Manchester's big leap is to try to become more united

Greater engagement from the strictly Orthodox will enhance the community


It is said that there are three Jewish communities in Greater Manchester - north, south, and Charedi. The former is the longest established, the south attracts some of the more affluent community members, and the strictly Orthodox accounts for a rising proportion of a Jewish population variously estimated at between 27,000 and 30,000.

Numbering close on 10,000, the Charedi community has colonised the Broughton area of Salford, in the north of the connurbation. Walking down Leicester Road - a favourite image for documentary-makers filming programmes on Chasidim - Michelle Ciffer points out the various shops and restaurants geared to the religious market, among them a rabbinically approved internet cafe and a mobile phone store.

Around the corner, surrounded by shuls and schools, is the Hershel Weiss Sure Start children and families centre, of which Mrs Ciffer is the long-time manager. A communal focal point, the centre deals with up to 700 people every week, with services ranging from drop-in play to counselling women with depression; and from baby ballet to "save your child's life" courses for men. There is also a library with a selection of secular titles.

Mrs Ciffer said: "They won't go into another place. So there is health information, training information and, what I am really proud of, non-Jewish books for children. We censor them but it's not a traditional Jewish library."

External offerings include swimming sessions for Jewish and Muslim women and their children and summer outings for families who otherwise could not afford them.

Dilapidated frontages of local properties give a clue to the impoverished conditions that some in the community face.

"We get families who have no money at all," Mrs Ciffer confided. "They've moved from Israel - I'm not quite sure why. They are living in quite difficult circumstances. My mums have babies every year to 18 months. We really understand the pressure on families.

"Anything we advertise is doubly over-subscribed. And we can get people to do things others can't - immunisation, for example. We are like a hechsher. We once ran an after-school immunisation catch-up session and 300 people turned up."

The centre operates on a shoestring with a £93,000 annual grant from Salford Council doubled with awards from the Lottery and BBC Children in Need. Mrs Ciffer hopes to expand it to offer more adult skills education. Lack of secular education leaves many ill prepared for the workplace.

"One of the gentlemen who comes here for the Computers for Dummies class, a young father, said to me: 'I don't want to be a van driver all my life.' He couldn't fill out the enrolment form - he couldn't write English."

Even where community members launch their own businesses, they tend to be insular and therefore quite limited in scope.

Mrs Ciffer said: "We once did a study, asking children: 'What is the definition of a stranger?' And they said: 'Anyone not Jewish.' They are lovely but they have been brought up in their bubble."

Such is their isolation from the wider world that they will gather in groups to observe non-Jewish builders working in the area.

The walk from Hershel Weiss to the northern offices of Interlink, the umbrella organisation for strictly Orthodox organisations, takes in the new Kings Square development of 80 houses. Twenty three of the family homes were made available as social housing through the Stamford Hill-based Agudas Israel Association.

Manchester Interlink head Nava Kestenbaum, who works with Agudas Israel, says she could have filled the Kings Square places five times over. Housing projects she has been involved with down the years had made "a massive impact on improving the living standards of so many people. You can see the health benefits".

However, she highlighted the plight of other families living in "sub-standard, insecure housing. Their tenancy could end very quickly".

As at Hershel Weiss, Interlink promotes training "to upscale men and women in the workforce, so that they have a qualification which sustains their employment. We've increased literacy, numeracy and IT skills. We've enabled schools to take advantage of apprenticeship grants".

There are a staggering two-dozen-plus Charedi schools in the area, the vast majority being private. "The budgetary pressures on schools are enormous," Mrs Kestenbaum noted. "Many need to improve their premises or relocate. It's a major challenge for independent schools."

Satisfying Ofsted inspectors is a "major concern", she said. "Our schools are not operating with people who are that familiar with the regulatory sector. It's a steep learning curve."

She adds that with the choice of kosher shops, community members did not feel the need to venture further, "particularly if you don't drive. And low car ownership is an indicator of the poverty that will retain you in the area".

