer will be at rabbinical discretion and depend on the couple’s commitment to “keeping a Jewish home”. They will still have to undergo a civil marriage ceremony before their chupah blessing.

The United Synagogue gained another northern recruit with the decision of its council to approve Southport Hebrew Congregation becoming a constituent member.

Discussions with the seaside community had been ongoing for some time and Southport’s senior warden Adrian Fletcher said the 80-member congregation was “thrilled” with the decision. “Southport Hebrew Congregation has a long and proud history and we know that with the support of the United Synagogue, our future is secure.”

There were contrasting emotions in Bournemouth, where in a “very sad day for the community”, trustees of the local Jewish residential home, Hannah Levy House, announced the decision to close it at the end of January on financial grounds.

A trustee, Councillor Lawrence Williams, said the home had been near to closure a year ago, only to be saved by a few large bequests.

But the Covid crisis had exacerbated its problems as it could not accept new residents who had been released from hospital in case they had been exposed to the virus.

In November, Wembley United Synagogue announced that it would move to a smaller, purpose-built space more in keeping with the needs of the congregation.

With a site purchased nearer to where the bulk of congregants reside, and planning permission from Brent Council, members were told: “Between the experts and ourselves, we should be able to create a new shul that we can worship in and love. If all goes well, we should be able to move into the new shul in 2022.”

Mitzvah Day survived the pandemic and extended its programme to a month of mitzvahs to encourage Covid compliant good deeds, particularly in support of food banks, with participants including Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

And there was a ray of light at the end of the year as the giant menorah in Trafalgar Square returned, albeit minus the crowds.

Among its backers was Sadiq Khan, who said: “Chanukah in Trafalgar Square is always one of the highlights of my year.

“While it is disappointing that we cannot gather in person, I’m pleased that we are still able to continue the tradition of hosting a menorah and celebrating the huge role the Jewish community play in the capital.”

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