Southern comfort from London school's plan


With a mixture of pride and excitement, Kate Baum takes visitors through architects’ plans for the permanent home for south London’s first Jewish school, Mosaic.

These are currently housed in the Wimbledon and District (Reform) Synagogue, where the primary opened in September in temporary accommodation and will continue to operate until the anticipated move to a site in Roehampton in 2015.

Ms Baum, the Mosaic head, naturally highlights the provision of 14 classrooms in the new building — Mosaic will become two-form entry on its permanent site. But she’s equally enthused about the space that can also be used for communal activity.

“The absolute vision is that, in the evenings and on weekends, we could be a mini-JW3 with films, book events and debates. It could be the venue for a south London Limmud.” The Roehampton Lane site might even incorporate the region’s only kosher dining option outside of a shul. Governors have visited JW3 to assess how its various social and cultural activities could be applied on a smaller scale.

The school has been a unifying force in an area where co-operation has been key to survival. The Mosaic governors believe the permanent location, with its good transport links, will be attractive to parents from communities such as Richmond, Kingston, Wimbledon and Ealing — and even help to entice new Jewish families to the region. Some parents were contemplating moving to be nearer the Roehampton site, Ms Baum reported. “We have had inquiries from people in north London who are considering relocating.

“In various [south London] areas, you have a handful of children. By bringing them together you have a community.”

Mosaic is a product of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s free-schools programme and half the places are offered on the basis of faith. The non-Jews among the first intake have integrated well and Ms Ms Baum confided that “some of our frummest pupils are non-Jews!” There is a full uptake of 30 for the next academic year and Ms Baum dares to dream that, if demand for the school is proven, there might be a long-term case for a cross-communal JCoSS-type Jewish secondary. Already, families from Orthodox shuls have children in RSY (Reform Synagogue Youth), the dominant youth group.

Wimbledon Synagogue is a hive of youthful activity during term time. For in addition to Mosaic pupils taking classes in the natty uniforms they helped to design, the 900-member shul also hosts the long-established independent Apples and Honey nursery, headed by Judith Ish-Horowicz, who recalled that she opened up with “three-and-a-half pupils, because one only came for part of the week. Now we have a waiting list.”

The nursery draws its children from a wide area and from across the Jewish spectrum, including Chabad families. In the spirit of south London togetherness, it has forged links with the region’s major welfare facility, the Nightingale home in Clapham, as well as with a local Greek Cypriot school. “You have to be supportive of each other,” she said. “It’s marvellous.”

Wimbledon minister Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild — who leaves the community in August — described her congregation as “quite diverse and very educated”. Having served south London Jewry for 27 years — she was previously at Bromley Reform — the minister noted a high level of exchange between shuls on issues such as Israel, interfaith work and welfare. “We see ourselves as one big community. We can’t afford to be precious.” Although her synagogue had the biggest membership, “Wimbledon doesn’t grab everything. No one is empire building. The strength is in lots of partnerships.”

At Kingston United Synagogue, rabbinic couple Samuel and Shoshana Landau were recruited last year in response to a perceived need for “a young dynamic minister [to give] the community a chance of a future”. Mrs Landau — who is heavily involved in educational and pastoral activities among the 300 members — said that re-engaging with young congregants was a major element of their work. They wanted to establish a cross-communal youth club, noting that the local JLGB group brought in teenagers from as far afield as Brighton.

Affinity with the young is the selling point of another new south London minister, Richmond Synagogue’s Rabbi Jonny Hughes, whose unlikely path to the rabbinate included spells in the football academies at Reading and Swindon Town. Born to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, he only discovered Judaism at university.

The 250-member congregation is his first full ministerial post, having previously served as associate rabbi of Hendon Synagogue. Comparing the two, he reflects that “Hendon is a place of prayer. It’s a different experience when there is less religious commitment. Here alternative points of entry are more important. Someone will come to a barbecue and then might come to a lecture. It’s about fostering relationships.”

Rabbi Hughes takes pride in the “strong minyan” for Friday-night services at the cosy and modern synagogue building, doubtless attracted by the whisky and herring kiddush. There are 30 children in the cheder and Rabbi Hughes arranges teen-themed Shabbat services on topics such as the Oscars. And with his footballing background, the Liverpool supporting minister promises something striking for the World Cup.

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