"It's like having Stamford Hill on the doorstep of Finchley," is how Karen Phillips, chief executive of the major mainstream welfare organisation The Fed, describes the Jewish geography of north Manchester. Ms Phillips said the charity has made every effort to "make sure that community will use us. The majority of our work on children's projects is with the Charedi community. As the infrastructure in that community grows, they may become more self-sufficient. It hasn't become as independent as I thought it might have. We are still the lead organisation in terms of child protection and child support".

Other charities are also trying to deal with issues affecting an insular community. A collector for a food bank solicits contributions from shoppers buying their Shabbat provisions in a north Manchester kosher supermarket. A few doors down, a poster for JWA, helping women who have been victims of abuse, is displayed prominently in a café washroom.

Manchester Jewish Representative Council president, Sharon Bannister, acknowledges that it doesn't do enough with the strictly Orthodox.

"But that is not our choice," she stressed. "There are some Charedi people on the rep council. Even if they do not turn up, they can ask us to publicise their activities, which we do. We need to work together. I'd love them to engage more - we could learn from each other."

Ms Bannister is well versed in the welfare world as an adviser to the Alzheimer's Society. Her overview of Manchester Jewry is of "an extremely diverse and changing community. Then we've got north and south Manchester, which are very different. North communities are older, and I don't mean physically older. People have moved south and developed thriving communities".

The problem has been maintaining interaction between the two, other than for showpiece activities - this year's Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha'atzmaut events both attracted four-figure turnouts - "a rare example of people coming together", she said.

As with other local leaders, she talks of the difficulty of keeping twenty-somethings in Manchester. "Some of our younger ones going to university are not returning. They are going to London or Israel. That's a concern."

Rep council vice-president Jonny Wineberg believes that "in many cases it is about finding a partner. We need a JW3 [the London commuity centre] - it's something we should have done a long time ago. It would be great for the mainstream community".

He feels Manchester is let down by the Anglo-Jewish establishment. "We get nods from London-based organisations occasionally but it's a struggle. The Board of Deputies should have a part-time paid person in every region of the country."

Leaders also cite funding problems arising from the huge number of local Jewish orgainsations - Mr Wineberg says there are more than 400, or one for every 65 people.

"Some people would say there are too many," Ms Bannister added, trying her utmost to take an impartial line. "If all the organisations in one field would work more closely together, or merge, we would probably be stronger… that's what some people would say."

At both ends of the religious spectrum, organisations are trying different approaches to engage community members. For example, at the Reform-affiliated Menorah shul in south Manchester, chairman Howard Barlow says it gets people through the doors through cultural offerings such as a drama group, film club and arts festival. "We want to be 'Menorah, the community' rather than Cheshire Reform," says Mr Barlow, a former music photographer. Counting children, Menorah has a congregation of almost 1,000 and youth activity is another strong area. Mr Barlow said: "We encourage post-barmitzvah/batmitzvah kids to be madrichim. We've just appointed a full-time youth worker, Sarah Goldschmidt, a rare case of someone from London coming to Manchester.

"We are also looking at ways of working with Progressive movements like Masorti or Liberal. We've got this amazing building and we want to use it."

Over coffee in a city centre café, Timmy Dempsey and Steven Miller talk passionately about Shema, a platform for contemporary Or thodox learning. Although "ideologically aligned" to the London School of Jewish Studies, which helps to recruit speakers for its monthly meetings, the group is independent.

"The emphasis is on coming together to ask questions," Mr Dempsey said. "We are engaging people who are broad -minded enough to have a different point of view." Attendances at meetings have been upwards of 100 and the next step is generating the funding to attract top international speakers.

"Manchester as an Orthodox community has always gone in a one-dimensional way," Mr Miller observed. "We want to be a bit more adult about Judaism. There is huge potential - we are only scratching the surface."

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