In This Northern English Town, a Pizzeria Can Divide the Jewish Community

Gateshead in northeastern England is renowned for its Haredi educational institutions. But as the Jewish community continues to grow, its new religious leader will have to choose between embracing the past or the present

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Two youngsters dressed in fancy dress for Purim on the streets of Gateshead, March 10, 2020.
Two youngsters dressed in fancy dress for Purim on the streets of Gateshead, March 10, 2020.Credit: Peter Gatoff

GATESHEAD, England – Boys in hoodies dance on roofs, clutching bottles of cheap wine as their tzitzit jiggle. An elderly man wearing a black coat that fans out behind him dances with nobody in particular. Gangs of young men dressed as Redcoats rampage through the streets. The biggest fox you have ever seen crosses a road clutching bags of candy.

Welcome to Gateshead during the Jewish holiday of Purim.

This postindustrial town sitting across the Tyne river from Newcastle is the last of Europe’s great yeshiva towns, often referred to as the Oxbridge of Britain’s Jewish community. Its 8,000 Jewish residents – almost all ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) – are concentrated in about a dozen streets in the Bensham neighborhood, huddled around Gateshead Talmudical College, aka Gateshead Yeshiva. The college is among the most prestigious in the Orthodox world, and the largest in Europe.

Gateshead Yeshiva and a host of other educational institutions have sustained and nurtured Gateshead’s Jewish community for almost a century, providing a constant stream of scholars and families who have invigorated the local Jewish community. During term times, Gateshead’s Jewish community swells as it welcomes some 1,500 students – many from London and other local Jewish communities, but also from across Western Europe, Latin America, South Africa, north Africa and Australia.

Gateshead is the outlier in northern England: a dynamic Jewish population that has doubled in size since 2008 as larger and more prosperous communities faded away. The Jewish community in nearby Sunderland, 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the southeast, has all but vanished, for example. At the end of the 1980s, in a sad end for a community that once saw itself as a more open and diverse intellectual peer than its local rival, the Sunderland Talmudical College (aka Sunderland Yeshiva) relocated to Gateshead – pushing that town’s reputation as a center of excellence for religious study still higher. Sunderland’s last synagogue, Beth Hamedrash, shuttered in 2006, and now just a handful of Jews remain in the city.

An ultra-Orthodox man walking past a couple of youngsters dressed up for Purim in Gateshead, northern England, March 10, 2020.Credit: Peter Gatoff

On the streets of Bensham, it is clear to see why the town has become a magnet for Haredim. An ample supply of cheap housing, often managed and purchased through communal organizations and housing associations, has encouraged ultra-Orthodox families from Manchester and London, many of whom previously studied here, to relocate to the northeast. “Sold” signs dominate row houses on the edges of the “Jewish streets” here.

This story echoes similar instances of Jewish settlement in Britain over the years – historically, in places like Stamford Hill, north London, and now in places like Canvey Island, about 60 kilometers to the east of central London – but Gateshead carries extra cachet. After all, this is the only town in Britain that a local – speaking in a distinctive Geordie dialect – might describe to you as “Little Jerusalem.”

Avi Garsen, a 24-year-old Sephardi Gibraltarian, first came to Gateshead in 2013. “It was a definite culture clash,” he says of his early days as a student at the yeshiva. “It was very English, very Ashkenazi.” He giggles as he recalls the Tunisian student he met on that first day: “He must have really not known what was going on.”

Yiddish is Gateshead’s lingua franca, and Garsen calls the studies there “probably the most authentic yeshiva experience you can have.”

There is an informal cap on the number of Hasidim that Gateshead Yeshiva accepts per year: No more than one-third of the intake can be Hasidic – a legacy of bitter disputes between Hasidic and Lithuanian Jewry in Eastern Europe. Competition among Hasidic applicants is fierce, and those who pass through Gateshead increasingly become a scholarly elite of the Hasidic yeshiva system back in Stamford Hill.

“It’s special,” Garsen says of Gateshead Yeshiva. “This is how it was back in Europe 100 years ago. This does not really exist anymore otherwise.”

