Kilts and Kishkes: Are Scottish Jews a Dying Breed?

In the first in a series of articles on Scottish Jewry, Anshel Pfeffer finds out how Glasgow is coping since the last mohel left.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

GLASGOW - Six months ago, the last mohel in Scotland, Rabbi Mordecai Bamberger, left Glasgow and emigrated to Israel. From then on, for Jewish boys born north of The Border, a ritual circumciser would have to be brought in from Manchester or London. At about the same time, the Glasgow Kollel, the last center of Orthodox Jewish learning in the country, one of whose founders was the same Rabbi Bamberger, was disbanded. Its 10 students dispersed to London, Manchester and Israel. Said one of them, "Let's face it, the Glasgow Jewish community is dying. The Jews of Scotland are dwindling away."

Meanwhile, on July 18, a special "deconsecration" service was held at the Netherlee, Clarkston and Queens Park Synagogue. Seventy years of Jewish services in Glasgow's southeast came to an end as the small band of remaining members came to terms with the fact that they no longer had the sufficient numbers to sustain a viable house of worship. Synagogue membership had dwindled from over 400 in the early 1970s to just 30 in this decade, even after there was a merger with the Queens Park Synagogue in 2002. Nearly all the community's Torah scrolls were sent outside Scotland to thriving congregations in Manchester, London, Australia and Israel. A small, easily portable scroll was kept in Glasgow to be used at for shivah services.

It sounds like the familiar litany of small satellite communities throughout the Diaspora, shrinking toward extinction as the forces of demography, emigration and assimilation take their toll. The numbers tell the story: a post-war peak of 20,000 Jews in Scotland, mainly from successive waves, first emigrants arriving from Eastern Europe around the turn of the century, and then refugees fleeing the Nazis, three-quarters of them settling in the commercial and industrial center of Glasgow. From the mid-1950s until today, the community steadily declined by around two-thirds.

A similar narrative has been playing out throughout the British Isles, where Jewish families have been converging on London and Manchester, emptying the communities elsewhere. Already back in 2000, a young Israeli rabbi who was seeking a job in Britain identified the trend. "I had two offers," he said at the time, "one in Glasgow and the other in Manchester. I turned Glasgow down because I wanted to have more britot and bar mitzvahs, and less funerals."

But despite the numbers and closures, there isn't a feeling of decline in the Jewish centers of Scotland. Quite the opposite: There is an atmosphere of renaissance. There is a volume of communal activity, cultural events, youth group meetings, a Jewish day school with a new lease on life, outreach programs throughout Scotland as far north as the Shetland Islands and a level of volunteering at various kinds of Jewish facilities (for retirees, youth, sports, nursing, etc. ) that would normally be the work of a much larger and younger community. And it's not just in Glasgow where about 4,000 Jews live, but also in Edinburgh with its 1,000 Jews, two active synagogues (Orthodox and Liberal ) a popular heder (Hebrew day school ) and a 124-year-old, still-thriving literary society. Smaller communities with a synagogue each are also active in the cities of Aberdeen and Dundee. Is it an optical illusion?

Are Scottish Jews enjoying the last days of a well-organized but aging community in terminal decline? Some meetings with Scottish Jews, mainly people in their 50s and 60s whose children have departed the country, might leave you with that conclusion. But there are also groups that raise the hope of continuity: a community of parents who have gathered around the Calderwood Lodge primary day school in Glasgow's southwestern suburb of Giffnock - no longer a "Jewish school" but a local council-run school "with a Jewish ethos." There are young couples who have moved to the regenerated city center of Glasgow and who, together with a group of veteran diehards, are breathing life back into the elegant Victorian synagogue on Garnet Hill. There are the small academic communities of Jewish lecturers and students in the universities of Edinburgh, St. Andrews and Glasgow, and there is innovative fieldwork - funded by the Scottish government and undertaken by the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities in the far-flung corners of the highlands and islands - which identifies and connects small pockets of Jewish families and individuals that don't appear on the established communities map.

'Scottish first, British second'

The history of Scotland's Jews is relatively short, nearly two centuries long, with established communities officially founded in the early 19th century and significant numbers arriving from East Europe, especially Litvaks from the Baltic region, from 1890 onward, when hundreds of thousands of Jews were emigrating to Britain and the United States. But while most Scottish Jews today are grandchildren or at most great-grandchildren of emigrants, they have established a unique identity, distinct from that of the rest of Anglo-Jewry. Every Scottish Jew I interviewed for this series, no matter what position they hold regarding Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, has said that they see themselves as "Scottish first, British second."

"Scotland has always been very much an immigration-friendly society," says Henry Lovat, a 37-year-old lawyer who grew up in Glasgow and lives today in Jerusalem. "Scottish society is made up today of many newcomer communities. Many Jews have an affinity to the Scottish feeling of a grudge toward England."

"There is a saying that the Scots are the Jews of Europe," says Joel Conn, who grew up with Lovat, but still lives in Glasgow. "They are a different people from the English; they value learning and industriousness - and these are also very Jewish values. Scots are also a nation with a diaspora around the world, and they are open to making friends from different backgrounds while keeping their identity. So Jewish and Scottish identities work well together."

The strong Jewish-Scottish identity has led the community to be fiercely traditional, clinging to their synagogues, which worship in the middle-of-the-road, old Anglo-Jewish United Synagogue style, without becoming more observant, the way most of the other Orthodox Jewish communities in Britain have. The Jewish-Scottish ethos is of attending "shul" on Shabbat, participating in the services - but getting to and fro by car. There are estimated to be only about 20 or 30 Sabbath-observant families in Glasgow.

