Charedim leave Southend shul after being made 'unwelcome'

Seaside congregation remains split over influx of Chasidim


Chasidim have stopped using a building owned by Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation amid claims that the shul’s new board had made the strictly Orthodox feel “unwelcome”.

According to Rabbi Akiva Padwa, director of kashrut certification for the London Beth Din, the previous SWHC administration had been “very accommodating to the Chasidic newcomers, who they saw as a godsend to revitalise the community”.

This policy had been “reversed by the current executive, who have gone to the other extreme to show the Chasidim they are not welcome”. Some had prayed outside the building after shul leaders ordered the locks to be changed.

Rabbi Padwa said the shul had renegotiated an agreement reached with the previous administration over the Chasidim using the Talmud Torah building next to the synagogue. 

The Charedi influx has split the seaside community. After the shul’s elections in May, new chairman Michael Nelkin pledged to work with the families who had moved to the Essex coast from Stamford Hill in search of cheaper housing.

But on July 12, a letter from Mr Nelkin informed congregants that the shul’s locks would be changed due to “major safety and security issues concerning our synagogue”.

He explained that while the Charedim “had been given access to considerable parts of the Talmud Torah, they had also been given the password enabling them to enter our synagogue at will.

“Thirteen families are actually members of SWHC, yet we discovered that the passcode had been freely given to children and visiting Charedim, resulting in considerable numbers of people entering the synagogue whenever they chose.

“As a result, unknown, unidentified people were entering the synagogue at any time of day, including late into the night. We have had several incidents of doors and windows being left open.”

The dispute has led to the resignation of Roy Barnes as an SWHC trustee, citing the “different ideology” of the new executive. Mr Barnes pointed out that the Charedim had supported the congregation by ensuring “a daily minyan for all three services.

“I am not suggesting there were no issues regarding the Chasidim. However, with a dialogue of respect and common sense, the recent outrageous event could have been avoided.”

For Mr Barnes, “the saddest thing of all is that we no longer see the smiling faces of the children running in and out of our shul”.

Rabbi Padwa said the lease agreement for the Talmud Torah building allowed the Chasidim to “pay a so-called peppercorn rent”, in return for refurbishing and upgrading it to meet Ofsted requirements and covering all maintenance costs over the next few years.

However, Mr Nelkin wrote that the new board had “seen no advice as to appropriate rental value — and accordingly, we were unable to assess whether the cost of the building works would fairly equate to what should be the rent payable for the Talmud Torah in good repair”.

The Charedim had been informed that “the lease structure must change to what we consider a more normal arrangement. SWHC would be responsible for the necessary building works and the tenant would be expected to pay a proper commercial rent for the leased premises.”

Rabbi Padwa said that, having moved out of the Talmud Torah building, the Charedim were “currently in temporary accommodation — but are working on plans to purchase a permanent facility in the near future”.

Speaking to the JC, Mr Nelkin strongly denied the Chasidim had been locked out of the synagogue.

Regarding the Talmud Torah building, changes to the original agreement had been made because “the community don’t want to be tied into long leases.

“We don’t feel we want to give the building away, because other people in the community have the right to use it, as they have done for the last hundred years.

“They [the Chasidim] are entitled to the same things as other members and not more. The peppercorn rent was impossible. Electricity, gas, heating — it’s got to be paid for. The community want them to pay their share for it.”

He said the new executive had tried to accommodate the needs of the Charedim and that a number of seemingly productive meetings had been held.

“They never said they were going and we don’t know if they’re coming back to use the school next term. But if they’re going to make use of the Talmud Torah, we’re going to need to negotiate a market rate. 

“The community are up in arms at the moment. They [the Charedim] are getting it all for nothing.”

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