Youngsters getting ready for Purim in Gateshead, northern England, March 10, 2020.Credit: Peter Gatoff

Changing times

To the outsider, Gateshead as a modern Vilna may seem an odd choice, situated closer to Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, than London 435 kilometers to the south. Zoom out, though, and things make more sense.

Jews began arriving in numbers in northeastern England in the 1880s, hitching return rides on ships exporting English coal to the Baltic region. As a result, the traditions of the area’s Jews – and Gateshead in particular – are firmly “Lithuanian” (i.e. Ashkenazi, not adhering to any of the Hasidic streams). Gateshead has been a bastion of Orthodox Judaism ever since, dismayed by the waning of traditions among Newcastle’s Jewish communities, the more hard-line members of the community crossed the Tyne and established themselves here.

After opening its doors in 1929, Gateshead Yeshiva established itself as a scion of the yeshiva movement back in Eastern Europe. As the 1930s and ’40s rolled in, and centuries of Jewish knowledge was wiped out across Europe, Gateshead survived – and even prospered.

The yeshiva acquired “this cachet and reputation, which is very well deserved,” says Yehudis Fletcher, 32, who knows the community well and whose father, Rabbi Michoel Fletcher, studied at the Talmudic College. “It is this great center of Jewish learning. During World War II, it was where European refugees gathered and preserved knowledge,” she adds.

Gateshead Talmudical College, aka Gateshead Yeshiva. "This is how it was back in Europe 100 years ago," says one student. Credit: Jacob Judah

But Gateshead, so long a bastion of Lithuanian (or Litvish) Orthodoxy, has been in a period of profound change, comparatively speaking.

As a town whose Jewish history began with a rejection of more liberal local communities, Gateshead has somehow retained a veneer of splendid isolation. Contacts with Jewish communities in neighboring Newcastle are almost nil. Even in the Haredi world, Gateshead’s reputation for decades, under the leadership of its old leader, Rabbi Bezalel Rakow, was that of old-school ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

His death at age 75 in 2003, having led the local community for some 40 years, prompted years of bitter factional disputes over his potential successor. Under Rakow, who had taken over as community leader from his father-in-law in 1962, Gateshead was run like the shtetls of Lithuania many decades before. Eateries were banned as frivolous distractions from Torah study; there were just two schools – one for boys, one for girls – and one congregation.

As the factions feuded after his death, permits were issued and rescinded for takeout restaurants and shops. Diversity crept in. Disputes that had once been kept firmly behind closed doors entered the public sphere. It took the community five years to find a new rov (religious leader), eventually opting for a complete outsider: Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, from Monsey, New York.

By the time Zimmerman arrived in 2008, Gateshead was already in the process of change. The old guard retreated – but did not go away. Zimmerman, a respected halakhic authority in the United States, is known to have considered Gateshead a small and backward community. Stories of his wife’s shock when she discovered there was nowhere in town for kosher pizza are indicative of the loosening that have occurred.

“He withdrew a little from the old shtetl model where the rov runs the community,” allowing individuals greater leeway to make decisions for themselves, says analyst Ben Crowne, an expert on the ins-and-outs of Britain’s ultra-Orthodox communities. While much remained unchanged, new congregations emerged, and new schools were established to cater for the growing demand from an increasingly diverse religious demographic.

The Tyne Bridge linking the town of Gateshead on the left and city of Newcastle on the right.Credit: Jacob Judah

“Zimmerman allowed trends in the community to manifest themselves,” Crowne, 34, explains. “Often it is the case when you have new leadership [that] it is a chance to shift things around, [especially] things the old Gateshead rov would never permit and which were due for change,” he adds.

On Gateshead High Street, a row of shops testifies to those changes. Inside these stores, operated by non-Jewish Geordies – Litvish scholasticism runs deep and you will not find Orthodox Jews working in them – there is a constant bustle of Haredi customers. Students are careful to shop at allotted times: the yeshiva and girls’ seminary times do not overlap.

