Mersey beats brightly despite small numbers


It is common for the talk within small regional communities to be primarily about survival. Yet in Liverpool, a Jewish population of little more than 2,000 is not just sustaining two schools, four shuls, kosher provision and a cradle-to-grave welfare network. It is looking bullishly to the future, with a confidence instilled from an enviable infrastructure and the willingness of organisations to work together for the greater good.

The view of Merseyside Jewish Representative Council chairman and "bitterly proud Scouser" Ian Cohen is that size is not everything when it comes to communal strength. "You can have 10,000 people with 500 active. Or you can have 2,000 with 1,000 active. We're the latter. Who says you cannot have a viable community on that basis?"

A collaborative mindset can reap impressive dividends. Shabbat Across The Mersey - an initiative predating Shabbat UK, locals are keen to point out - mobilised one-third of the community on a Friday night. Merseyside Jewry's inclusive nature may also explain why the dominant youth group is the mainstream JLGB. Nor is the community insular, with its wider involvement in the regenerated city extending to two MPs, Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman.

Mr Cohen is holding court in a meeting room on the King David School campus, itself testimony to both local pragmatism and ambition. Opened three years ago, it combines the primary and secondary schools, plus the KD nursery, on a modern site that would be a selling point for any major London community. Additional facilities incorporated into the £25 million build allow for a range of communal activities, compensating for the closure of the uneconomic community centre, Harold House.

According to KD high school head Brigid Smith, Jewish pupil numbers range from 20 per cent in the kindergarten to around 13 per cent in the high school. Yet the Jewish ethos - "we're governed by the Jewish calendar" - is bought into by the non-Jewish pupils and their parents, who are doubtless also attracted by KD's excellent academic record.

Quotes from Jewish texts and Anne Frank are inscribed on walls, alongside the wisdom of John Lennon and Nelson Mandela. The Jewish studies classrooms were purposely sited as a bridge between the schools and its centrally located shul is used daily. All primary pupils are now taught Ivrit. "We felt it would enrich the Jewish life of the school and the feedback from parents has been positive," Ms Smith explains.

Head girl Lauren Miller, 18, says that having been through KD since nursery, "I've kind of been brought up by King David, so I look at the school as my family rather than a place of learning. I think it's quite nice that the majority of pupils are non-Jewish, because it means that you have to set an example to them. In an assembly, I have to make my talk a bit more personal to them because they don't know what the festivals are."

Given the pivotal role of the schools in sustaining the community, birth rates are a big talking point and the 30 or more Jewish children joining the next KD reception class is a hot conversational topic. There is equal focus on the other end of the age spectrum and Mr Cohen hails Merseyside Jewish Community Care as "our jewel in the crown" for meeting the needs of the elderly population, as well as providing a full range of other welfare services. He is also heartened by the phased improvements being introduced at the Stapely residential home.

MJCC's Shifrin House HQ may lack the elegance and staff numbers of its capital counterparts but the charity boasts a committed professional and lay leadership as it deals with 454 "active welfare cases". Chief executive Lisa Dolan says that "over 100 people each week use our services at least once. Many use several."

With budgetary limitations and the loss of council grants, MJCC relies almost exclusively on the community for financial and practical support and it can currently call on 263 volunteers, a vast number given the Jewish population. Charity president Howard Winik is pleased that this commitment has been recognised with a Jewish Volunteering Network award. MJCC also provides administrative services for other Jewish organisations.

"Year on year, we have a working deficit of £40-50,000. We have some investments which ensure we keep going as we cannot afford to keep losing that kind of money," he says. A major appeal has raised £500,000 to cover a five-year period. But in a small and well resourced community, the calls on donors are many.

At Stapely, where workmen are continuing the renovation of the nursing care area, trustee Philip Ettinger reflects that the proceeds from "one Jewish Care-type dinner would solve all our problems".

Pragmatic decisions have also helped to maintain the local synagogues, which co-operate to a degree which would astound many Londoners. Falling membership forced the closure of Greenbank Drive Synagogue in 2008, leaving three Orthodox shuls - Childwall, Allerton and the Grade I-listed Princes Road, which dates back to 1874 and enhances interfaith relations by welcoming 4,000 visitors annually for guided tours of its sumptuous premises.

The Reform synagogue switched from the Liberal fold "to be more in keeping with who we are as a community," says shul chair Paul Levinson.

With 400 adult members or more, Allerton and Childwall are the biggest. Their respective rabbis, Dan Lieberman and Mordechai Wollenberg, get along famously. "We've only spoken twice today," says the youthful Rabbi Lieberman, also a student chaplain, as he opens the door of a synagogue rebuilt in 2009 to reflect a more modest membership than in bygone days.

The intimate main prayer area can seat 150 and with Shabbat attendances of 100 or so, gives a minister the confidence of playing to a pretty full house. "I know shuls complain about atmosphere on Shabbat but we don't have that problem. It's a Marmite design, though. I think it looks like Noah's Ark. Others say it looks like a sauna."

Rabbi Lieberman came to the job from Manchester, "30 miles but a different world. I've never met a community where everyone works so hard for each other.

"Childwall and Allerton have very different characters but there is no 'us and them'. We enjoy ourselves at Allerton - God doesn't want you to be depressed. Let's maximise what we've got and then the community can grow."

For Childwall, it is crunch time. Its cavernous and chilly building has seen better days. Frustrated at needing constantly to dip into limited funds for running repairs, chairman Syd Edels is negotiating to release covenants to allow a sale of land, which would fund a smaller, purpose-built synagogue on the site with community facilities.

"I'm driven by the fact that there is a need for a community centre. In a perfect world, we would have the new shul by Rosh Hashanah 2016. We are right on the school doorstep so, for example, we could have mums come here for coffee and a bagel after dropping off their kids."

Formerly with the Cardiff community, Rabbi Wollenberg is doing his bit for Jewish numbers at KD, as the eldest three of his seven children - "two Scousers, five Welsh" - are pupils.

He notes that "the older generation struggles with the fact that the younger generation is less in shul. If they are not in shul, you have to go where they are." That is why a community centre would be priceless.

Mr Cohen bristles at any suggestion of a declining community, not least as numbers have plateaued over the past decade. Indeed, the solicitor and father-of-four believes that in Jewish and professional life, Liverpool now has plenty to offer, an argument backed by Rabbi Lieberman, who reports that students who completed degrees in Merseyside last year have since landed jobs in the city.

"Compare salaries and cost of living," Mr Cohen says. "My house equivalent in a similar Jewish area in London would be three or four times what it is here. We have had people coming back."

And in communal terms, there is the fulfilment that comes with knowing that involvement genuinely counts. "Look at Manchester, or even Leeds. People can turn round and say: 'I don't need to do this - I can leave this to someone else.' We have that to some degree here. But we have plenty of people who are active and are willing to put in the time and effort."

So how would he pitch Liverpool to an outsider? "We are warm, welcoming and inclusive. We have everything you could possibly want to bring up a Jewish family. If you support Liverpool or Everton, even better."

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