Presidential ‘fatwa’ keeps Stoke’s minyan men in line

v How does a shul with 21 active members attract a minyan to most of its weekly Friday night services?


“I issue a fatwa,” jokes Martin Morris, who leads Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire Hebrew Congregation. “They only made me president because I don’t get embarrassed about being rude to people. I tell them they have to turn up and pay their subs.”

The synagogue — the only one in the county — held a service recently celebrating its 10th anniversary in its current premises in Newcastle-under-Lyme. But there has been a Jewish community in the area since 1873 and at its peak in the 1920s, the shul had a membership of 175 families.

Mr Morris — who is following in the presidential footsteps of his late father Sydney — points out that the last Census suggested a Jewish population of 400 in Stoke-on-Trent. “We only hear about them when they die [the shul is one of the few attached to a cemetery].”

The Friday night minyan does not look lost in an intimate prayer space seating four dozen. The ark, bimah and stained-glass windows were transferred from its former premises in Hanley, where a rabbi was retained until 1966.

Mr Morris describes the services as “relaxed Orthodox. We have to bend the rules to stay in existence. Bigger shuls than us have gone under.”

Services are conducted by Dr Rachel Berkson, a lecturer at Keele University. Attendances are sometimes boosted by students from the Keele and Staffordshire universities and non-Jewish friends of the community.

There are also spouses of the core membership and a handful of children. A small number of people who have moved away from the area retain membership for emotional reasons.

Financially, although there is a yearly shortfall of a few thousand pounds, “people remember us in their will and we get the occasional donation”.

Among those at the anniversary service was the Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Ipgrave, who is also national chair of the Council of Christians and Jews.

“It was wonderful to celebrate the continuing presence of the Hebrew congregation,” he said. “The relationship between Jews and Christians is more important today than ever and it is crucial we work hard at developing it.”

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