Southend offers tours to potential newcomers

Seaside community is bidding for post-pandemic membership boost – and wants to show off the town’s Jewish and wider attractions


Southend-on-Sea, view from sea at sunset time

The Southend Orthodox community is to launch a promotional campaign to attract Jewish families to the seaside town.

When Covid restrictions are removed, local leaders say a free tour service will be established for those contemplating relocating to the resort, which is barely 30 miles from Redbridge. Prospective recruits will be shown around the area and learn about the selling points of Southend and Westcliff — and indeed those of areas slightly beyond.

For example, neighbouring Leigh, with its vibrant food scene and trendy high street, is popular among young couples and families. And then there is the more upmarket Thorpe Bay with its plush properties.

Tour participants will also be told that beyond the roller coasters, fish and chip shops and the UK’s longest pier, a full and satisfying Jewish life awaits.

“The area is really lovely and I can’t think of a nicer place to live,” says Sara Vandermolen, who has worked in the Orthodox shul’s administrative office for 25 years and also leads its ladies’ guild.

“We have the best rated schools and a wonderful lifestyle. I have children who because of their work are based in London. But they come down so often because they love the community atmosphere here.”

Like many communities outside London and its Hertfordshire borders, Southend’s Jewish population has fallen over time — Institute for Jewish Policy Research analysis of the 2011 Census listed it among ten “places of decline”.

But there has been an influx of around 50 Charedi families, adding to some 500 Orthodox families and a 200-member Reform congregation.

The beating heart of the Orthodox community is the beautiful Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation shul. The vast building houses a cheder, library, function space, kosher shop, beit hamidrash and large kitchen.

By the entrance to the women’s gallery, walls are adorned with photographs of community members who served the nation during the two world wars. Inside the main shul, stained glass windows complement a sea of deep blue seats and wood-panelled walls.

A mikveh is situated three minutes down the road and there is a local eruv. The shul additionally operates a cheder, as well as a youth club catering for the under-14s.

However, the Jewish school and kosher restaurants that once existed could not be sustained amid falling community numbers. Jewish Care sold its residential home in 2012 but maintains a day centre and retirement apartments.

The Orthodox congregation lost three members to Covid last year, the community rallying in support of those in need by establishing a chesed club. Each week, volunteers delivered 200 packages from the kosher shop to those isolating and there were online services and lectures.

Lay leaders of the Southend and Westcliff shul now believe that a post-pandemic world of flexible working and less commuting will further enhance the attractions of the town.

There is also the financial incentive of cheaper housing — last year, the average property price in Southend was £334,757, less than half the London figure.

“People want to breathe in this lovely, healthy fresh air away from the smog and dust of London,” says SWHC vice-chair Michael Franks.

“The way of life here is so much better. People can sell their houses in London and come down here and get something twice as good for the same money. It’s as simple as that. There’s a financial benefit as well as the quality-of-life benefit to moving here.”

The possibilities for remote or hybrid working might also slow the drift of young people to London after university.

Although board members cite the friendliness of Southend’s Orthodox community, not all has been sweetness and light in recent years.

There were bitter divisions within SWHC during the tenure of Rabbi Binyamin Barr, who left early in 2019 in what was described as a “mutual decision”. There was also the falling out with the Chasidim who migrated to the coast from Stamford Hill in 2018.

That year, the JC reported that the new arrivals stopped using a building owned by SWHC, claiming the shul’s board had made them feel “unwelcome”. At one point, Chasidim had been left to pray outside the synagogue building after the locks were changed.

However, the current SWHC minister, the motorbike riding Rabbi Geoffrey Hyman, insists that communal strife is a thing of the past.

He points out that Charedi families mostly enjoy their own facilities but still use some of those administered by the shul, such as the mikveh and kosher shop. Relations are now perfectly cordial, he claims.

“Some members of the Charedi community came to the shul last Shabbos and we’ve got some coming this Shabbos. They come to daven and they come and make a minyan up when needed.

“In communities where there’s diversity, you need to be good neighbours. But each needs to have its own space to thrive in. We have different cultural values but we are good neighbours and that’s what is best and most important.”

Rabbi Hyman’s assessment is supported by a visit to the kosher shop, where Charedim are stocking up on challahs and meat in advance of Shabbat.

Members express pride in their town, their synagogue and in each other, highlighting willingness to organise communal events, provide help where needed and maintain a Jewish presence in the area that has exceeded a century.

“My wife and I lived most of our life in London,” Rabbi Hyman adds. Having moved to the coast, “it’s just a wonderful standard of life. The walk along the seafront after a day’s work — the fresh air and the beautiful sea and horizon is so relaxing.

“People should come here and see it for themselves.”

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