UK communities express interest in following the model of pioneering Brighton campus

BNJC is filling up its housing, opening its restaurants and gym and attracting high shul attendances


Communities around the country are expressing interest in following the model of the pioneering BNJC community complex in Brighton.

The housing, shul, cultural and culinary campus opened its doors in March, with the first residents moving in and services starting in Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation’s new synagogue.

Now most of BNJC’s 45 housing units — including five social housing apartments — are spoken for, although six are being left vacant to cater for young guests staying over for Shabbatons held by outside organisations.

BNJC CEO Marc Sugarman reported that a number of those moving in were people in their fifties, relocating from communities on the fringes of London, who would not experience material differences in the commuting time to their jobs in the capital.

“And a good thing is that there also a number in their mid-thirties and under. These are the people we need to rejuvenate the community.”

Mitzvah Day chief executive Stuart Diamond is among those bringing his family to BNJC, where his wife will be joining the staff.

“He came for a meeting about Mitzvah Day [its 2023 launch will be at BNJC]. We showed him around and he was sold,” Sugarman said.

Other buyers and renters have enrolled children for the nursery launching in September. On the opening weekend, more than 100 worshippers filled the new shul premises on Shabbat morning and it is continuing to attract around 80 people to services, considerably more than on its previous site.

There has also been a bat mitzvah, which Sugarman believes would not have taken place in the old BHHC shul.

Meanwhile, the café and bakery has opened “without fanfare” and a similar soft launch is planned for the restaurant. “The assets we have, the facilities we have, people love,” Sugarman said.

“The frustration is that we haven’t been able to open the café and the restaurant quite as early as we would have liked for various reasons out of our control — some appliances not working and recruiting front of house staff.”

A programme of events is also being developed which Sugarman believes will engage the unaffiliated.

“People don’t realise that a lot of Jews in Brighton are not involved in shuls. Our site will give them opportunities.

“What’s clear to me is that the Jewish community nationally loves the idea of coming to stay in Brighton and using it as a holiday venue, knowing that they can go to shul, eat kosher and walk to the sea in five minutes. That’s a massive thing.

“Where we’ve got to prove we can do it is on the cross-communal side, particularly encouraging non-Jewish people to come.

“Because we’ve got security, although the place looks beautiful from the outside, there’s railings so it’s not naturally the most welcoming.

“What we have got to do is to make sure everyone is aware,by signage and approach, that it’s an open space and we want to encourage people in. That’s going to be the something for the next month.”

One way of showing the wider community “that we are open for business” is the BNJC gym.
Sugarman expects the vast majority of users will be non-Jews and if they begin frequenting the café and restaurant, “then word spreads”.

The interest in the BNJC model from elsewhere includes an inquiry from Israel.

But the majority are from communities around the UK and Sugarman sees what is being accomplished in Brighton as a template for other religions, citing city-centre churches with cavernous buildings but limited use.

He added that Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis had been “incredibly supportive” of the project.

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