Pioneers experience Feelgood factor


One day last year, Chris Fenwick, manager of legendary rhythm-and-blues band Dr Feelgood, was on the beach on Canvey Island where four of its most famous sons had shot the cover of the debut Dr Feelgood album, Down By The Jetty.

He noticed a couple of men standing by who were clearly visitors, given that they were in full Chasidic dress.

They were a scouting team from Stamford Hill checking out the Thames estuary district as a possible new community location. They got chatting to Mr Fenwick, who invited them back to the hotel he co-owns, the Oysterfleet.

Whatever he said made a favourable impression.

Down the years, various plans have been floated for establishing Charedi outposts in places such as Milton Keynes.

But whereas those petered out, Canvey Island is happening, as the JC first reported in April. Over the past few weeks, seven families have upped sticks from Stamford Hill to lay the foundations for a new congregation 40 miles from the Charedi heartlands.

"They are very, very full on and quite a shock when you first see them," Mr Fenwick recalled in a Radio 4 interview at the weekend. "There's no question about it. But one has got to have respect for their culture and beliefs.

"To me, this is a piece of Canvey history that they've moved down here and I'm very proud to have been part of it. I say 'bring it on'."

Among the Charedi pioneers is Joel Friedman, who moved last month with his wife and six children. "Every day that goes by, I feel more optimistic," he says.

For around 18 months, a committee of activists has been "looking all over within an hour's drive of London" for suitable centres. "This ticks most of the boxes".

Whereas a five-bedroom house in Stamford Hill can now sell for £1.5 million - beyond the reach of most local Jewish families - a large property in Canvey Island can be picked up for around a quarter of that price.

"The house sizes are enough to make it viable," Mr Friedman explains. Properties are becoming available because local residents are "retiring and moving out".

More are primed to follow as the shortage of suitable housing grows ever more acute for inner London's Charedi population. Estimated to comprise at least 27,000 people and expanding at an annual rate of just under five cent, it is set to reach 43,000 in a decade.

Another dozen or so Orthodox families are expected to buy or rent houses on Canvey Island, potentially increasing the 40 or so Jewish souls already there to around 100 before long.

Thanks to an Orthodox philanthropist, the site of a former secondary school has been acquired to serve as the embryonic community's educational hub. Bin bags pile up outside one entrance as work continues to ready it for use as a separate boys' and girls' school.

"It needs a lick of paint to freshen it up," Mr Friedman observes. "But it's a palace compared to what it was."

One hall has already being turned into a synagogue with a white-curtained ark in front. Those who visit from Stamford Hill to study help to ensure a minyan for the daily morning services. As toys strewn across a green-carpeted classroom indicate, it is also being used as a play area for children.

In another part of the three-acre site, workmen are busily preparing rooms for a yeshivah which is expected to set up in a few weeks.

A changing room will be transformed into a mikveh. The tuck shop will stock kosher groceries. Surveying the large gym dotted with basketball nets, Mr Friedman sees the possibility for "a shul here and chassanehs [weddings]. It has a lot of potential."

Compared to built-up Stamford Hill, the attractions of the surrounds are immediately apparent on a bright summer day. A view from the upper-floor school library stretches across a golf course to green hills. The pennants on the neighbouring Canvey Island Skills Centre flap in the sea breeze. Plentiful bungalows and low houses allow a generous canopy of blue sky.

Most of the Jewish families live within 20 minutes' walk from the school, which is around a five-minute drive from the waterfront.

Mr Friedman's home - with nearly twice the space of his previous Tottenham residence - is a short walk from the school on a modern residential estate. "We have a 60-foot garden; there is space for three cars in the front," he says. "The kids are loving it here. There is so much space."

Driving to his job in Stamford Hill as head of policy for the Charedi charity advisory service, Interlink, takes Mr Friedman an hour outside of rush hour. But he will be able to work on some days in spacious offices within the Canvey Island school building.

The site had once been earmarked for a huge development that was unpopular with locals. "So they are satisfied that it has been rescued and kept as a community building," he says.

So far, the Chasidic émigrés have enjoyed a friendly reception. "I received a card from a neighbour the day I arrived," Mr Friedman relates. "Someone else also knocked on a door and welcomed me to the street."

Another resident greeted him with a Grodzinski's iced cake. "He works with someone who is Jewish and he asked what could he give us."

It may not to be too long before the Oysterfleet Hotel hosts its first barmitzvah. And maybe the next band to emerge from Canvey Island will be playing klezmer.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive