If there is truth to the adage that everything comes to those who wait, Brighton is on the cusp of some bountiful gains.

Those behind the BNJC project to create a “JW3 for Brighton” were disappointed last week when the planning application did not make it onto the local council agenda. It is not the first postponement of the crucial decision but for those behind the proposed redevelopment of Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation’s New Church Road site, it’s an obvious frustration.

It is getting on for 18 months since Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis joined more than 200 people from across the community to hear plans for the development, which include housing, a new synagogue and cross-communal facilities such as a kosher café, a functions hall and an employment support resource.

If a separate project to establish a local Jewish school is successful, Brighton Jewry will face the future with renewed optimism after decades of decline.

BNJC is backed by the Bloom Foundation, headed by Brighton and Hove Albion FC chair Tony Bloom, whose parents still live in the city. Ashley Woolfe — who grew up with Tony Bloom in Brighton and describes himself as the project’s “eyes and ears on the ground” — speaks wistfully of how the area once offered “literally everything” in Jewish terms.

“But then a whole generation moved away [himself included — he returned six years ago].”

Its kosher shops have closed, there is no youth movement presence and the two Orthodox synagogues (Hove Hebrew Congregation is the other) have ageing memberships and struggle to attract Shabbat audiences of more than a few dozen.

Project leaders would love the Orthodox shuls to merge but years of on-off discussions have failed to produce an agreement.

“There is a genuine feeling among all constituent bodies to do something about this [the decline in Jewish life],” Mr Woolfe says. “The opportunity has now arisen, whether or not the merger happens.”

Whereas BNJC has been motivated by the model of London’s JW3, it is the success of Mosaic Jewish Primary in South London which is driving those pursuing the dream of establishing a Brighton school.

“The idea has always been at the back of my mind,” says Gordon Kay, who moved to the area in 2004 and whose children attended the local Lubavitch nursery.

Inspired by a presentation by Mosaic leaders at Limmud, he came away thinking: “If they could do it in South London, why not here?”

As well as interest from parents involved in the community, Mr Kay sees the potential for a school to engage the many “hidden Jews in Brighton who want to express their Judaism but not through shul membership”. That is in addition to families who have moved to the less expensive outlying areas.

And more than a community centre, a school would be a major selling point to entice new families.

“It doesn’t take a leap of faith to expect people to come here [if a school is established],” he says. “It would give us nearly everything a Jewish community needs.”

The school group has been awaiting the release of the latest free school criteria from the Department for Education before progressing plans for an application.

“There is always an element of confidence once people see something is moving forward,” Mr Kay notes.

The migration from Brighton of many potential leaders has also impacted on succession planning. It is now more than a decade since Beryl Sharpe, Debra Goodman, Jessica Rosenthal and Sarah Wilks took charge at Sussex Jewish Representative Council.

“If we hadn’t taken over, it would have died,” recalls Mrs Goodman, who is also vice-chair of Brighton’s Reform shul, which has been successful in attracting young families — most recently from other areas — and has 39 children in its cheder and a congregation of around 525.

“It is difficult to get people of the right age [to assume leadership roles]. So many of us wear so many hats. It’s good for now but not for the future.” Her view is supported by the Brighton Reform chair, Michael Harris, who observes ruefully: “We don’t have a surfeit of people clamouring to come on the council.”

The shul does, however, have its own redevelopment scheme, incorporating a new synagogue building “broadly self-financed” by the sale of flats to be constructed alongside.

Add the Progessive shul and a long established Chabad Lubavitch group, there are five affiliating options for a community estimated at 2,700 at the time of the last Census. At the most optimistic assessment, half are not involved in a shul and although there has been an influx of Israelis to the area, they mostly tend to socialise among themselves. “They are the hardest group to attract,” Mr Harris acknowledges.

Brighton already has a community centre, Ralli Hall, around the corner from Hove railway station. It is a reflection of how things have changed since its opening in the mid-70s that where youth events once filled its rooms, it now predominantly serves a much older clientele and relies and commercial tenancies in self-contained spaces to balance the books.

“We need the building to be here for the Jewish community,” says centre manager Maxine Gordon. “But not enough people are coming through the doors.”

And though she accepts “the definite need for what BNJC are doing, they are promoting it as the new community centre, which hurts.

“Whether we work alongside them, or independently, remains to be seen. But the board and myself are concerned. We would hate to be forgotten.”

