Jews getting more 
bang for their (South) Bucks

The JC looks at what Jewish life is like in a unique community in the countryside


South Bucks Jewish Community is not your average congregation.

Membership of the Liberal-affiliated group is spread across a number of Chilterns towns and villages. Although it does not own its own building, congregants insist it is as close-knit as you will find.

For Ruth Miller, the attraction was a “small and friendly” community where “everybody is welcome.

“I’m from South Africa, so I didn’t really know how it worked in this country. I don’t have roots or heritage here, in terms of knowing Jewish people.

“We tried some other ones that were just too big — it’s not our style. But here it was different. You get chatting to people and you really get to know them. And they were very welcoming when we first came. That’s the unique thing.

“It’s lovely when there are barbecues. Everyone’s chatting and the kids are running around.”

It is certainly a youthful community as the 200 people involved include 40 cheder pupils.

And as more young families move to the area — for commuters into central London, Amersham is on the Tube — SBJC chair Toby Friedner sees the potential for growth and, eventually, its own building.

Its rabbi, Charley Baginsky — a prominent figure within the Liberal movement — adds that there is an “untapped resource” of Jews already in South Bucks who do not belong to a shul.

Amersham, a picturesque town, is the regular community hub, with services held at the Quakers’ Friends Meeting House. Members travel from Chesham and Berkhamsted from the north, High Wycombe from the west and Chalfont St Giles from the south.

On occasion, services are held elsewhere and Rabbi Baginsky leads the cheder at Ley Hill School in Chesham and conducts bar- and batmitzvah classes from her home near Apsley.

Technology has also been embraced with WhatsApp a virtual replacement for a shul noticeboard. The downside to Jewish life is a lack of kosher facilities.

South Bucks does have significant Jewish history. A number of refugee children who travelled to Britain on the Kindertransport were taken there, as were a number of Jewish evacuees.

SBJC members Vivien and Deborah Samson were even inspired to write a book on the story of South Bucks Jewry, Rabbi in the Green Jacket, which was published in 2015.

Amanda McFeeters, who preceded Mr Friedner as chair, said the wartime arrivals were made welcome and formed a more Orthodox community.

“Many of them left after the war. But certainly around this area — Amersham, Hemel, Berkhamsted — you can find remnants of the community that was here. But we are not the inheritors of that community.”

The current congregation began life in 1990 as an offshoot of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, with 40 members.

It is now independent, having experienced steady growth as families moved from London to find more affordable housing.

Good transport links to the capital and high performing schools have also brought Jewish families to the area, including Rabbi Baginsky’s.

After serving as minister of Kingston Liberal Synagogue for a decade, she moved 18 months ago and says her three children, all under eight, are “absolutely loving” the area.

She also finds it much more culturally diverse than Surrey.

With dyed, short hair and a nose ring, she is a modern rabbi for a modern congregation. With “deep roots in Liberal Judaism”, her focus is on how to “weave” Judaism through all aspects of members’ lives.

“We are a ‘doors-open’ community. I find a lot of our members are people who haven’t found a home with other synagogues — or thought they couldn’t. We put pizza on after the service and give people the chance to socialise. That’s what they want after a long day at work or school. We know we’ll get higher numbers.

“I like that idea of exploring more how Judaism can be a 24/7 pursuit, working from where people are at in their lives.

“More than anything, this community is very proud and very confident of its Judaism.”

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