"The kollel closing down was sad," says Edward Isaacs, the president of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council, "but there is a small minority of shomer Shabbat [Sabbath observant] people here, and it is harder for them."

According to the 2001 Scottish census (the results for the 2011 census will not be out for at least another six months ) there were 6,580 Jews living in Scotland a decade ago. But since a total of 8,365 said they were brought up as Jews, and the questions regarding ethnicity and religion were voluntary and many citizens chose not to answer them, Ephraim Borowski, director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, believes "there could be anywhere between 10,000-12,000 Jews across Scotland."

Over the last year, SCoJeC has been running a "Being Jewish in Scotland" campaign, putting up posters in libraries and community centers, asking Jews to get in touch. The campaign elicited responses from around the country, and prompted SCoJeC representatives to go to areas where there are no organized Jewish communities, "and Jews just come out of the woodwork," says Borowski. "When we brought 2 Israeli singers to perform in [the Isle of] Skye, 25 Jews turned up, each of them saying that they were the only Jew on Skye."

Scottish Jews are divided today between the four established communities (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee ), the shifting communities around the universities and those living isolated in rural and northern areas, whom Borowski calls "the mefuzarim" (scattered, in Hebrew ). He tries to broadcast optimism, saying that "demographic trends are unpredictable," though he admits that "over the last generation or so, the community has rapidly shrunk."

Planning to leave

On Friday night three weeks ago, the new Jewish student chaplain at all Scottish universities, Rabbi Yossi Bodenheim, together with his wife Sarah, organized the first dinner for Jewish students in Glasgow, at Garnethill Synagogue. A group of students who had grown up together in the southwestern suburb wandered through a display on their community's history, created by the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre, which is itself located in the synagogue. Despite having lived there all their lives, they were not well acquainted with the details. All of them say they are planning to leave Scotland after they graduate. Perhaps for good.

Contacted through Facebook, they had come to the dinner mainly to meet friends. "It's the kind of place where you know everyone," says Lewis Faber, who is studying production, engineering and management at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow. "It's nice but also very limiting. The career opportunities and opportunities for Jewish life are much wider in the south or abroad."

Ilana Kaye, studying health and social care at Reid Kerr College, says she "like[s] living in Glasgow, but most of my friends are already moving to London or Manchester. There will always be a Jewish scene here, but I don't know if I will be part of it."

Amy Jacobson, a student of hospitality management at City of Glasgow College, says she "may come back to live here if I meet someone who wants to move here. But the community here has reduced quite a lot and there is no one new to meet."

The following morning, Rabbi Bodenheim says the dinner was "a great success. Forty-five students turned up, much more than we expected. About two-thirds of them were local kids."

Many Jewish parents seem unfazed by their children's imminent departure. "I would like my children to go to university in England," says Nick Black, a member of the Representative Council. "It's important for them to see other parts of the UK and the world. If they can find jobs here and build families afterward, that will be great."

Joel Conn is one of those who stayed, and he believes he is not alone. "I love Glasgow. My wife is Canadian, and met me here," he says. "A lot of my friends have stayed and a lot are coming back. There is a surprising number still here - at a dinner party a few weeks ago, there were six of us, and all of us are married to non-local spouses. It is a livable, beautiful place, with a fantastic art and culture scene. Close to Europe, with a great university. A lot of people left when it was a dark and gray city.

"There was more unemployment then, and greater social problems. The nature of small communities is that a lot of people leave for the bigger hubs - in this case to London and Manchester - but Glasgow has fared better than other communities. I feel confident to live here, and my unborn child will be able to live in all of the European Union, Canada, Israel - so it has a secure future."

Conn, a lawyer, is one of a small number of younger people who have rejoined the Garnethill Synagogue, and he chairs a subcommittee on social activity and Jewish education and is involved in drawing up plans for the future of Glasgow's Jewish community. He says that while "a lot of Jewish activity has been happening, a lot has been exclusionary, people have been left out. We have to find ways of making it accessible. We have to take the widest view of what the community is, and find ways of including more people, including those who married out.

There are signs of a reawakening on the lines of Conn's vision, but for many individuals and communal organizations it is too late. Harvey Kaplan, director of the Scottish Jewish Archives, takes me on a tour of a storage room filled with relics of closed-down synagogues and other Jewish facilities.

"There will always be a community, but smaller," he predicts. "Glasgow Jews will stabilize around a thousand members, like in Edinburgh, small but stable. We started out with one synagogue and community, and that is what we will become again."

One demographic trend Kaplan says he has been seeing recently at the archives involves inquiries on behalf of elderly and deceased people, establishing their Jewish roots for the purpose of burial in one of the Jewish cemeteries.

"There are a lot more Jews who don't identify as Jews," he says, "people who married out long ago and their children. The Jewish cemetery has more and more McKenzies buried in recent years. People want to be buried as Jews, even if they didn't live as Jews."

This is the first of a series of four articles on the Jews of Scotland. Next week: Do Scottish Jews support independence?

Purim at Glasgow’s Garnethill Synagogue, 1950s.Credit: Scottish Jewish Archives Center
Sanctuary at the Garnethill Synagogue. The storage room of the Jewish Archives is filled with relics of closed-down synagogues and other facilities.Credit: Scottish Jewish Archives Center



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