GITA CONN

Shuls are more than buildings

THERE comes a time in the life of magnificent buildings, edifices built by dedicated Jews in tribute to their religion, heritage and place in society, when they are no longer fit for their original purpose.

Some do survive, providing they attract support to adapt or even change their vision.

Manchester’s Spanish and Portuguese Congregation morphed successfully into the Jewish Museum, expanding from strength to expansion with new funding.

Glasgow’s Garnethill, founded in 1870 and one of the top 10 historic synagogues in the UK, still functions as a shul while becoming a communal centre and home for Scottish Jewish archives.

Liverpool’s Grade 1* listed Princes Road Synagogue is so outstanding, it is a major attraction on the tourist and heritage trail, particularly for the passengers pouring from cruise liners.

Its membership may be declining . . . but those who remain describe the services as having a wonderfully spiritual atmosphere enhanced by the beautiful singing of the chazan and choir (an Orthodox synagogue, it nevertheless boasts a mixed choir, dating from the First World War when men were in short supply).

Leeds’ neo-Byzantine New Synagogue, one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks with its large green dome roof and Egyptian-style Portland stone portico, finally called it a day in 1985 when it sold the building to the council and subsequently became the home of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

When all a synagogue has left is a beautiful building, when the “hard-working” citizens of the country are funding its survival with their lottery tickets, when a few elderly gents have to be shlepped out to form a minyan, then surely it is time to go.

Of course, it is hard to relenquish the memories. So many families’ histories are punctuated by simchot celebrated in synagogues.

My own sons were barmitzvah at Manchester’s Crumpsall Synagogue. But despite the torrent of nostalgia flooding its imminent demise, its edifice and pomp seemed to take precedence over a sense of community and care for people.

As a newlywed, climbing aloft to the preposterously high cantilevered balcony, I had no sooner sat down than I was peremptorily evicted by an extravagantly behatted latecomer, snapping: “That’s my seat!”

And, yes, the chazan and choir were an operatic treat, an unequalled performance of male voices.

But I sensed more spirituality on a recent Easyjet flight to Israel when men — of all branches of Judaism — herded to the rear of the plane for ma’ariv and a few daring young women lingered at the rear, modestly mouthing from their prayer books.

Despite my total exclusion, as a woman from Crumpsall’s Orthodox services (it felt like I was miles above and away from my sons at their bnei mitzvah), this is not a Reform v Orthodox rant.

One cannot, for instance, feel more welcome at Orthodox Yeshurun Synagogue in Cheadle, where the rebbetzen greets every congregant individually.

And I am confident that no one there would be ignored and instantly deleted from membership on divorce, as I was at Crumpsall.

No, this is a plea for a shul to be more than a building and a minyan. It needs to be a community to all — young and old — and also to reach out to the world around it.

There are fewer than 300 Jews in Bradford. But its one remaining shul, a Moorish gem of a building founded in 1880, has managed to survive — just — and has become a tourist and schools attraction as well as a heritage site and inter-faith inspiration for the whole community.

On the brink of closure through low membership and lack of funding, it was saved a couple of years ago by the Muslim community.

Zulfi Karim, secretary of Bradford Council of Mosques, bonded with the indefatigable 91-year-old chairman of the synagogue, Rudi Leavor, and became probably the first Muslim to serve on a shul council!

Muslims and Christians are invited to Onegei Shabbat; Muslims return the invitation for a Ramadan feast and Christians do so during the harvest.

In the city where men like David Ward and George Galloway have spread their racist poison, Karim has said: “I really, really feel deeply and strongly that the way forward is interfaith dialogue.”


Helping refugees knows no boundaries

THE worldwide refugee crisis has prompted many — organisations and individuals — to do something, anything, to help the victims.

A friend who volunteers for Refugee Action realised, on a day between Chanucah and Xmas, that of the two Arab women she was teaching, one was Muslim and one Christian.

“Here we are,” she commented. “A Christian, a Muslim and a Jew . . . all women together just learning.” The smiles were broad on all three faces and the seasonal wishes expressed heartily.

Refugee Action operates in most UK cities. The website is refugee-action.org.uk

A group of volunteers is about to be trained in the Bury/Bolton area — an ideal opportunity for practical goodwill between its Jewish community and the refugees.

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