On the day I visit, a mixture of freezing weather, icy pavements and winter colds and flu has depleted numbers at Ralli Hall’s lunch and social club, where the main topics of conversation on the men’s table are Brexit and the local football club’s Premier League fortunes.

But the reduced turnout does increase the opportunity for second helpings — at least for those with prodigious appetites — of the heavily subsidised three course lunch ferried from the kitchens of Hyman Fine House.

Hyman Fine is Jewish Care’s only residential home outside the London area and operates close to its 41 capacity. Its manager, Natasha Carson, reports that as the home can provide nursing and dementia care, “couples with different care needs can stay together”.

Another local facility grateful for Bloom Foundation support, the home is in the process of a £500,000 upgrade designed to enhance user friendliness.

“It’s a lovely, warm place, partly because of the staff,” says Ms Carson, who has been with Jewish Care for 20 years, seven of them at Hyman Fine. “We are extremely fortunate to have high retention rates — four staff have been with us for over 20 years.”

There are four chickens in the gardens, “a curiosity” for residents “and a talking point when the grandchildren come in”. A bequest has funded the highly popular addition of surround sound speakers and a home cinema system.

“We now put on classical music of residents’ choosing at mealtimes and they are often watching DVDs of films such as Singing In The Rain,” Ms Carson adds. But that does not interfere with the Friday morning tradition of a discussion group based around the contents of the latest JC.

Another care organisation is the local Jewish Welfare Board, the oldest charity in the area, dating back to 1846, which makes disbursements to families and individuals in hardship.

The board’s Fiona Sharpe says it is currently involved with more than two dozen cases, involving issues including unemployment and mental health. One of the saddest stories she had come across concerned “a war veteran living in a squat who did not want to engage with anyone”.

Mrs Wilks is a co-founder of Helping Hands, which offers assistance including befriending and transportation to medical appointments. Its volunteers help to combat social isolation in an area with “a demographic problem.

“People move down here to retire and then things happen [illness, bereavement]. They are housebound and need to be taken to places.”

Although the rep council is naturally keen to see young families settle in Brighton, its leaders acknowledge: “The reality is this is an ageing community and they have greater needs.”

The council also administers the Community Renewal Fund, “a little treasure chest, to which any organisation or individual wanting to start an initiative that would benefit the community can apply for a grant or loan”, Mrs Goodman explains.

The fund — backed by a voluntary £10 levy on synagogue members — has supported activities including Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations, communal shows and a Limmud film club.

Among activities geared towards maintaining good relations with the wider populace is a homelessness initiative assisting a local church night shelter and drop-in centre.

“We send out appeals to the community for goods to be donated — toiletries, tinned food, women’s sanitary products,” Mrs Wilks says. “We also distribute to those living on the streets.”

Those positive relations extend to the city council — led by Labour with backing from the Greens — which unanimously passed the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

“It was a huge deal,” says Ms Sharpe, another of the community’s multiple hat wearers, speaking this time in her role with Sussex Friends of Israel, which has become a social media sensation, with 18,000 Twitter followers and 54,000 on Facebook, thanks in no small measure to the indefatigable efforts of Simon Cobbs.

“We’ve become known for fast-moving advocacy,” Ms Sharpe reports. “We know what we do and we do it well. We also promote positive stories which often get lost in the noise that goes on.”

Every other weekend, Londoners join its street advocacy teams which hand out information to counter “one of the largest BDS and PSC movements in the country”.

Hate crime has been a growing problem, “although in about the same proportion as the rest of the country”, Ms Sharpe adds. Calls have been received from parents about antisemitic incidents in schools.

“The schools take it seriously but it is an uncomfortable thing for them to deal with because it has become politicised.”

The situation is not helped by the fact that Jewish pupils are spread thinly among a number of schools.

Brighton Reform is doing its bit to keep Jewish teens together by incentivising the post-cheder group to return each week to help out at the classes.

Looking ahead to next month, Mr Woolfe’s fervent hope is that the council will finally discuss, and approve, the BNJC application.

Although there have been objections from the neighbouring school and residents — “it’s the way of the world now that you cannot sneeze without offending someone” — he believes that concerns over parking, the height of the housing and noise levels during construction work have been allayed.

He prefers to accentuate the positives, among them Brighton’s commutability for those working in the capital — Southern Railway permitting.

“I know it’s a cliche but this is London by the sea,” he declares. “There’s now a J-Soc of 250 at Sussex University, so a lot of 18-21-year-olds who will think in a few years’ time: ‘I had such a great time at Sussex. I want to move to Brighton.’”

View original article at The JC

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