‘Monstrous’ wall inflames tensions in Southend and Westcliff Hebrew congregation

The Shul chairman said the temporary structure had been put up 'for child protection'


Unrest within the Southend and Westcliff Hebrew congregation (SWHC) has continued, with a group of members calling for the shul board “to be removed with immediate effect.”

In addition, a number of congregants have complained about a new dividing wall, which has been built in the centre of the building’s hall.

A petition signed by more than 60 people was delivered to a board representative last Friday. It called for the convening of a general meeting “to discuss the belief that the current leadership of the Congregation no longer represents the wishes of the majority of members and has brought the Congregation and the Jewish community into disrepute.”

Such a meeting would include a vote on whether “the entire board of directors of Southend & Westcliff Hebrew Congregation be removed with immediate effect.”

The current disagreements within the community concern the influx of Chasidim from Stamford Hill into Southend over the past few years.

While some members of the community have welcomed the newcomers, seeing them as potentially breathing new Jewish life into the area, others have been more cautious, fearing that the intention of the Chasidim is to take over the structures of the community.

The most recent arguments have centred on the community’s Talmud Torah (TT) building, part of which is currently being used by the Chasidim for a school. The board’s current plan is for the Chasidim to finance the renovation of the building, in return for being able to lease it for a decade.

All seats on the board are up for election at the synagogue’s AGM in May. However, the JC understands that the members behind the removal petition are worried that the plan to finalise the lease agreement prior to the elections presents the community with a fait accompli.

In January, in footage that appeared on BBC TV, a teacher at the Chasidic school was videoed appearing to hit and manhandle a child.

The shul board subsequently suspended the use of the building by the religious school while an investigation took place.

But an email sent to community members by Derek Silverstone, the shul chairman, earlier this month said “the home schooling in the Talmud Torah is to continue. The police have finished their investigation and there will be no further action against the teacher.”

Mr Silverstone also said he had spoken to Shlomo Fink, one of the Chasidic leaders in the area, who had said that the teacher would not be returning to work.

The Talmud Torah building is also currently used by the synagogue’s youth club and cheder, as well as a small shop selling Kosher goods.

“During the daytime, people are allowed to enter the TT hall to gain access to the shop,” Mr Silverstone explained. “We needed a quick and immediate solution to stop any unauthorised person gain access to the home school from the hall. We decided therefore to erect a wall in the TT hall.”

He described the wall as “temporary” and urged congregants to “try to work around” any problems it caused “to make the TT a place all our children can use in a safe environment.”

Mr Silverstone added:“The wall went up because we were advised by Southend council that for child protection we should have a means of keeping the public away from the children. This wall is a low-budget, temporary solution, which fulfils that condition.”

However, a number of people in the community have protested vociferously about the partition. In emails seen by the JC, members have referred to it as “unauthorised”, and a “monstrosity.”

A shul youth leader described it as “totally unacceptable” and “insensitive”.

“This is now preventing us from holding our youth club and cheder activities in this space, which has been divided in such as a way to prevent us having any type of party/disco/Seder service,” she wrote.

In another email, the person involved with the kosher community shop in the Talmud Torah building wrote: “Now we know that the idea is to have an Ofsted regulated school in the TT. This would then eliminate the shop, the office and the Rabbi’s room from there as nobody would be allowed in the building unless they were DBS checked.

“If that were to happen, where would we all go? There is no room in the downstairs of the shul and unless a lift is installed, you couldn’t expect the elderly to walk up the stairs.

Last Sunday, Kevin Leigh, a board member and its legal adviser, emailed members saying that the draft lease had not been completed or discussed.

“When a draft has been discussed sufficiently so that we have an agreed version, we will let the community know the heads of terms.

“The board (the present one or the next one depending on timing, but most likely the next board) will consider the comments. If the board think the draft lease is a proper use of community assets, it will finalise the lease.

“The TT will not be for the exclusive use of Chasidim families. A part of the building will continue to be used for an office along with a kitchen and toilet. There will also be at least one other room for small meetings or for someone to work in away from the main office.

“The kosher shop will also operate when it is open. The rest of the building will be structured so that home schooling can occur and eventually Ofsted approved schooling
can take place.”

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