The leafy suburbs of north Leeds have long been home to one of Britain’s largest Jewish communities. But after decades of dwindling population and declining religious participation, the community is fighting to preserve its future—in a pattern repeated in other cities across the U.K.
On Moortown Corner, a shopping street near the city’s Jewish nursing home and synagogues, the challenges are particularly apparent: In March, the main kosher supermarket, The Moortown Deli, closed. A few doors down, the principal Jewish bakery, Chalutz, shut in 2010. Now, many locals are pushing to merge three remaining Orthodox synagogues, whose once overcrowded services are routinely left with empty seats these days.
Leeds’ Jewish population reached a peak of some 25,000 in the 1920s, according to data compiled by the British Board of Deputies. It has since seen a significant decline. In the 10 years leading up to the last census, in 2011, the number of Jews living in Leeds shrank 17 percent—even as the city’s general population grew; the most recent figures show a community of less than 7,000, in a city with a population of about 750,000. Several of the towns and villages around Leeds, in the north of England, have almost no trace of Jewish life left, mirroring shrinkages elsewhere in Britain, from Brighton to Bournemouth and Birmingham to Bristol.
“Leeds and all the regional communities have experienced population decline,” said David Graham, senior research fellow at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. “That contraction we have known about for a long time, but it is very stark in census data. It is a very clear and unambiguous pattern.”
Leeds’ first major synagogue opened in 1860 and a small Jewish community can be traced back to the 1830s. Its population increased throughout the 19th century, fueled by people fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Many were on their way to the United States and disembarked at nearby port towns to catch onward ships, but lacked money to continue the journey. Others came to work in Leeds’ tailoring and clothing industries.
As they integrated, many of Leeds’ Jews eschewed the orthodoxy of their ancestors. For years, however, they maintained a different kind of religiosity, with swathes still attending Orthodox synagogues regularly, even if they weren’t Orthodox in their observance outside services. Today, “there is much more of a polarity between the frum and the non-frum,” said Jason Kleiman, the rabbi at Leeds’ largest synagogue—the roughly 1,700-member Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Orthodox congregation, founded in 1937—who argues that this trend has been driven by increasing intermarriage and is part of a broader assimilation. “There was a time when people would go to shul as a cultural thing on Shabbat then go to Elland Road [the local soccer stadium] in the afternoon. That doesn’t happen anymore. [The secular group] will not be in synagogue on a Saturday morning.”
There have been—and remain—other places for Jews to attend services in Leeds, from the Reform Sinai Synagogue to the Conservative Leeds Masorti minyan, as well as the Lubavitch Centre. But the Orthodox synagogues have long formed the backbone of the city’s Jewish community.
Having grown up in Leeds, I remember queueing for spare seats in our Orthodox synagogue on the high holidays. Last Rosh Hashanah, however, there were more empty chairs than occupied ones in several local synagogues, according to a letter sent by Arnold Zermansky, a local resident, to community members. “The coming together of the New Year period confronts us all with evidence of the health of our Leeds synagogues,” it read. “Such small congregations in a large building can feel forlorn and lacking in spirit.”
“You only have to sit in some shuls on a Shabbat morning and imagine where the people will be in five, 10, 15, 20 years’ time,” said Leeds native Jonathan Straight. “There won’t be many left.”
This phenomenon has been exacerbated by an exodus of young people from Leeds—a generation of whom went to university and then moved to larger cities in Britain or abroad, in search of job opportunities or a different living environment. “Most of our friends have got family away,” said Malcolm Sender, a Leeds native whose two children moved to London to work as a lawyer and a doctor. “[The young generations] have gone to London, the really Orthodox have gone to Manchester, and the Zionists have gone to Israel.”
“When you have lived in Leeds as a teenager and go away for university, you want the bright lights of London,” said Mandy Port, a local who has two siblings living in the capital, as well as three children who have moved there for work. “People are leaving university and getting jobs in London.”
In light of such patterns, what’s next for the peripheries of Leeds in which Jews have built their lives? For the statisticians, an aging population, low birth rates, and out-migration suggest a bleak picture for future Jewish generations in the city. “The next census will be in three years. I’m not expecting to see anything other than trends continuing in the data,” said Graham. “To Leeds’ credit, they’ve put an awful amount of effort into shoring up what is there and trying to attract new blood. But at the end of the day, they are fighting against a trend. There is no policy that can turn it around. Leeds isn’t suddenly going to grow.”
Still, as the population has fallen, some aspects of Jewish life have become stronger than ever. People flocked this spring to a pop-up store selling Passover goods after the deli went out of business. (The deli had been struggling for years, due to a combination of reduced demand from fewer people keeping kosher and price competition from chains.) The city also has a book festival, a community-funded housing association, a Jewish primary school, and a kosher restaurant open three nights each week.
If there was complacency when the population was at its height, with around a dozen Orthodox synagogues, today many feel an increasing responsibility to make things more vibrant, said Sender, the 87-year-old chairman of the Leeds branch of the Jewish Historical Society of England. “We have got a bit of a siege mentality,” he said. “Those remaining are putting more into what is remaining. We were getting to the state where if we don’t do it, nobody will.”
Traveling around the city, the results can be seen. Up the road from where a large Jewish youth center and school have been converted into modern flats, a new Jewish high school opened in 2013; it has about 120 students, half of whom are Jewish, according to Kleiman, who teaches there. Residents also give generously toward philanthropic initiatives. A recent fundraising dinner for a community charity saw hundreds of attendees.
“We are all worried about the future, but I think we have got a lot going for us,” said Straight, who is pursuing planning permission from the city to erect an eruv, which he hopes would encourage Orthodox families to move here and increase synagogue attendance for those with young children. “There certainly has been a reduction over time, but I don’t see this as a community in free-fall. I see this as a community that in many ways is thriving—which is why it frustrates me when people talk about the demise of the Leeds Jewish community.”
Local officials are now implementing a plan to try to entice families to move here and garner greater community engagement, with more secular cultural events and initiatives to interact with Jewish students. The city is one of Britain’s biggest economies, but the cost of living is lower than places like London, which residents are drawing on to try to attract newcomers. Port noted, for instance, that she is increasingly noticing some married Jewish couples returning to the city, fueled by expensive living costs in London.
Several residents I spoke with were unconvinced by the talk of irrefutable demographic realities; they say the flight of young people from Leeds in the recent past may not tell the whole picture. A few even suggest that the return of some families and arrival of others from towns nearby in which Jewish life has floundered may be stabilizing the population. The greater and perhaps more intractable challenge is that of assimilation, which nationally is leading to a growing ultra-Orthodox Jewish population and a shrinking secular and mainstream one.
Either way, for those living here it is about more than just statistics. Many say that talk of imminent demise or crisis is misplaced for now. Even as the two remaining kosher shops face challenges and secularism proliferates, the country’s third-largest Jewish community is not about to quietly capitulate.
“Do you try, or just give up?” said Susie Gordon, executive director of the Leeds Jewish Representative Council. “Do you just say, ‘It’s going to die, let’s not bother?’ Or say, ‘While it’s here, let’s make it as precious and special as we can?’ Let’s do as much as we can. We live in a really lovely community. Let’s try our hardest to keep it going for as long as we can. Just having one community in London would be really sad. The only place Jews could be Jewish is in the most expensive part of the country.”
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Josh Jacobs is a London-based writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.