Whereas in the previous century Gateshead was cut off from the outside world, Zimmerman opened the town’s doors a little, fielding emails and halakhic questions from across the globe. The Gateshead rov increasingly became a broker other Orthodox rabbis sought out for halakhic opinions and advice, elevating him to a position alongside the likes of Britain’s chief rabbi and the venerable Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, a religious authority and, ironically, founder of the Sunderland Yeshiva back in 1960.

Below the surface, the old guard fumed, turning to that most modern form of communication – WhatsApp – to vent their displeasure.

“The biggest change Zimmerman came up with was that you are now allowed to report child abuse to the police,” says Fletcher. In 2015, in a “slap” that reverberated around the Orthodox world, he stunned his congregation at a Shabbat sermon by delivering a stinging rebuke to the Haredi community’s treatment of sexual abuse.

He gave evidence at the Manchester trial against Haredi pedophile Todros Grynhaus, who was eventually convicted (at a second trial) of sexual assault against Fletcher and another young female in the 2000s. Fletcher’s co-accuser consulted with Zimmerman before going to the police in 2012. “Zimmerman said, ‘This needs to be reported to the police.’ That was unheard of. Nobody had ever done that before,” Fletcher recounts. Zimmerman was no revolutionary, the Haredi feminist says, “but he had a red line on sex abuse.” And for that, she adds, “He was painted as this radical who reports people to the police.”

Fletcher believes Zimmerman’s intervention in a bitter dispute in 2017 between a senior Sephardi American rabbi, Joseph Dweck, and other Orthodox rabbis – in which the Gateshead rov criticized Dweck’s comments that the revolution of how the LGBTQ community was now perceived had been a “fantastic development for humanity” – was a way for him to position himself among his Orthodox peers. “This was a way to walk back on that and say, ‘I am not a heretic, I just don’t want children being molested,’” Fletcher says.

A typical Gateshead street with row houses. The Jewish community here now numbers some 8,000.Credit: Jacob Judah

Violent attacks

Anti-Semitism is not unheard of in Gateshead, but historically took the form of graffiti being drawn on Jewish-owned property or verbal abuse from passing cars. The Community Security Trust, a Jewish organization that tracks anti-Semitism across Britain, reported that there were 58 such incidents in Northumbria last year – almost all in Gateshead – up from 39 in 2017.

Increasingly, however, there is a trend for more violent attacks. In April 2018, a Jewish man walking in Gateshead one Shabbat was slashed in the face by a knife-wielding gang of youths. Perceptions that the growing community has become increasingly visible after Zimmerman’s reforms have been cited as an explanation for the rise in violent attacks.

But now, some 12 years after his controversial appointment, Zimmerman himself has moved on, recently becoming head of the religious court at the Federation of Synagogues in London.

Last May, as rumors of his departure first swirled, a WhatsApp circulated around the town’s religious community. “Every person, every family, is at risk by the influences around us,” it warned. Its author, a prominent community member called Nathan Hirsch, asked everyone to be realistic about what running a burgeoning community demands. He raised topics that previously would have been swept under the carpet in conservative Orthodox communities such as Gateshead: abuse, drugs, pornography.

“Orthodoxy is being seriously tested,” Hirsch warned. If the succession was not managed properly, it could spell disaster – “like Orthodoxy was decimated after the French Revolution,” he added, stressing the need for a swift appointment to avoid the drift that happened in the five years between Rakow’s death and Zimmerman’s belated hiring some five years later.

Two Jewish youngsters walking through the streets of Gateshead during Purim, March 10, 2020.Credit: Peter Gatoff

But with Zimmerman moving on and the search for his successor still ongoing, disputes are sure to resurface. There are expectations that Gateshead’s conservative old guard, wary of appointing another outsider, will attempt to block or slow change.

“If they were to appoint someone more like the old days, they wouldn’t bring everyone along with them because the power structures aren’t there anymore,” says Crowne. “Nobody is going to be able to shut down the pizzeria.”

Gateshead’s increased diversity and size has placed those seeking to return to the old ways in a bind. As Crowne puts it, “A core would go along with it, but even within that group you have people who say that you can’t turn back the clock – and if you do, you will lose people.”

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