Uncertain future for Belfast's Jews

Sat, Nov 21, 2009, 00:00

NESTLED BEHIND carefully pruned hedges on Belfast’s resolutely middle-class Somerton Road is an unexpected landmark. In a town where religion and politics have been intertwined stands the synagogue of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation, an unassuming modernist building that is home to a faith community that has been in the city for decades, writes JASON WALSH

Since the Belfast Agreement of 1998, the North has become a much more desirable place to live. It’s home to an estimated 30,000 Poles and 4,200 native Mandarin speakers, but not all minorities have thrived. Belfast’s Jewish community has shrunk to a shadow of its former self.

Having played a pivotal role in social, political and commercial life throughout the 20th century, it faces an uncertain future, with its population at a low of less than 100, from a peak of 2,500 in the 1960s.

The Jewish community settled in Belfast largely by accident. Fleeing pogroms in central and eastern Europe, refugees were duped into believing they were travelling to the US. After paying for passage, they were dumped in Ireland and in the UK. In some cases they faced discrimination in Ireland, most famously in the Limerick Pogrom, but the story is not one of uniform persecution.

The first wave of Jewish migrants, principally Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews from Poland, Germany, Lithuania and Russia, took up residence around Carlisle Circus in North Belfast. As they prospered they moved to the leafy suburbs around Fortwilliam, under the shadow of Cavehill.

In the 1960s the community’s then president, Barry Hurwitz, sought to find a new home for religious services.

“He single-handedly raised the money to buy the land where the synagogue now stands,” said Adrian Levey, a leading member of the community.

By the 1960s, the Jewish community had swelled due to those fleeing Nazi persecution during the late 1930s and early 1940s. There were approximately 2,500 Jewish people in Belfast.

“Then 1969 happened, and the rest is history,” says Levey. “Now we have less than 100 people.”

The Troubles took their toll on the Jewish community as they did on everyone else, but few Jews were directly involved in the conflict – although they didn’t escape entirely untouched.

In 1980, Leonard Kaitcer, an antiques dealer, was taken from his home and later found shot dead in West Belfast. No one claimed responsibility for the killing.

In 2004, the SDLP’s Alban Maguinness claimed Kaitcer’s killing, “was a significant factor in the decline of Belfast’s once-thriving Jewish community”.

Kaitcer’s death remains a mystery. A £1 million ransom had been demanded for his release but he was killed within 24 hours. “Jewish people weren’t targeted because they were Jewish – we tended to keep out of [the dispute],” says the head of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation, Rabbi Brackman.

The only other Jewish shooting victim was Leonard Steinberg, shot in the leg by the Provisional IRA. Steinberg was the founder of bookmakers Stanley Racing and had refused to pay protection money to either loyalist or republican groups. He decamped to Liverpool.

Malcolm Lewis, the current president of Dublin Jewish Progressive Community, and a Belfast native, left the North after his business, a barber’s shop in Glengormley on the outskirts of Belfast, was damaged by a bomb in 1976.

It wasn’t just the bombing that drove Lewis out. “I met a lady from Dublin and we fell in love. She didn’t want to move to Belfast – for obvious reasons – so I decided to go to Dublin.” Today, the Belfast Jewish community has to look abroad, primarily to the UK, for many of its needs. Meat slaughtered in accordance with kosher requirements is imported, for example, as are other products, such as wine.

As the numbers decrease, the problems faced by the congregation increase. Most of the younger members have left the city, lured away either by education and work, seldom to return, or virtually forced to leave, in order to marry within the faith.

According to Rabbi Brackman, there is a certain inevitability to younger members leaving, largely to London and Manchester, but also further afield.

“The principle is to marry into the faith. If they find a spouse in Belfast, great. If not, the hope is they will bring people back.

“Optimistically, yes, the community could grow,” he says.

One of the greatest fears of any Jewish community, anti-Semitism, is a not problem in Belfast, according to both Levey and Rabbi Brackman.

“There was some graffiti on the synagogue [wall] but that’s really all. Very seldom do I run into any unpleasantness,” says Rabbi Brackman.

“There is no [serious] anti-Semitism,” says Levey, “just the odd daubing”. Levey points out that the Belfast Hebrew Congregation is unusual among synagogues in Ireland and Britain in that it organises no security during services. “We’re not really considered a threat and while, broadly speaking, Northern Protestants support Israel and Catholics support Palestine, it doesn’t really play out on the streets.”

This idea of Belfast as an unlikely centre of religious tolerance is contradicted somewhat by comments from the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel group.

The organisation’s Steven Jaffe and Terry McCorran wrote a newspaper article noting that Israeli workers were harassed at a Belfast shopping centre and an Israeli flag was burnt outside the city hall.

Nevertheless, and despite the geopolitical tensions, Belfast’s Jewish community is as much a part of the community as the rest of the populous. Levey points out that, despite Sinn Féin’s traditional support for the Palestinian cause, there are no problems between republicans and Belfast’s Jews. “The current lord mayor [Sinn Féin’s Tom Hartley] worked hard to have the Jewish plot in the City Cemetery on the Falls Road restored and tidied.”

Levey, a cheerful man by nature, sounds resigned, yet proud, when it comes to the future of the Belfast congregation. “As a community we’ve had our last rites, so to speak, but there will always be Jewish people here.”

Theatre Celebrating heritage

BELFAST CITY’S Jewish heritage is celebrated by Jews Schmooze, a group that is perhaps best described as the cultural wing of Belfast Jewry, and aims to open up Jewish art and culture to a wider audience.

Founder Katy Radford recently helped make the city’s Jewish heritage much more visible by collaborating with the Kabosh theatre company to produce a play, This is What We Sang, as part of the annual Belfast Festival at Queen’s University.

Performed in the Belfast synagogue, This is What We Sang was considered a smash hit, garnering positive reviews and large audiences.

“It was very successful, one of the big theatre hits of the festival,” says Richard Gaston, marketing manager for the Belfast Festival.

The drama is set on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and focuses on five family members from across the globe and across the centuries seeking absolution for their pasts. As they relate the tales of their lives they tell the story of Belfast – the city they made home.

Radford made contact with Kabosh two years ago and they immediately began research for the play.

“We interviewed around 60 members of the Jewish community to get their memories of Belfast,” says Kabosh’s creative producer, Hugh Odling-Smee.

“We then commissioned playwright Gavin Kostick to write the script. Gavin had Jewish roots and was an Irish writer,” says Odling-Smee. “He didn’t directly use the people we interviewed but created a fictional family to explore ideas.

“It starts in 1898 and represents four waves of immigration and emigration. Leaving Ireland is a part of the story – Bill from New York comes over to bury his aunt and learns the story of the Jewish community in Belfast, but it is also about wider universal themes of loss, forgiveness and sin.”

Odling-Smee says that, while these themes are indeed universal, they are perhaps particularly relevant to a post-conflict Belfast.