By Sheila Gewolb
Over the past few weeks, I have been privileged to visit two small vibrant communities as part of my continuing commitment, as Chair of the Board’s Community and Education Division, to support all UK Jewish communities, whatever their size.
Catford and Bromley United and Luton United synagogues have many similarities and have both taken a pro-active approach towards their declining memberships. Catford shul, which opened in 1940, moved to more suitable, modern premises in Crantock Road in 1968; Luton Hebrew Congregation, established in 1923, moved more recently from their Bury Park shul, relocating to a smaller building in Dunstable Road in 2010, at which time it became Luton United synagogue.
Each congregation now has around 200 members, and despite dwindling numbers, both shuls remain very active. Catford Chair, Joe Burchall and Rev David Rome have taken the lead in organising learning, (including a one-day Limmud in 2002); and establishing clubs and societies. The Friendship Club celebrated 50 years in 2007, and I made several new friends there when I was invited to join them for a delicious home-cooked meal. The Ladies Guild is also always on hand to provide refreshments. The outreach learning in Catford is a model for all shuls. Gerald Rose runs two or three school visits every week, and has been supported by Lewisham Council to purchase Judaism teaching resources. Other activities at the shul include a recent multi-faith Peace Walk, where members got together with local churches, Lewisham Islamic Centre, civic dignitaries and MPs – around 400 people in all.
Outreach education- which is one of my priorities at the Board, is also enthusiastically undertaken in Luton United synagogue by Rebbetzen Rivki Schwei, who has worked alongside her husband Rabbi Yossi since 1990. Several schools visit each term, and the demand is increasing. Chair Laurence Benjamin is enthusiastic about involving members in regular tea and talk meetings, catered for by their Ladies Guild, where they are addressed by local speakers on interesting topics. On my visit, there was a presentation from Health Watch Luton who spoke about patient feedback schemes to assist in best practice for local health care.
I hope I have been able to give a flavour of how these two small synagogues have coped with diminishing numbers to support their local Jewish communities. There is always a sense that, as time goes by, numbers will grow even less, however, this fact has not deterred the leadership of these shuls from moving forward with their programmes and innovative ways to (hopefully) increase their memberships. In the next few months, I hope to visit many more communities such as theirs.
Sheila Gewolb is Board of Deputies Vice President and Chair of the Board’s Community and Education Division