Shmuli's journey via South Africa, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico

DAVID SAFFER speaks to a rabbi determined to keep the shrinking Leicester Jewish community alive

RABBI Shmuli Pink is ensuring Jewish life in Leicester continues into the next generation.

Census information suggests only 500 Jews now live in the East Midlands city.

Historically, Leicester was a small, provincial Jewish community when London families flooded into the city during the Second World War.

Evacuees returned south, but others stayed during the community's heyday in the 1950s.

Today, the age demographic is 60-plus, but activities take place on a regular basis throughout the year.

Rabbi Pink and his wife Rivkie arrived at Leicester Hebrew Congregation in August 2001 and are at the forefront of communal initiatives.

Together, they have restructured the local cheder and inaugurated adult education and social programmes. Their home is also a centre of the programmes they promote.

"All provincial communities, apart from Manchester and Gateshead, are shrinking," said Rabbi Pink, who is chaplain to local hospitals and prisons.

"The elderly is top heavy as the youth continues to move out, but it's essential to keep things moving along.

"It's a big challenge to keep Leicester vibrant, but we find new people who have not been involved with the community and connect them up.

"There may be only 100 addresses on the shul database, but we constantly meet new Jews, invite them for Shabbat, keep in contact and encourage them to tap into their Judaism."

He added: "I send out a weekly email to make people aware of what we are doing and it's unbelievable how many people tell me they read it religiously and pass it on to family members around the country."

Manchester-born Rabbi Pink is the fifth of Phaivish and Chana Pink's eight children.

He grew up in a loving family steeped in Judaism.

"It was fascinating as there was such a wide variety of people coming through the door." he said.

"This gave tremendous insights into dealing with different challenges in life.

"It's never too late, it's never too early or inconvenient to help out another Jew."

Rabbi Pink recalled Simchat Torah and Purim as his favourite festivals because they openly express joy, which he says is crucial in life.

As for his parents, he noted: "My father was dedicated to helping all calls for education in England and abroad and I still ask for guidance from him.

"Having seven children, there are different scenarios and challenges so it is always good to get sound advice from someone so experienced in the field.

"My mother was a rock of support to all the family from childhood up to today."

Rabbi Pink always finds time for his own family.

"Our biggest investment in life is our children, so it is not a struggle to give them time," he said.

Apart from his parents, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is an inspiration to Rabbi Pink.

"I met him in the 1990s and would not be who I am today if not for him," he said.

"It was not a personal meeting or audience, but his teachings saw the world in a clear, concise angle that enlightens things around you."

Rabbi Pink immersed himself in Talmud, chassidic literature and Jewish law at Kfar Chabad Yeshiva just outside Tel Aviv .

"Chassidic philosophy and thoughts opened up the Rebbe's work to look on life that was very refreshing," he recalled.

Rabbi Pink began his semicha in Johannesburg two years after the transition of power to Nelson Mandela.

"It was a very interesting time and a warm community," he said.

"I was a student emissary and helped run the yeshiva.

"Working with the yeshiva boys, we made sure they had skills to learn and offered a framework they could keep."

Rabbi Pink recalled it was a historic time to be in the Rainbow Nation.

"No one thought it would be a peaceful transition, but it had happened and the papers called it a miracle," he said.

"People were faced with the constant issue of crime. You could see it on the walls and the electric fences.

'Being single you did not feel the pressures as you would with a family to protect.

"As an unmarried student, you were aware of the challenges, but it did not make too much difference to our everyday lives.

"Yet I felt the warmth of the community and it was a really nice place to live."

Rabbi Pink also worked in the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as a 'rolling rabbi'.

"For around 70 years, Chabad sent 'rolling rabbis' to small communities, which don't have a built up structure, once or twice a year," he said.

"We met up with different Jews and connected to bring a boost to their Judaism.

"It was amazing to see. Meeting different Jews, whether on top of a mountain or by someone's boathouse, people were so appreciative of what we did."

Rabbi Pink finished his semicha in New York in 1998. And it was during his time in America he met his wife, Rivkie (nee Weinbaum), in Palm Springs, California.

She had attended a teachers' seminary in Johannesburg prior to gaining further experience in Gothenburg and Palm Springs.

Following their marriage, Rabbi Pink undertook postgraduate rabbinical studies in New York for a further year before taking up a post as programme director of Chabad Calgary in 1980.

Twelve months on the Pinks moved to Leicester and have brought Judaism to the region for over a decade.

"One-to-one learning is popular," Rabbi Pink said.

"Big events do not have that effect, but we have a high threshold of members where around 70 per cent do something for the community.

"We celebrate all the festivals, get a regular minyan on a Friday night and Shabbat morning.

"And in the summer we have a successful Shabbat mincha at people's houses were we can get up to 30 people.

"The average age is around 65, but there are teenagers and a Maccabi group meets.

"It is important to be able to let people be part of a bigger picture so we welcome children whose mothers have married out and Israelis have also come to events."

The Jewish community provides welfare visits for the elderly and also gathers for a communal seder.

Groups include a Bagel Breakfast Club, Shalom Club and WIZO.

Rabbi Pink added that the Leicester Hebrew Congregation community is planning ahead.

"We are in the middle of restructuring ourselves financially to ensure our continuation," he said.

"Many small communities get to where we are and get a part-time rabbi, but end up with the community closing down with lots of assets.

"Here the community wants a full-time rabbi so we are selling our communal hall, which will make us financially viable for another 15 to 20 years.

"It is essential to have the correct asset facilities to function and have the Leicester banner flying high."

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph